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Jailed Egypt activist sees wider struggle for rights in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Released from prison after two and a half years, Ramy Shaath, the son of a top Palestinian negotiator, is part of a new generation placing human rights above territorial disputes

In an undated image from the Free Ramy Shaath Facebook page, Ramy Shaath poses for a photo in Cairo, Egypt. (Free Ramy Shaath Facebook page via AP, File)
In an undated image from the Free Ramy Shaath Facebook page, Ramy Shaath poses for a photo in Cairo, Egypt. (Free Ramy Shaath Facebook page via AP, File)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Ramy Shaath, who was released from an Egyptian jail last month, is an outspoken opponent of Arab dictatorships and Israeli rule over the Palestinians and is part of a generation of activists who see them as two sides of the same coin.

He was never told why exactly Egyptian authorities confined him to a packed and filthy cell for over two and a half years. But he believes his brand of rights-based activism is clearly seen as a threat by both Israel and its growing roster of autocratic Arab allies.

It’s also a major departure from the approach of the Palestinian leadership, which includes his father, Nabil Shaath, an 83-year-old veteran peace negotiator.

Shaath, 50, who is Egyptian and Palestinian by birth, took part in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising in Egypt, something he mentions in the same breath as his role in founding the Egyptian branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.

“It is all civil, nonviolent action against injustice… and against occupation as well as dictatorship,” he told The Associated Press in a video interview from France. “For me that’s the same cause and I will continue doing that.”

He’s part of a new generation of activists, forged by the harsh repression of the 2011 uprisings and the failure of the Mideast peace process, and more focused on human rights than on the ideological and territorial disputes of their parents’ generation.

In Egypt, it means campaigning for basic freedoms and the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners. For Palestinians, it’s embracing a rights-based approach in opposition to both Israel and the increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority.

The most visible activists hail from the educated elite, but they give voice to a pervasive sense of injustice that is felt and communicated in different ways by ordinary people across the Arab world. It animated protests against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in autonomous West Bank enclaves, over the past year.

An Egyptian wears a T-shirt with a logo of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a campaign by Palestinians to boycott Israel and Israeli-made goods, during the launch of its Egyptian campaign by Ramy Shaath, at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, April 20, 2015. (Amr Nabil/AP)

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which enjoys near-unanimous support among Palestinian civil society groups, holds that any solution has to be based on granting Palestinians equal rights — in one state or two — rather than bargaining over territory.

The Palestinian leadership, which is still dominated by the elder Shaath’s generation, seeks a state alongside Israel in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.

Around 60% of Palestinians are younger than 30, with little memory of the peace process launched by the 1993 Oslo accords. The negotiations repeatedly stumbled before grounding to a halt over a decade ago.

Ramy Shaath participated in the early rounds of talks but gave up on the process and returned to Egypt in 1998, convinced that Israel and the US were not serious and that the Palestinian leadership had no backup plan.

He said he and his father “definitely argued,” but not on principle. “I have all the respect and admiration for my father and his work all through his life. But for me, I am not seeing that this is going anywhere,” Shaath said.

Nabil Shaath, who recently contracted COVID-19, could not be reached for comment.

The younger Shaath supported BDS from the time of its establishment in 2005, believing that a “South African model” of international boycotts would bring more effective pressure on Israel. He founded the Egyptian chapter in 2014.

Israel says the BDS movement has little to do with human rights. Instead, it sees it as an assault on its very existence, in part because it calls for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees. Israel says that would mean the end of the world’s only Jewish state, once again condemning Jews to being an embattled minority in a hostile region.

Israel passed a law in 2017 barring entry to foreigners who advocate boycotts. It also has rallied anti-BDS opposition in the US Congress and state legislatures, some of which has been challenged by courts.

Yossi Beilin at the Israel Conference on Democracy in Tel Aviv, February 17, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

Yossi Beilin, 73, a former senior Israeli official and peace negotiator, said he understands the deep frustrations on both sides. But he insists that creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel — perhaps as part of a confederation — is the only realistic way to resolve the conflict.

“Israel is not an apartheid state. It is an occupier for too long, and that is bad enough,” he said. He called utopian visions of a single state of Israelis and Palestinians unrealistic.

Polls show dwindling support for a two-state solution among Israelis and Palestinians, but support for one state is even lower, and the idea is roundly rejected by leaders on both sides.

The Trump administration also soured on the Oslo paradigm, instead adopting an approach that radically favored Israel.

Ramy Shaath, like nearly all Palestinians, was deeply opposed to Trump’s Mideast plan. He was arrested in the summer of 2019, just weeks after the US held a conference in the Gulf country of Bahrain aimed at rallying Arab support. Egypt, which developed strong security ties with Israel and actively courted Trump’s support, might have seen his activism as a threat.

“My very vocal opposition to Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in Palestine, I think, was the detrimental factor in the Egyptian authorities’ decision to arrest me,” he said.

Egypt accused him of being a member of an outlawed group, without saying which one, and he was never formally charged. Egyptian officials have declined to comment on his case.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, sits with then Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, left and then Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath, during a news conference in Gaza City, April, 25, 2005. (Adel Hana/AP)

Tahani Mustafa, an analyst with the Crisis Group, an international think tank, says the BDS movement’s calls for freedom and equality transcend the Palestinian context and threaten Arab rulers.

“These are very threatening concepts for these sorts of regimes, where subjects like human rights are severely repressed,” she said.

The Biden administration has meanwhile swung back toward a more traditional approach, urging both sides to avoid steps that would hinder an eventual two-state solution.

Shaath spent two and a half years in a bug-infested cell with exposed wiring in which 18 to 32 prisoners shared a space the size of a living room. Their one, shared bathroom consisted of a hole in the ground with a cold-water shower above it, he said.

Shaath says the suffering he and other prisoners endured only reinforced his commitment to political activism.

He said one of his worst experiences came near the end, when he was placed alone in a windowless room, with lights and cameras on 24 hours. He could hear a woman with three small children a few cells over, calling out for help.

“For me that was horrific, and I wanted to signal her somehow, that I know you’re there,” he said.

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