It’s about telling it forward

Raji Sourani, interview

Raji Sourani, the leading Palestinian human rights lawyer and director of Palestinian Centre for Human Rights

 

We have no right to give up

 

 

Raji Sourani’s office looks on the main street in the Gaza city, not far up from the seafront. He has worked as a lawyer for 34 years now. In the late 1970s and in the 1980s Israel repeatedly locked him in prison, detained him without charges, tortured him. When the Palestinian authority was delegated after Oslo peace accords to administer the Israeli occupation, he soon stepped its tail. His vigorous defense to respect human rights and international law has been as unflinching as hated by the ruling powers. He speaks very slowly, words falling heavy. After four years of Israel besieging his homeland, he seems poised on his toes in outrage, yet, determined to prevail.

 

 

For more than thirty years you have worked in Palestine as a lawyer. You have meticulously documented violations of human rights and have yourself suffered them. Have the nature or patterns of human rights violations changed in this time?

 

In every conflict on earth when there is focus and work done on human rights there is a slight improvement of the situation; everywhere except in this part of the world. The slogan here is always ‘the worst is yet to come’. Of all the 62 years, from the Nakba until today, this year has been the most bloody, destructive, humiliating and economically and socially suffocating in the lives of Palestinian people. It is unprecedented. There is the siege with its socioeconomic suffocation, the war in Gaza in 2008-2009 which targeted civilians and civilian targets, putting them in the eye of the storm. Gaza is being turned into an animal farm – where the international community dumps some food, medicine and clothes – sealed away from the basic human rights of freedom of movement of individuals and goods. At the same time in the West Bank the situation is almost symmetric. The status of East Jerusalem with ethnic cleansing and ongoing judaization is de facto decided in the benefit of Israel.

The war is in its final phase. This means war crimes and grave breaches of the fourth Geneva Convention are ongoing. The Israeli settlements on occupied territory are expanding. Vertically, horizontally. Not only in the major settlements but also on the Palestinian-Jordanian border. In the Jordan valley this is proceeding on an unprecedented scale. All the cities, villages and camps in the West Bank are ghettos, bundestans, enclaved by Israeli by-pass-roads in a strategic pattern. There is no chance for them to expand, now or in the future.

 

Every day there is a house demolition, targeted assassination, incursion into the cities, villages and camps, including Ramallah, all done in a very humiliating way.

Plus the 9 000 Palestinian prisoners. Of course, the Israelis keep surprising us; what you expected to be prohibited, a red line, is now common practice.

 

To all this we get a Kafkaesque reaction from the world. There are condemnations from Palestinian, Israeli, regional and international human rights organizations but nonetheless a full and genuine legal and political immunity is given to the state of Israel from the West. Today, this immunity is greater than ever before. This influences the patterns of violations a lot. In form and concept.

 

You have shown extraordinary persistence documenting the violations and fighting against them. What if anything more can be done legally to ensure the rule of law and human rights?

 

It is a very simple, important and strategic question. We lawyers have a simple rule. In our work of defense, we are not committed to achieve results but to invest the best of our expertise. I can assure you of our high expertise in knowing all the legal mechanisms we need in our work. From the local and the Israeli laws, to the recognized international standards, international mechanisms, including universal jurisdiction. Such accumulated expertise exists in very few places in the world. We know how to use the system, as the Americans say. But at the same time we are aware that the Israeli judicial system has always been used as a legal cover for the organized crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian civilians. Therefore we have no illusions that justice can be achieved there. Palestinians have been always criticized that we vomit rhetoric, blah blah, but do nothing. We have. For years and years. I have done it for 34 years and have my very sordid conclusions.

When it comes to the universal jurisdiction and its use, the successes are still very few. Though, morally and professionally they are there. I have a report by an Israeli rightist organization Im Tirtzu. On 45 pages they write about our work. Their conclusions are that our work seriously affects the lives of hundreds of Israeli political leaders and security officials. We influence the broader Israeli foreign policy because people can not travel. But at the end of the day we come to the fourth dimension of the international and the international humanitarian law – the legal will of the international community. Is it there or not?

 

We have simply no right to forget nor forgive. We will document every war crime or crime against humanity and we will insist on using international law, international humanitarian and human rights law. We have to continue our work.

 

When Goldstone report came out, it seemed that something has changed. Israel seemed afraid. Now there is doubt. From your perspective, has Goldstone report presented a change?

 

There were many reports – from the UN, international human rights organizations, even the Arab league. They are all very consistent in facts, legal standards and in their conclusions that Israel committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the Goldstone committee came they faced the same facts, they applied the same legal standards and they came to the same conclusions. De facto and de iure Goldstone report is therefore neither special nor unique. The difference however, is in its mandate, given from the UN Council for Human Rights, the most important body for human rights on the world, and in the two new dimensions that they added in the report. The time frame and the mechanisms of implementation. The time frame was not left open. It states clearly that in six months this has to be finished and the international community has to do A, B and C. This is what drove Israel mad. They are not used to being talked to in this way. We liked the report and praised it. In September there will be a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. They have established an expert commission. I am sure Israel will not recognize it, not cooperate with it or allow it to come. From the first day forward they will renounce it as hostile to Israel. They will also say they had their own investigative committee. About which Ban Ki-moon, the EU, High Commissioner for Human Rights Office, everybody except the US, said did not meet the international standards of independence. We will see what happens. I hate to be pessimistic. What I know is that Israel did not hold an independent, civil, judicial, credible investigation. I think the Goldstone report will continue on the table and remain a black mark on Israel wherever they look.

 

Already in 2006 you said in one of the interviews that Israel succeeded in making future Palestinian state impossible by dividing West Bank from Gaza. How do you then today regard the plan by Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to build a state until autumn 2011?

 

Let me put it this way. Forty percent of students in the West Bank universities used to be from Gaza. Now there is none. Even as noble, clean and innocent thing as studying is made impossible. Young people can not study, they can not mingle. This is true for all spheres. Business, family. Partly this existed even before the Hamas – Fatah split. I am not allowed to go to the West Bank since 1998 and I am one of the lucky 5 percent in Gaza, who can travel. But for twelve years I have not been able to visit Palestinian or Israeli friends and colleagues in Israel or in the West Bank. Since 2007 the relations are de facto and de iure paralyzed. Only a few high political and security officials can travel.

 

But how can you built a Palestinian state if the judiciary is totally destroyed and split? Parliament – destroyed and divided. Executive – destroyed and split. What are the institutions of the state? Do you build them by training police how to control or arrest people? No. Judiciary, parliament and executive are the institutions of the state and they are vertically split. It is stupid to talk about a state, statehood or a process of state-building in the current situation. A state is a legitimate dream. But the state includes Gaza. Here on 365 square kilometers we have 1.8 million people. 68 percent unemployment. These people are unpaid. 90 percent of people live under the poverty line. We have here a nation of beggars. People wait for food rations from UNRWA. This kills pride. Dignity. Which is the only thing you have. You are isolated. Disconnected. The second generation does not know what is beyond Rafah or Erez. Every day I wonder how come we do not have here groups ten times more militant than the Taliban. I am very proud of the Palestinian people. With all the repression, economic and social suffocation, isolation, killing, destruction, blood … it is too much. Perfect to make people guided missiles of terrorism. Yet, on the street you feel fine and secure. Despite all the destruction somehow no one goes to bed without bread or dinner, nobody is left wholly uncared for. What we have to focus on is how to end this siege. How to guarantee free movement of people and free flow of goods. I am not that worried about the Palestinian state. People, who seek freedom. And find it. That is my dream.

 

But do you feel there are things happening that could lead to this? Is there resistance? Survival here seems resistance in itself, yet is there something with potential to ensure more than just survival?

 

The problem is that if you demonstrate, they say you are a terrorist and shoot at you. If you use law, they call it a legal warfare. If you talk about human rights, you are a terrorist misusing international humanitarian law. If people dance, this is too much resistance for the Israelis. Resistance, as the French rightly say, is not your right it is your obligation, if you are a free person. Of course the political leadership will decide what form of resistance. For me resistance is a very genuine right of every suppressed and repressed people, especially under occupation. No one should expect or imagine Palestinians to accept the role of victims. That is meaningless. How to resist? By dancing or by RPGs? It depends.

 

You said that resistance is an obligation of a free man. But how much freedom is here?

 

I was in politics for 25 years. The tough politics. Now I am no more. I am in human rights. And I believe in them. Of course the Palestinians have the right of self-determination. Undoubtedly.

 

Talking about the path you have taken in life you have mentioned the influence your childhood had on this. What kind of future is shaped by today’s circumstances for the children in Gaza?

 

I have two personal friends. Amira Hass, a writer and a journalist. And Tamar Peleg, a lawyer. Both, when they came to Gaza used to stay at my house. Tamar is a very nice woman and very wise. Every time she came she brought some chocolates, toys and spent at least an hour playing with my children. And every time I told them: “This is Tamar, a friend, my colleague. She is a lawyer. She is one of the family and she is staying with us because we love her and she loves you. And she is a Jew and an Israeli.” With human touches, food, sweets, little things here and there … when the bombing began… I did not lose my house. I did not lose my job or income. I did not lose anyone from my family. I live in a relatively nice neighborhood here in Gaza. With bombing that was televised live, Tamar, as every friend would be, was worried. She picked up the phone and called: “Raji, are you all right? Is your family all right?” She called when they were bombing. My daughter answered the phone. She spoke with her. Then she gave the phone to me. We talked with Tamar for three, four minutes, when my daughter returned with her brother. He asked me: “You are still speaking with this Israeli? This Israeli Jew? Put down the phone. They are killing us! They are bombing us! How can you speak with her?” Of course Tamar heard. She understands some Arabic… What you raise your children to be over the years, when you educate them … one bomb is enough, to erase all that. Just one incident.

For a Palestinian in Gaza who is an Israeli? We see only three “Israelis”. A soldier, a tank and a plane. And all three mean killing and destruction. Delete for the other. Everywhere around you see the Israelis in destroyed houses, in funerals for the killed, in people with no legs or arms, in the ugly roads around Gaza, in the raw sewage mixed with the most beautiful sea in the Mediterranean. A child sees the occupation in the lack of basic equipment, in the unemployment of his mother and father. It is very sad. Very ugly and very scary. We are isolated, suppressed, oppressed, killed, victimized. My children are 16. For years they have rightly asked me: “You believe in human rights, dad? What the hell does that mean?” It is a very tough place for children. But we want it to at least be a place with hope.

 

What gives you hope?

 

One day a fair and right cause. A very just, a very fair and a very right cause. I never liked to be a good victim, either. When you see too much of the tyranny and the injustice, when you see victims and feel them, you can not say, I will be a good victim and do nothing. This is an exceptional challenge and it demands a very strong will. But at the same time we have no right to give up. We must not fall into an emotional trap. We have to enjoy a strategic optimism, as I call it. Someone, send to prison because of the resistance to occupation and sentenced to six, seven life sentences, should commit suicide in the same moment if he left himself to logic. Yet, there is hope. Nazim Hikmet said: the most beautiful country, not visited yet, the most beautiful woman, I have not met yet, the most beautiful child, not delivered yet, the most beautiful day, has not come yet. He said this when he has been in prison for 27 years. Yet he dreamed of a better tomorrow. We need to be dreamers in a way. Human rights activists are in a way romantic revolutionaries. We believe in the power of idea, in just causes. And we have to work to achieve it. Even in the most impossible circumstances.

 

Do you have allies? Friends?

 

Many. I have just been to Tokyo. I was shocked. I did not expect people on the other side of our planet to know about Palestinians. Maybe few individuals. But in Tokyo alone, there are 150 solidarity groups. The awareness is increasing. They have translated Emile Habibi in Japanese. I lecture in France, Spain, South Africa, Latin America… Somehow Palestine has become the case of conscience. Like the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Are you with us, for the just cause? It has become a moral standard. We hold the higher ground. I hope we keep it. It is why all these fantastic people came to Cairo demonstrations last year. Crème de la crème of the world’s civil society. They are coming. Not in solidarity with Hamas or Fatah but in solidarity with the people. They are saying: “Our hearts and minds are with you. You have our support. We are against our government’s policies.”

 

I work on universal jurisdiction cases and again and again I am surprised. It is a very costly, time-consuming work. It runs through groups of the first-class lawyers worldwide. These people devote their time, energy and expertise. We are very lucky to have such fantastic solidarity groups, who work with us. Even Israelis. There are some fantastic people there, regrettably very few because we have no contact. But they are there. We are not alone, definitely we are not alone.

 

 

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