1991: Raji Sourani, Palestine
Photo by Eddie Adams
Human Rights and Self-Determination
"The world may think that peace is on the way here, but the reality on the ground is very different… never before has the overall human rights situation deteriorated as dramatically."
A leading human rights attorney in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Raji Sourani is a Speak Truth To Power Defender and received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1991. He was also twice names an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.
Sourani is Gaza’s foremost human rights lawyer, and the founder and director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and former director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. In the 1980s, Sourani was widely recognized for his effective defense of Palestinians before the Israeli military courts. In connection with his defense work, Sourani was four times held in detention by the Israelis, beaten and subjected to mental and physical abuse. Sourani has represented Palestinians facing deportation and closely monitored detention and prison conditions. Reaching out to Israeli human rights organizations, he formed links regarded with suspicion by fellow Palestinians but which proved to be effective in the pursuit of human rights. He was detained by the Palestinian Authority in 1995, following statements critical of their establishment of a state security court. Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles by the Government of Israel and the PLO, and the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule, Sourani has advocated strict adherence to international standards for the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. And despite the danger of repercussions, he is an outspoken critic of human rights violations committed by both sides. In his bold and principled stance, Sourani has won wide respect, and has been recognized by numerous international organizations for his courageous work. Raji founded the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in April 1995. Since then, PCHR has become the foremost human rights organization in the Gaza Strip, serving as an independent legal body in Gaza that documents and investigates human rights abuses and provides legal aid and counseling to victims. The Center addresses Palestinian Draft Laws and urges the adoption of legislation that incorporates international human rights standards and basic democratic principles. The PCHR holds special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and is affiliated with a number of international human rights organizations.
Palestinian Center for Human Rights
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We Palestinians are living in a highly complicated situation, which is unprecedented in modern history. Six years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, what we are experiencing in the occupied territories is a system of de facto apartheid, developed under the auspices of peace. We are nearly a forgotten people, consigned to a second-class existence. We are far from practicing our right of self-determination and independence.
After fifty years of conflict, and thirty years of occupation in the Palestinian Territories, the Oslo Accords were signed nearly seven years ago by the government of Israel and the PLO. These accords were intended to provide a transitional interim arrangement for a period of five years as a means of moving towards a final resolution of the conflict. The basic philosophy behind the accords was that they were designed to serve two main purposes. The first was to develop a setting in which trust could be built between the two sides; the second was to develop a framework in which to resolve the final status negotiations within five years. It is clear that trust between the two sides has not improved, and in fact, in some areas are at an all-time low. Furthermore, the final status negotiations did not even begin within the five-year interim period, which ended on May 4, 1999.
Policies since the signing of the Oslo Accords include aggressive settlement expansion, fragmentation of the Palestinian Territories by the construction of settler bypass roads, military installations, and the establishment of new settlements, and unprecedented levels of land confiscation. Furthermore, the Israeli policy of closure over the entire Palestinian Territories has not only severely restricted the right of freedom of movement, but has dislocated families from different areas. Closure has also cut the Palestinian Territories off economi-cally and socially, both from the rest of the world, and from the other parts of the Occupied Territories themselves. This has led to further economic deterioration and dependence on Israel. In Jerusalem, Israeli policy has been to eject Palestinian residents, through house demolitions, the imposition of Israeli domestic law over Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, withdrawal of residency permits, harassment, and settlement activity.
House demolitions provide one example of what Palestinian families face in their encounters with Israeli occupation authorities. Homes are demolished as a form of illegal collective punishment against families of whom one member may be suspected of an offense. Alternatively, homes are demolished simply because they were built without the necessary building permit from the occupation authorities—a permit which in many cases is practically impossible to obtain. The outcome of these demolitions is to impose collective punishment and to "ethnically cleanse" the Palestinian population. Palestinian families are often given only twenty-four hours notice to remove their belongings when Israel moves to clear certain areas for settlement. These families suddenly find themselves out on the street, their home demolished in minutes before their very eyes.
Of course, I have to talk about torture. Under international law, torture is absolutely illegal, and we cannot be selective. We have to have one standard for all people, Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of race or religion. But for decades the Israeli General Security Service has been torturing Palestinian detainees with impunity. Recently, a report released by the Israeli Special Controller confirmed what we have been asserting to the world community for years—torture has been widely and systematically used by Israeli interrogators against Palestinian detainees.
After twenty years of struggle against torture, we—Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations and lawyers—received a decision from the Israeli High Court of Justice in September 1999, finally recognizing that torture is systematically practiced. The Court, however, went on to find that the reason torture is illegal in Israel is simply because there is no law to legalize it. The Court, scandalously, went as far as to suggest that if the government of Israel should decide that they wanted to allow the use of torture, they should pass a law to that effect.
The Palestinian people are impatient to have their state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, a combined area that composes only a scant 18 percent of historical Palestine. Even so, the current Israeli government has gone even further and has clearly stated its intentions: the complete annexation of East Jerusalem, no return to the 1967 borders, no right of return for refugees, and the continuing existence of Israeli settlements.
Clearly this does not meet the minimum level of Palestinian aspirations. This has become a situation leading nowhere. Some time ago, Israel had a choice between divorce or marriage. Israel chose divorce, represented by the two-state option, in order to preserve the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. But the most basic requirement of the two-state option is that the Palestinian people have their own state. This minimal requirement has yet to be fulfilled. The one-state option (with equal rights for all citizens regardless of race or religion) was rejected by Israel. Instead all we have are fragmented Bantustans of Palestinian control, with the Israeli military occupation continuing over the Palestinian Territories as a whole.
It must be stressed that in the past six years, the Israeli occupation, in its legal and physical form, has remained a very real part of our daily lives. The world may think that peace is on the way here, but the reality on the ground is very different. I can assure you that never before has the overall human rights situation deteriorated as dramatically. The Gaza Strip has a total area of around 165 square kilometers, of which Israel continues to control around 42 percent. Twenty Israeli settlements have been established in the Gaza Strip, housing some five thousand settlers. In the remaining 58 percent of the Strip, 1.2 million Palestinians live in some of the most cramped conditions in the world.
In the year 2000, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa behind us, this situation cannot be tolerated. In fact, if the situation continues it will inevitably lead to a renewed cycle of bloodshed and violence. We observe with deep disappointment that the fruits on the ground of the Oslo process could not be further from the stated intention of building confidence between the parties and resolving a final agreement for a just and lasting peace in the region. We also affirm our belief that there can be no possibility of real, just, and lasting peace without respect for human rights.
The Oslo Accords were signed between the government of Israel and the PLO, the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, expressing their aspirations and having led their legitimate resistance against the occupation. We, the Palestinian human rights community, believed from the very beginning that it was essential to both our self-respect as a people, and for the ultimate achievement of our goal of a democratic state, that the practices of the Palestinian Authority, in the very limited areas in which it was granted jurisdiction under the Oslo Accords, be closely monitored. We were, from the outset, committed to the development of a society that would respect the rule of law, democratic principles, and human rights.
We believe that the particular experiences of the Palestinian people, and the consequent development of a strong Palestinian civil society, can enable us to develop a unique state in the region—namely, a truly democratic state. We still hope to succeed in this goal, and many Palestinians remain steadfast in working towards this end.
As local human rights organizations, we thought that the struggle for the development of this democratic society and the strengthening of Palestinian civil society would be easier than the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Now we see we were wrong; it is a deeply complex process and much more difficult than we imagined. We are deeply concerned by certain practices of the Palestinian Authority which violate human rights standards, including restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly, undermining the independence of the judiciary, and the establishment of state security courts.
Without in any way offering this as an excuse for those practices, we nevertheless deem it necessary to express our concern at the role played by both the Israeli and American administrations in promoting these violations of human rights by the Palestinian Authority. This role is particularly perplexing since the stated strategic interest of both these parties is real and lasting peace in the region. The development of a genuinely democratic system in the Palestinian Territories not only promotes the necessary stability for such peace, but is in fact an essential prerequisite for any kind of true peace. For fifty years Israel has complained that it should not be expected to make peace with dictators. This only makes Israeli and American obstacles to the development of a genuine democratic society in the Palestinian Territories all the more perplexing, while raising serious questions as to their genuine intentions.
No one needs peace—a just peace—more than those who are oppressed. The fact that the Palestinian people have become the victims of those who were once victims themselves only shows how important it is to remember this point. In terms of both political and human history, it is deeply saddening when the victim becomes the victimizer of people who are guilty of nothing except existing in their homeland. The Palestinian people have suffered for the past century, and for the past fifty years have been the victims of Israeli human rights violations. We must all acknowledge the lesson of history—that reconciliation cannot begin without recognition and apology.
True peace must be between people, not simply between leaders. The possibility of this materializing is severely undermined by the Israeli policy of closure, which, as well as violating the basic human rights of Palestinians, also creates a division between peoples by preventing any meaningful contact between Palestinians and Israelis.
We used to have an excellent relationship with our Israeli counterparts, human rights groups and lawyers. They used to come to us, we would go to them. They would invite us to lecture or speak at public meetings. We would work alongside each other on particular cases and causes. This created wonderful chemistry. But now, after more than five years of the closure policy, we are totally disconnected from our Israeli friends. We still cooperate, by telephone, E-mail and fax, but we are no longer able to have the human contact, because we can no longer come and go as we please.
I believe deeply in the need for peace, but my own life taught me that there can be no peace, no justice, without human rights. Witnessing massive and violent human rights violations on a daily basis makes quite a mark on a young mind and heart. In my youth I saw many people killed, arrested, or beaten before my eyes—including my brother, who was arrested, in early 1968. He was in prison for three years. As a kid, at school, I saw the army beat students for participating in demonstrations. Our daily life was really hell. My family is deeply rooted in this place—I’m not, by definition, one of the many refugees in Gaza. But everybody felt like strangers in our homeland.
Our lives were totally controlled by the occupation. When you are as young as I was and see all this happening, it leaves a strong impression. You begin to ask: What’s going on? Why is this happening? Why are these unfair things happening? Why was our neighbor’s house demolished? Why was my brother imprisoned? Of course anyone who feels and begins to understand what is going on wants a better future, a better life, and you want to express it in one way or another.
For me the next stage came after my arrest and imprisonment. I saw the other side of the moon. All I had seen before did not prepare me for the hell I found myself in, even if I, as a lawyer, was treated to the "VIP" hell. When you are being subjected to torture, you want to die ten times a day. And I saw how torture was being used systematically, even on kids as young as twelve.
I thought: all these prisoners, their miserable conditions, the systematic torture and abuse, and nobody knows anything about it. And then I thought of the house demolitions, the land confiscations, the daily beatings. I said to myself: I’m a lawyer, can’t somebody be a witness to these crimes? Can’t we reduce the suffering even minimally, some way or another? I thought that surely it was possible, through sustained human rights work, to let the world know about the practices of the Israeli occupation, and in doing so to help these victims. So that is what I decided to do. And I’ve been doing it for twenty years now.
I’ll never forget one time after being released from administrative detention, having been detained simply because of my human rights work, the Israeli officer said to me, "Raji, this is your last arrest, and I hope you know what that means." It was a threat, but we believed in our work, in our struggle, in human rights. I hate to speak about our own suffering as human rights activists. We have to be strong enough to make people feel, and know, that we can defend them. We have to be strong enough to take care of the real victims.
I simply believe that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are not luxuries. They are crucial necessities—the oxygen of meaningful life. We see the violations on a daily basis. We see the victims, we know them, we live with them. What keeps us going is the belief that you can do something, even if it is just a little something. And even if we cannot improve the situation, at least we can stop it from deteriorating further.
I believe we must continue to struggle to defend the rights of the victims, we must continue to reject all forms of human rights abuses. We must believe that it is worth it to make even small changes. For the sake of the victims of these abuses and injustices, we must carry out our work professionally. We must be vigorous in our defense of the persecuted and bold enough to never stop opposing their victimizers, no matter who they may be.
I don’t believe in violence, and I don’t think it is a solution. Nor do I believe that Palestinians are the only ones whose blood is sacred. All human life is sacred, no matter which nationality, race, or religion. But we cannot accept the situation as it is. We must do something.
I don’t want to see more suffering. Whatever we do today may bear its fruits tomorrow. Like Martin Luther King Jr., we too have a dream—a dream and a very legitimate agenda, to get rid of the occupation, to determine our own destiny, and to have an independent state—a state where democracy, human rights and the rule of law prevail. As I have said, the obstacles we are now facing are very complicated, much more so than pre-Oslo. But we are determined to go on with the struggle—all the way.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)