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Gaza’s Human Rights Guru
By Salena Tramel
November 11th, 2011
The first time I shared a meal with Raji Sourani was at a seaside restaurant in Gaza City. A lawyer and longtime director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a Grassroots International partner, Sourani is well known throughout Palestine for his quick and sound judgment—which showed when he ordered some of the best shellfish in the Strip for both of us before I had even finished scanning the menu.
“You can’t visit Gaza without eating this shrimp,” he said when our dish arrived. Plumes of shisha smoke billowed around us, and classical Lebanese chords interchanged with lively Egyptian tunes. He was right: the food was nearly as enjoyable as his company. Our discussion was less so, as he outlined the daily struggle for survival in Gaza, the weight of unanswered legal cases, and plethora of human rights abuses vis-à-vis both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
When the check came, Sourani snatched it from my hand while I protested. “Our staff at Grassroots really wants to treat you,” I said. “You can treat me when I visit the U.S.,” he replied firmly.
But he knew that probably wasn’t going to happen any time soon. A recipient of the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1991, and a two-time Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, Sourani had been banned from the U.S. for the past decade based on bogus allegations of terrorist affiliations. During that time, a myriad of powerful organizations and leaders interceded on behalf of his entry. Up until very recently, they failed.
In September of this year, 28 individuals and organizations signed a letter and delivered it to the U.S. government asking for a visa to be processed for Sourani. Miraculously, Sourani was granted a three-month waiver that allowed him one-time entry into the U.S. The letter had been endorsed by President Carter, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, to name a few. At the last minute, he booked a flight to New York just as Palestine was presenting its case for statehood to the UN.
Sourani traveled up and down the East Coast over the course of the following weeks. He visited with heads of states, presented at Columbia and Harvard Universities, and finally made his way to DC—where I happened to be attending a fundraiser.
We met at the lounge in his hotel near Dupont Circle, and it was there that we shared our second meal. Walking in, I immediately spotted Sourani’s familiar round face—jovial eyes framed by long, dark lashes. After saying hello, he beat me to the punch and ordered shrimp. “I’m addicted to these things,” he said with a smile.
Sourani had added a few more pages to his resume since our last encounter. He is now the Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights and the President of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, in addition to his involvement with PCHR. A man of multiple talents, he has one motto: speaking truth to power.
Putting down his fork, Sourani explained two primary objectives for his visit to the U.S. “Firstly, I’m here to talk about the siege and the realities in Gaza,” he said. “Those are totally illegal and inhumane collective punishments of civilians.” Sourani alluded to arbitrary attacks, expanding Israeli-imposed military zones on the land and at sea, as well as deteriorating socio-economic conditions.
“I can’t imagine that this is happening in the 21st century, where international law, and the Geneva Convention protect civilians,” he added. “This cannot continue.”
Sourani’s secondary objective this time around in the U.S. was to bring attention to the Goldstone Report and the need for accountability following the December 2009 – January 2009 attacks that took the lives of at least 1,300 Palestinians and nine Israelis. “Human rights defenders in Gaza, including those at PCHR follow appropriate legal channels while representing Palestinian victims that are subjugated to crimes,” he said. “We believe in the rule of law, and therefore tried all means of using the Israeli judiciary and legal system while trying to uphold it.”
When those means were exhausted, Sourani and colleagues decided to resort to the kind of universal jurisdiction that has brought about change in Spain and elsewhere. That is precisely where the Goldstone Report came into play.
“Goldstone was a special report, not because it added new facts or standards, but because it came from one of the most important human rights bodies in the world—the United Nations Human Rights Council,” Sourani said. He went on to highlight the Goldstone Report’s endorsement by the UN General Assembly. “Since the General Assembly is discussing rule of law this week, we felt it was the perfect time to bring up the lack of accountability nearly three years after the criminal war.”
At the UN, Sourani met with state representatives from France, the Netherlands, and Egypt. “Many of their negative reactions were expected,” he said, “but we feel it is very important to look them in the eye and tell them what is happening—that we understand realpolitik, the need for peace and security, and that we are peace lovers who seek justice.”
Some have called Sourani a “romantic revolutionary.”
“It’s not about that,” he said, “We never believe that there is a contradiction between rule of law, democracy, human rights, and peace and security. Our mission is to never give up reminding people of this.”
“Palestinians are in the worst situation ever in 63 years. We are talking about basic fundamental human rights, like the rights to life, education, and movement. We have been convinced of this message all along, and we have to remind everybody about that now—that’s what PCHR has stood for since the very beginning.”
When I asked Sourani about PCHR’s beginnings, he settled back into the plush hotel chair and made himself comfortable, slightly crossing his legs. “Well, I worked as a lawyer in defense of Palestinian prisoners,” he began. “In 1990, I was asked to take over the human rights center that was then called the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. A year later I won the Arab Award for Human Rights.”
“One thing happened during that period. The PLO signed the so-called peace accords with Israel. And from our perspective, that peace accord meant keeping the occupation in its legal and political form until at least 1999.”
“After those accords, we were forced to decide which agenda to work on: Israel or the Palestinian Authority. We decided to work to end the Israeli occupation as if the Palestinian Authority didn’t exist, and at the same time we decided to work to hold the PA accountable as if the occupation didn’t exist. We felt it was a very unique opportunity to help build a State with rule of law, human rights, and democracy.”
Sourani leaned forward as specific memories continued to fill his mind. “Massive arrests for opposition groups came from both sides. There was torture and cracking down on opposition organizations, centers like PCHR, universities, and others. There were bans on freedom and on demonstrations—and we were at the front of the criticism.”
“In 1995, I was arrested by the Palestinian Authority, and the offices of Gaza Center for Rights and Law were ransacked for no reason.” (Sourani was also arrested six times by the Israelis, his longest detention being eight years.)
With everything destroyed, Sourani and other colleagues decided to establish a broader organization that they hoped would be more effective, and from the ashes of the Gaza Center was born the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
When the first missiles of operation “Cast Lead” hit Gaza more than a decade later, PCHR had grown to 65 staff members—mostly in their Gaza City base, but also some working from the West Bank. Having documented and brought cases to court of human rights violation ranging from Israeli attacks on small fishing boats to the Hamas government’s policy of hanging dissidents, PCHR was in a key position to report on the war. This was all the more critical considering that in the days leading up to those attacks, most international aid workers and journalists were denied access to the Strip.
Over the course of the 22-day assault, PCHR staff kept detailed records of attacks on civilians. According to Sourani, staff members traveled from hospital to hospital, and home to home, to document what happened to each victim—with a focus on accuracy and attention to detail. The UN and mainstream media now rely on those records for their reporting and follow-up on the most violent actions in the occupied Palestinian territories since they were seized by Israel in 1967.
“We are so proud of this,” said Sourani, his strong voice slightly shaking.
Despite their vast needs as Palestinians living in Gaza under occupation, Sourani and his colleagues are determined not to let their work stop there. Recently, they have been training activists across the Middle East and North Africa in the new uprisings of the Arab Spring who face crushing repression by dictatorial governments.
“Through years of work, PCHR had developed fantastic professional people,” said Sourani. “Part of what we invest in is training, and now we are trying to transfer this expertise and knowledge to others in Palestine. But with this Arab Spring, we thought it would be extremely wise to begin disseminating some of our skills throughout the Arab world.”
Wearing his new hat as the President of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, Sourani has already conducted trainings for Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis. Many of those courses brought activists to Cairo, but Sourani hopes to conduct them on-site in the future in places like Tripoli and Sana’a.
“It’s remarkable,” I told Sourani, “that those with perhaps the least human rights in the region are training others on the subject matter.”
“That’s the kafqa, the irony, you’re absolutely right,” he answered with a slight chuckle. “But living under all those crimes turned Gaza into one of the best intellectual places.”
I remembered having once heard that Gaza is home to the most unemployed Ph.D.s in the world.
“Since life there is like hell, we were forced to gain deep human rights knowledge and expertise. We hope to use it effectively in preemptive ways, to make human rights violations cease to repeat.”
It was almost time to leave. Caught up in the moment, I realized that I had not led with the polite formality of wishing Sourani’s family well that precedes almost all conversations in the Arab tradition.
“How is your family, Raji,” I asked.
“I am so blessed,” he answered, “I have a fantastic wife Amal, and 17-year-old twins—one girl and one boy. They are in the American International School in Gaza. As Palestinians, we invest in education and that is the best school.”
I ask him what his hopes are as the twins grow up.
“My dream for them is nothing special,” he answered. “I think all I want is for them to be able to be normal human beings, enjoying normal circumstances. For us, this is the most ambitious thing I can dream—meaning they are not under occupation, meaning they are not suffering restrictions, and meaning they can decide their own fate, and destiny, and future.”
Sourani finished his drink and continued, “I want them to be free, to have a nationality and to carry passports. Just like any normal human beings, nothing special.”
“To be free in this part of the world exceeds all of our wildest dreams.”
I pretended to excuse myself for the restroom, found the waiter, and slipped him a credit card—keeping a hopeful promise made years ago in Gaza City, and humbled by the presence of a man who has done so much for people there.