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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1995, pg. 12

Special Report

A Matter of Principle: Gaza Human Rights Lawyer Raji Sourani

By Janet McMahon

Attorney Raji Sourani is, unfortunately, not the only Gazan to be imprisoned by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority. He may be the only one, however, whose detention resulted in the PNA receiving within 18 hours close to 100 faxes from around the world calling for his release.

For the past decade, Sourani has been defending Palestinians before the Israeli military courts in Gaza. He opened his own practice in 1982, after serving a three-year sentence imposed by an Israeli court which convicted him of membership in the illegal Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (with which he no longer is affiliated). His defense work has also resulted in his being held twice under Israeli administrative detention, with no charges filed, and during which he was subjected to beatings and other physical abuse.

Widely regarded by 1991 as Gaza's foremost human rights lawyer, Sourani became director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. That same year, he received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, having received the previous year a Ford Foundation fellowship to participate in a special program for human rights advocates at New York's Columbia University.

Last February, shortly after the PNA established its secret state security courts, Sourani wrote a letter to President Yasser Arafat criticizing the courts as a "drift away from democracy and governmental accountability, the stripping of the judiciary's independence and the removal of legal protection for the Palestinian people." He simultaneously released the letter to the press. Shortly thereafter he was taken from his home to a police station for questioning and held for 18 hours before being released.

In April, having failed to heed advice to "keep a low profile with the media," Sourani was fired as director of the Gaza Center, which the board has announced will be reopened as a "national archive." Since then, Sourani and his staff have established the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which, although licensed by the PNA, does not have access to the funds allocated to the Gaza Center's human rights work.

Speaking at the United Nations North American NGO Symposium on the Question of Palestine thlis past June, Sourani identified what he sees as the basic violation of Palestinian human rights from which all others spring, regardless of the governing authority: "The fundamental problem is the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination."

Following his appearance in New York, Sourani traveled to Washington, DC, where he discussed his work during a visit to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Sourani noted that, prior to the establishment of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza, the Gaza Center for Human Rights had credibility with the Tunis-based PLO as an "independent, professional human rights organization, one that did not act as a tool for any faction."

The center and its director maintained that stance after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993. Sourani "tried to describe what the DOP really meant—for example, 'redeployment,' not 'withdrawal' of Israeli troops." He issued communiqués criticizing the torture and death of suspected collaborators, the "massive waves of arrests" of political opponents, and the establishment of the state security courts.

Sourani described the PNA's reaction to his criticisms as "shocking and unexpected." While he supports the PNA as the national authority in Gaza, he adds that "a positive, constructive relationship does not mean saying everything is just fine."

The human rights activist described his basic principle, and the source of his consistency, succinctly: "Human rights can't be selective, where you can take it or leave it. If you're ashamed of something, don't do it."

Raji Sourani is well aware of the difficult position in which Yasser Arafat and the PNA find themselves, and views their dilemma as inherent in the terms of the DOP. As he said in New York, discussing PNA efforts in tackling opposition groups, "The Palestinian Authority is being used as an instrument of Israeli policy." He added,"Despite the burden which the Palestinian Authority carries, and even the excuses that can be made, the violation of basic human rights cannot be tolerated."

Isolated vs. Systematic Abuses

In Sourani's view, the PNA "initially didn't have the intention to be bad toward human rights." Rather, he believes, Yasser Arafat and his aides intended to be "sort of...good." He sees a difference between isolated instances of human rights violations, such as the killing of suspected collaborators, and systemic, institutionalized violations, such as mass arrests and the state security court, and absolves the PNA of initiating such egregious violations. "If it's systematic," Sourani said, "it's been pressured by Israel."

Sourani contends that Israel had three main objectives in signing the DOP: first, to project the image that peace existed, an image Sourani calls "totally, intentionally misleading"; second, to achieve a security Israel had not managed to attain in 27 years of occupation. Sourani pointed out that true security requires a good system, which takes more than the one year the PNA has had to establish its authority, and a good environment. The environment in Gaza is now "totally poisoned," Sourani said. "People don't feel this peace brought any good for them."

Israel's third objective, according to Sourani, is to maintain the status quo, and he wonders if this was the Israeli intention from the beginning. Certainly, he now thinks, he was "totally naive" for thinking at the time that, "since Israel had imposed 95 percent of the DOP, they had an interest to implement it. But they didn't!"

Because the question of Palestinian elections is related to the other inequalities in the DOP, and hence ultimately under Israeli control, Sourani also is "not optimistic about elections." If Arafat agrees with Israeli stipulations, he said, the elections will be simply "form without any content." But, Sourani emphasized, "these people are going to negotiate the fate of the Palestinian people at large, so it's no joke."

Despite his concerns for the future of Palestine and his pessimism about upcoming elections, Raji Sourani's demeanor is in no way that of a defeated man. Even with the inherent imbalance of power in the Declaration of Principles, Sourani believes, it is still something worth fighting for, because "if the DOP is implemented, you can't rule out the possibility of having independence. But with this situation, it's ruled out. There will be no independence."

Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.