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Sourani: won 1985 Kennedy Memorial Award for Human Rights and named Amnesty International’s 1988 Prisoner of Conscience (Photo: PCHR)
By Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli
BRUSSELS, 6. Jan, 18:16
Seven European parliaments last year voted in favour of recognising Palestinian statehood, while Sweden actually took the step.
The developments reflect frustration with Israeli settlement expansion and Israeli killing of civilians in its 50-day war on Gaza last summer.
But for Raji Sourani, a leading Palestinian human rights lawyer, the EU resolutions fail to address the real obstacles to peace and risk perpetuating the status quo.
“We welcome the interest of Europe, but for it to have an impact it has to address the reality on the ground”, he told EUobserver in a recent interview.
Sourani is the co-founder and director of the Gaza-based NGO, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR).
He has lived in the Strip for the past 37 years, bearing witness to different phases of the Middle East’s longest conflict.
He has also been subjected to Israeli administrative detention and, he claims, torture, in a career which saw him earn the 1985 Kennedy Memorial Award for Human Rights and saw him named Amnesty International’s 1988 Prisoner of Conscience.
EUobserver first met him in his Gaza office 10 days before Israel began its air assault and ground incursion in July, which claimed more than 2,000 lives, 800 of them women and children.
Speaking to this website after the European Parliament, in December, added its voice to the pro-recognition EU states, he listed five issues which, he says, must be addressed to move toward peace.
He noted that the EU parliament’s final motion did not mention the term “blockade” in relation to Gaza.
He said the Israeli “blockade” or “siege” must be relaxed to allow for post-war reconstruction and economic recovery. But five months after the war ended, reconstruction has not yet begun.
“Unfortunately reconstruction is a mirage, it’s not happening”, he said.
He described the resulting “economic disaster” as an entirely “political” creation, pointing out that Gaza, 10 years ago, discovered offshore gas fields which could make it energy self-sufficient if Israel gave it the chance.
He also warned that the UN is becoming an “enforcer” for the occupying power.
Robert Serry, the UN’s Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, brokered the terms of the international Gaza reconstruction mechanism.
The so-called Serry agreement sets in stone the UN’s role in “chasing the cement” - monitoring who gets what in Gaza in terms of construction materials, dubbed “dual use” items, together with Cogat, the Israeli authority which controls movement of goods in and out of the territory.
“The institutionalisation of the ‘Serry’ agreement will make reconstruction in Gaza a process that could take as long as 40 years”, Sourani said.
He said the Palestinians’ inability to exercise their right of freedom of movement is also central to the conflict.
“Until when are we expected to be ‘good victims’ with no dignity?”, he asked.
Early drafts of the EU parliament motion mentioned the possibility of “reactivating and extending the scope” of two EU missions - Eubam Rafah (which monitors movement of people) and Eupol Copps (rule of law).
But as with the “blockade”, the idea was cut from the final text in a bid to reach compromise between political groups.
People have only two ways out of Gaza: the Eretz crossing to Israel and Rafah, on the border with Egypt.
But Sourani noted that after the war, the crossings are almost non-functional.
Eretz never saw more than a trickle of people anyway, while Rafah has effectively been closed for most of the time since the August ceasefire - the longest period on record.
The final EU motion did mention “support for the Palestinian national consensus government” and underlined the importance of “consolidating its authority in the Gaza Strip”.
The language marks the fact Palestine’s two main political factions - Hamas, which rules in Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank - have struggled to make their unity government work since its launch in April.
But for Sourani, the cautious EU language shows little understanding of the political breakdown on the ground.
Where MEPs spoke of “consolidating … authority”, Sourani speaks of “fawda” - meaning “total chaos” in Arabic.
He noted that Israel’s last assault made matters worse by prompting popular support for radical groups.
He added that the “chaos” serves Israeli hawks by weakening Hamas and Fatah domestically and on the international stage.
“While many Palestinians already felt abandoned by both political factions, the conflict gave new life to the more radical parties and groups”, he noted.
“Tell me, where are your borders?”, he asked, in a question addressed to both the EU and to Israel.
The EU parliament motion speaks of “1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with a secure state of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security”.
For Sourani, the statement would have made sense in 1967 or, at the latest, in 1994, when the so-called Oslo accords attempted to set the peace process in motion.
But he noted that the current pace of settlement expansion means Israel is redrawing de facto borders “more quickly than the ink can dry on international statements”.
He said EU communiques which fail to set specific and realistic boundaries do more worse than good by creating a fictional framework for conflict resolution.
“Europe has responsibilities: Nobody wants a virtual [Palestinian] state”.
The 60-year old lawyer reserved his starkest criticism for what he calls Israel’s disregard for rule of law.
He said if the conflict is to ever end it must be governed by “the rule of law, not the rule of the jungle”.
Sourani’s NGO, the PCHR, filed 225 cases to the Israeli military attorney general on alleged war crimes in last year’s Gaza conflict. It filed another 1,060 cases of redress/compensation to the Israeli minister of defence.
But looking at Israel’s track record, Sourani has little optimism for the outcome.
Looking back at the previous Israeli ground incursion - operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009, which cost 1,400 lives - just five of the 492 submitted cases ended in a positive outcome.
The five rulings saw Israeli Defence Force soldiers - who killed an unarmed Palestinian woman and her daughter while they were waving a white flag - suspended for just six months.
Sourani noted that Israeli due process is designed to deny justice to Palestinians.
He cited the fact that Palestinians, among the poorest people in the Middle East, have to pay a “guarantee fee” to Israeli courts to file cases.
In one Cast Lead case, the “Soumani” case, in which Israeli forces killed 27 members of one family, Israel insisted on 27 separate claims, raising the guarantee fee to over $100,000.
PCHR lawyers, claimants, and witnesses often cannot go to court proceedings due to Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement, while time limits on filing cases mean that 95 percent of claimants don’t make the deadline.
Sourani also warned that a recent Israeli legislative amendment, known as “amendment eight”, will create a new obstacle.
He said it “effectively states that if Israel declares a state of war, no one has the right to hold its army or politicians legally accountable for their actions”.
The lawyer noted that while the EU regularly criticises Israeli killing of civilians, it overlooks its day-to-day disregard for people’s rights.
“This is also an invitation to extremism. People are desperate. They see no justice. They see no hope. There is no need to victimise the rule of law in order to ensure [Israeli] security”, he said.