Palestinian Laureate Raji Sourani speaking to Right Livelihood in Venice at the sidelines of the High-level Conference on the Global State of Human Rights on May 25, 2024.

Raji Sourani: Defending Palestinians is a fight for the world’s conscience

News 04.06.2024

Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani has sought to bring accountability for crimes against Palestinians for more than four decades. Now, as the violence unleashed by Israel in response to Hamas’ October 7 attack continues to destroy lives, the world is witnessing “one of the worst times ever” in the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine, he says. Pointing to the international community’s failure to protect Palestinian civilians, Sourani asks: do we want a world governed by the rule of law or the rule of the jungle?

“People feel they can do nothing to keep alive – it’s a matter of luck,” Sourani told Right Livelihood in late May, as he began describing the situation in Gaza. “This is the seven-and-a-halfth consecutive month: death coming from the sky, from land, sea, air. No safe haven in Gaza.”

With each word describing the indescribable, he lists the horrors: 36,000 killed, 82,000 injured – a third of them will likely die due to the severity of their injuries. Medical infrastructure collapsed, 1.7 million people displaced within Gaza, 85 per cent of the territory levelled, no access to food. Those with a tent are counted as “super lucky.”

“Some families are erased, totally erased: they don’t exist anymore,” Sourani said. “You are talking about hundreds of families. A matter of death and life.”

The suffering doesn’t end: Israel has arrested up to 7,000 Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank in recent months, he said – most of them have been subjected to torture.

“Some American lawyers who were representing Guantanamo prisoners said torture in Guantanamo sounds naive compared with the torture practice in [Israeli] prisons,” he added.

Such torture – among other human rights abuses – has been widely documented for decades by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, an organisation founded and led by Sourani.

Israel’s rampage in Gaza following the October 7 attack by Hamas is a “plausible genocide,” Sourani explained, referencing a January ruling by the International Court of Justice.

The court made this declaration in a case brought by South Africa, in large part thanks to Sourani’s work: he sought out and convinced the African nation to help bring a case against Israel at the World Court.

“Israel accused of genocide: that was a great day for the victims,” Sourani said, remembering January 11, when the case was first heard. “That was a day when Israel was accused at the most important court on Earth of the most serious of charges, which is genocide, and the court accepted the case. So there is this road of international justice where we try to bring the rule of law, dignity and justice for the victims and victims’ families.”

That day, Sourani was sitting in the courtroom in The Hague with a scarf representing the colours of the South African flag around his neck. He was there as part of South Africa’s legal team, only a few months after narrowly escaping two Israeli air strikes in Gaza, including one that destroyed his home. He fled the territory late last year.

Despite the personal toll the present conflict and decades of Israeli oppression have taken on him, he makes it clear that seeking accountability for Palestinians gets at the heart of humanity: it is about deciding what kind of a world we would like to live in.

Seeking international accountability

Sourani has walked a long road in search of international accountability for crimes against Palestinians. He has been working for more than 20 years to explore avenues for international accountability for Israeli crimes, including convincing countries to claim universal jurisdiction. When those efforts were blocked, Sourani turned to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the other major world court.

After Palestine joined the court in 2015 by signing and ratifying the Rome Statute, then-ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda decided to open an investigation in 2021 into crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territory. However, the investigation stalled when current ICC prosecutor Karim Khan took office later that year.

Sourani, who coordinates the Palestinian legal team at the ICC, said he had confronted Khan about this years ago, telling him, “The investigation was opened in February 2021. And you haven’t moved since then one millimetre.”

On May 20, Khan finally announced that he was seeking arrest warrants for three Hamas leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in relation to the current conflict.

For Sourani, the move came too late. He said that a clear message from the ICC early on could have dissuaded Israel from carrying out such a brutal military campaign.

“Why are you so late?” he said. “I think delayed justice, sometimes, is like denied justice. I hope we are not so late, and I hope there is an opportunity by legal means that we’ll be able to save the lives, pain and suffering of people.”

He said the “positive aspect” of Khan’s decision was to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Gallant. However, why wasn’t the court pursuing leaders of the Israeli army, who implemented the government’s decisions, he wondered.

Sourani also sees the ICC investigation as too narrow.

“What about the settlements?” he asked. “This is an ongoing crime, he didn’t mention it. What about pillage? He didn’t mention it. What about the ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem and the Judaisation of Jerusalem? He didn’t mention it. What about the blockade on Gaza? He didn’t mention it. Seventeen years we are disconnected from the outside world. So the menu is very rich. I don’t know why he just focused on what’s going on now.”

Parallel to the ICC process, proceedings continue in South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice.

On January 26, the court issued provisional measures, finding it “plausible” that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza. The emergency measures demanded, among others, that Israel do everything in its power to prevent genocide and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. However, the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire.

“Israel, obviously, hasn’t been abiding at all,” Sourani said.

On May 25, the court ordered an immediate halt to a military assault on Rafah, in the south of Gaza, where some 1.4 million Palestinians were taking refuge. Sourani said that the measure did not go nearly far enough: the legal team was asking for an immediate ceasefire for the whole of Gaza.

“The court only imposed the ceasefire into the Rafah area, and that’s not enough,” he said.

A world for the people of tomorrow

As the wheels of international justice move painfully slowly, especially compared to the pace of violence, is there still hope? Sourani is positive. Pointing to the international human rights and humanitarian architecture growing out of the horrors of the Second World War, he sees the current moment as an inflexion point for the international community.

“I believe, for the sake of humanity, that defending Palestinians’ rights, it’s not something just related to Palestine,” he said. “It is one of the global fights for just and unjust, for right and wrong, for the rule of law and the rule of the jungle. What world do we want? We want a world with the rule of law.”

He said he’s been deeply touched by student protests around the world in support of Palestinians.

“To have to your side the people of tomorrow: this is the most important, this is one of the major reasons for real strategic optimism,” Sourani said. “I’m very proud of the campuses across the globe and their solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians. Not because they are Palestinians and because they are victims, [but] because this is evil.”

His charge for people around the world is to keep fighting for a better future.

“It’s evil to lose hope,” he said. “It is very, very important to keep the fight for the rule of law. And with that, to keep the strategic optimism that tomorrow will be better. We want humanity, dignity and justice. That’s simply what keeps me motivated.”

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