Raji Sourani: “The occupation wants to silence the truth” in Palestine
As the war in Ukraine gets most of the headlines, many human rights violations in other parts of the world get little or no attention. Over the past year, prominent human rights organisations such as B’TSelem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have labelled the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as apartheid. In Palestine, frustration about the inaction of the international community is growing. Right Livelihood sat down with 2014 Laureate Raji Sourani to get his views on the situation.
Right Livelihood: We don’t hear much about Gaza in the media these days. What is the situation like today?
Raji Sourani: I have lived all my life in Gaza and can’t recall more difficult times. Gaza is subject to unprecedented persecution against more than 2 million people living on 365 square kilometres. The people of Gaza have lived through four wars since the blockade began more than 15 years ago. While the residents are well-educated, about 65 per cent are unemployed. But no one talks about the occupation of Palestinian independence in the media anymore. No one!
RL: In May, the veteran Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Shirin Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces while covering protests in the West Bank. What’s your take on what happened?
RS: The killing was not an accident. She was in a clear position and was wearing a helmet and a vest marked ‘PRESS’. It was intentional: they shot to kill. This is a pattern that we have seen many times: peaceful activists, children, women, journalists and even handicapped people have been killed by the occupation forces. Together with the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSelem, we have shown that the decisions to shoot and kill often are made by high-ranked military officials. Since the second intifada broke out, about 50 journalists have been killed. One year ago, the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press were targeted by Israel in Gaza. Shirin Abu Akleh was well-known also to the Israeli army. She presented an alternative story which the Israeli media don’t tell. The occupation wants to silence the truth. Our mission is to hold those responsible for these crimes accountable. We won’t forgive, or forget, the killing of Shirin Abu Akleh or other innocent people.
RL: Last fall, six Palestinian civil society organisations, including the prominent human rights organisation Al Haq, were outlawed by Israel designating them as “terrorist organisations”. The Palestinian human rights community is obviously under heavy pressure from Israeli authorities. What can you say about it?
RS: I am the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Together with my colleagues, we are representing victims by documenting their cases and using the Israeli legal system and the International Criminal Court to seek justice. We promote the rule of law. Yet, we and many other prominent Palestinian human rights defenders are called “terrorists in suits”. For many years now, we are subject to Israeli-led smear campaigns around the world. The reason? We speak truth to power. We champion the rule of law and protect victims of war. We fight for dignity and justice for those who suffered war crimes. While the smear campaigns against us have had some success we, thankfully, have many partners supporting us. We have moral, legal and human superiority over the ugly occupation.
RL: In early 2021, it was announced that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over Palestine and can investigate alleged war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians in the Palestinian territories. It is a well-known fact that Israel has fiercely resisted the inquiry. What has happened since?
RS: Our journey with the ICC began 25 years ago, and we have followed it closely since the late 1990s. The decision that the ICC has jurisdiction over the territory was a great victory. In March, the then chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, a brave woman with firm principles, decided to open an investigation despite threats to her life. Soon, however, Karim Khan replaced Bensouda as the chief prosecutor and since then we haven’t heard anything, honestly. We visited the Hague in October and November last year but the ICC prosecutor declined to see us. We have offered to help the prosecutor and connect the investigation team to the victims as we are representing them and know that Israel won’t allow the investigators to visit Gaza. But they didn’t contact us. For a year now, we have heard nothing. To the best of our knowledge, the investigation hasn’t moved one millimetre. We know that their budget is 50,000 Euro only, which is nothing. But they didn’t ask us anything.
It is shocking to compare the situation with how the ICC prosecutor investigating war crimes in Ukraine is operating. As there was no budget, the ICC prosecutor, in person, asked for contributions from states, resulting in tens of millions being donated by more than 40 countries. He opened a portal to receive testimonies, evidence and similar from journalists, victims and others. The prosecutor has visited what he called the “theatre or the crime” twice, and more than 40 investigators are working on the case now.
Of course, we are against invasion and occupation, including the Russian in Ukraine.
My simple question, as representatives of hundreds of victims, including entire families that have been erased, is: why does this happen in Ukraine and not in Palestine? I’m so angry and so frustrated with the selectivity of the international community. What message are they conveying to the region: should we believe in the rule of the jungle or the rule of law?
RL: Over the past year, several prominent human rights organisations and UN experts have said that Israel is imposing apartheid. Have these statements had any impact so far?
RS: Twenty years ago, there was a conference in Durban, South Africa. It was the first world conference against racism. More than 1,400 organisations from across the globe said in one voice: Israel is a new brand of apartheid. Only 17 organisations voted against it. We knew that it is apartheid and we have lived it. It is never too late, but it took Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and the UN experts 20 years to say what we knew.
We do not want to see an intellectual practice. If there’s an apartheid regime, states should take responsibility. It was Kafka-esque to see the unprecedented sanctions, legitimate sanctions, against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. The Western states in Europe talked about the right of Ukrainians to resist the invasion and decided to send arms to support the resistance.
You cannot be selective. You have no right to be selective. You are sending the message: don’t believe in the rule of law! It is a very dangerous message. Is it because we do not have blue eyes and white skin? Because we aren’t Europeans?
RL: For more than four decades, you have been championing human rights against all odds, and you have talked about how the situation is worsening. What keeps you going?
RS: Are we on the right side of history or not? We are. Are we defending a right cause or not? We are. Is it wrong to call for rule of law against the rule of law? We are for the rule of law. Everyone is entitled to the right to resist. As romantic revolutionaries, we believe in justice and dignity and in achieving justice for the victims we represent. We have no right to forget or forgive criminals. Victims only have that right.
We have no right to give up. Justice one day will prevail.