Two Human Rights Defenders From Occupied Palestine Navigate the Politics of Capitol Hill

News & Politics

This month, two front line human rights defenders in occupied Palestine, Palestine Center for Human Rights (PCHR) founder Raji Sourani and Al Haq founder Shawan Jabarin, embarked on a speaking tour in New York City and Washington DC. Following their appearance at Columbia University, where they spoke at an event organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights, I met Sourani and Jabarin at a private event in Washington DC. The two had come to town for a series of meetings in Congress, including with one of the most knowledgable foreign policy staffers.

Sourani and Jabarin's first meeting took place at the Senate Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations in the office of Tim Rieser, a longtime aide to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. Considered a champion of human rights inside Congress, Rieser is the brains behind the so-called Leahy Law which restricts US arms sales to serial human rights-abusing nations. In March, Leahy joined ten members of Congress in signing a letter demanding the Obama administration investigate Israel and the Egyptian military junta for “gross violations of human rights.” According to a DC based human rights activist who escorted Sourani and Jabarin to Rieser's office, the two had hoped to gain a sense of whether the Leahy Law would be enforced, but received only informal recommendations.

A meeting with Democratic Rep. John Lewis followed the gathering with Reiser. The DC-based activist told me that Lewis held court with Sourani and Jabarin for over an hour, far longer than expected and posed for photos with the men, lending the presence of a living symbol of the civil rights movement to their cause. He left the two with copies of his 2013 graphic novel, March, on the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. “They came out of Lewis’s office feeling great,” the activist said.

Jabarin and Sourani were given the cold shoulder by the Obama administration, however. A State Department staffer agreed to meet with them, but phoned back two hours later to cancel without explanation. The treatment hardly came as a shock after years of disappointment with Western governments.

Towards the ICC

Neither Sourani nor Jabarin planned to dedicate their lives to human rights work. But when they were teenagers, both were arrested by the Israeli army and tortured in Israeli prisons. At age 18, Jabarin said Israel “killed my dreams,” barring him from traveling to study medicine abroad, where he had a scholarship waiting for him. The two immersed themselves in international law and sought out remedies for challenging Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

In 1979, Jabarin founded Al Haq in Ramallah, now the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, where Israel has carried out a sustained campaign of home demolitions, settlement construction and population transfer. For his part, Sourani founded the PCHR in Gaza City, now the target of unprecedented violence from Israeli drones, attack jets and heavy artillery.

Sourani currently presides over a staff of 63. “Even with that size,” he commented, “we don’t have one single day to rest. The quantity and quality of human rights violations we witness are astounding.”

During Israel’s 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip in 2014, PCHR researchers were often in severe danger as they set out to document the attacks that left over 2200 dead and 100,000 homes partly or completely destroyed.

“I used to call Raji every day just to see if he’s alive or not,” Jabarin recalled.

With the experience Sourani and his staff gathered, they have trained human rights workers to document atrocities in Yemen, Libya and Syria. According to Sourani, Gaza’s terrible predicament has honed his organization into “the most sophisticated human rights group in the Middle East.”

Al Haq and PCHR are leading the Palestinian campaign to hold Israel accountable at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sourani described the effort as a last resort. “We exhausted all national legal remedies in Israel. Khalas! [“Enough,” in Arabic] After years of experience we discovered that this system is providing legal cover for systematic war crimes. Torture is legalized and legitimized. Extrajudicial killing is legalized. That’s why we shifted to universal jurisdiction cases in the ICC.”

Threats, repression and travel bans

Because of their determination to publicize Israeli human rights crimes and hold their authors accountable before international legal bodies, Sourani and Jabarin have become targets of Israel and its international lobbyists.

Their appearance at Columbia University was pre-empted by an intimidating letter by right-wing NGO Monitor Legal Advisor Anne Herzberg to the Columbia Law School raising questions about the sponsors of the event.

NGO Monitor bills itself as a watchdog organization providing “critical analysis” of international NGOs, but is, in practice, an arm of Israel’s right-wing government. The group’s founder, Gerald Steinberg, has worked as a consultant to the Israeli government and served on a steering committee overseen by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. In testimony before Israel’s Knesset, Steinberg called for “a response like in war” against human rights organizations. He urged the Israeli government to back groups like his that created the impression of a “civil society” counter-attack.

NGO Monitor’s failed attempt to prevent Sourani and Jabarin’s appearance at Columbia is an extension of the escalating assault by the Israeli government on human rights organizations. Both men have been barred from traveling abroad by Israeli security services.

According to Jabarin, Al Haq’s funders have been confronted with a wave of threats and intimidation from pro-Israel forces. Recently, members of his staff have been finding at the doorsteps of their homes what he called “funeral flowers,” or dead flowers accompanied by cards inscribed with threatening messages. He said his group’s computer serves have been attacked, his staff has received threatening emails, and that he and Sourani are subject of a constant parade of attacks in the Israeli press.

“If you search our names on Google,” Jabarin said, “I guarantee you will see the word ‘terrorist’ next to them. We know this work is not a joke and we are prepared to pay the price to continue it.”

Jabarin filed his submission at the Hague -- the home of the ICC -- on November 23, 2015. Trapped in Gaza, where travel is rendered nearly impossible by the ongoing Israeli siege, Sourani held a simultaneous press conference in the rubble of homes destroyed by the Israeli army.

“This was just a small step,” Jabarin said of the press conference in the ruins of Gaza. “Raji [Sourani] was surrounded by people who had lost their beloved, lost their properties, their houses -- everything. And this submission to the ICC gave them hope that justice was coming.”

He pointed to the Obama administration as a principal antagonist in the quest for Palestinian human rights. “You saw the US pressure Palestine not to go to the ICC,” Jabarin recalled. “They don’t want us to accept justice! This is the contradiction that makes us feel a little angry.”

Yet as he stood in a living room in DC surrounded by supporters, including a few bearing pins promoting the presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, Jabarin took stock of the shifting political winds. “You are the new America for us,” he told his audience, “not the administration.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated since initial publication

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