27th Feb 2024


Palestinian rights chief on ICJ: 'We're on right side of history'

  • Raji Sourani has been representing Palestinians victims since 2009 before the International Criminal Court — not to be confused with the International Court of Justice, both in the Hague (Photo: Sourani's twitter account)
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Raji Sourani, the director and founder of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, is one of the leading human rights lawyers in Gaza. The mere fact that he is still alive is some sort of miracle.

As he travelled from the Hague, to Brussels, Madrid and Dublin, after the opening of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) genocide case against Israel, he spoke with EUobserver.

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Since Israel launched its military operation in response to the Hamas attacks on 7 October, he has twice survived a targeted bombing. "I was just lucky to escape that," Sourani told EUobserver.

After his home was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, the 70-year-old attorney left Gaza on 19 December. He now lives in Egypt with his family.

He is indeed lucky. After 7 October, only international citizens, or those with double nationality and good contacts were able to leave the Gaza Strip.

Born and bred in Gaza, Sourani has spent most of his life representing Palestinian victims and documenting what has happened in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While doing his job, he has been detained on six occasions by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"Our job is not easy. For the Israelis, we are terrorists with suits doing 'lawfare'," he said.

Sourani has been representing Palestinian victims since 2009 before the International Criminal Court (ICC) — which finally decided to launch an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Palestine in 2021, following five years of preliminary examinations.

And he was part of those who convinced the Islamist organisations (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) to sign the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC — making them also the subject to ICC investigations.

The ICC investigates and prosecutes individuals for war crimes and other international crimes, while the International Court of Justice (ICJ) settles legal disputes between states. The two are often confused due to both their names, and the fact both are based in The Hague.

"We are romantic believers of justice, and we want it for Palestine," he said. "No one is skipping accountability."

"We have one of the most well-documented conflicts in history thanks to human rights organisations," he also said, pointing out that the Palestine-Israel conflict is also well-documented throughout the Israeli system.

ICC accused of politicisation

Even though Israel has been accused of a range of well-documented allegations, Sourani criticised the slow pace of the ICC's work in Palestine.

He doesn't want to compare the ICC case of Palestine and Ukraine, but he does it anyway — criticising how speedy the ICC decisions were taken in the case of Ukraine and accusing the ICC prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan of being "politicised" and "selective".

"This is sending a very ugly message, not to Palestinians, but to victims."

Sourani said that it's a "big shame" that Khan refused to meet with his organisation on previous occasions and without any supplied real justification, but that he travelled to Israel in November to meet with Israeli survivors and the families of victims after the attacks on 7 October.

"You cannot be selective," he said. "We are professionals, we are first-class lawyers, we are representatives of victims, there are serious cases".

Things changed after the case of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was filed by South Africa in December. The ICC prosecutor then agreed to meet Sourani's organisation, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The case in the Hague-based court didn't look good for Khan, according to the Palestinian lawyer, because "years before he was asked to do something and he did nothing." If action had been taken earlier, "perhaps there would be some sort of deterrence," Sourani warned.

The ICJ heard the first arguments of the genocide case against Israel this month, with South Africa seeking provisional measures, including a ceasefire.

"On 11 January, South Africa made history," Sourani said.

"Our problem was finding a state or states [that wanted to launch a case at the UN's top court] … We were lucky that day that they agreed to take the case".

"South Africa means a lot. It means the people who defeated the apartheid. The people to whom Nelson Mandela said [of] South Africa would never be free until Palestinians are free."

Sourani hopes the court will grant provisional measures to stop the war in a ruling expected on Friday (26 January). "There is a need for prompt humanitarian aid," he warned.

When asked what Europe can do to bring peace to this conflict, Sourani said: "We don't want from Europe more than supporting the rule of law".

By saying that Israel has the right to defend itself, Europe "gave the political legal cover for Israel to do what is doing until now," he said. "The image of Europe [is] destroyed in the region".

"Selectivity and politicisation of international law. That's the worst," he added, arguing that Europe is "complicit" in what is happening today in Gaza and that this all "shows [some] sort of racism and colonialism."

'Right side of history'

The current situation in Gaza is "unprecedented," the 70-year-old attorney says. With most of the city destroyed due to relentless Israeli bombings, he acknowledges that "there is no Gaza anymore".

On 7 October, Hamas killed some 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped around 200 others. In response, Israel has killed over 24,000 Palestinians in Gaza and over 300 in the West Bank.

"This is the biggest manmade catastrophe," Sourani said, as he pointed out that one-third of the estimated 16,000 people injured will also probably die because there are "no medicines" and "no hospital to go to".

Meanwhile, half of Gaza's population is facing starvation, according to the UN.

About 80 percent of the population is now concentrated in Al-Mawasi and Rafah, and many of them are living on the streets and under miserable conditions, Sourani said.

"There is no safe haven [in Gaza], either in the North or the South," he warned, pointing out that injustices create rage and anger.

"What is happening in Gaza is unforgettable".

"We want an end to the suffering of people," he also said, arguing that he holds "strategic optimism" in his heart and mind that this will be possible under the two-state solution.

"We are on the right side of history".


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