Raji Sourani is Gaza's foremost human rights lawyer, and the founder and director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and former director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. In the 1980s, Sourani was widely recognized for his effective defense of Palestinians before the Israeli military courts. In connection with his defense work, Sourani was four times held in detention by the Israelis, beaten and subjected to mental and physical abuse. Sourani has represented Palestinians facing deportation and closely monitored detention and prison conditions. Reaching out to Israeli human rights organizations, he formed links regarded with suspicion by fellow Palestinians but which proved to be effective in the pursuit of human rights. He was detained by the Palestinian Authority in 1995, following statements critical of their establishment of a state security court. Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles by the Government of Israel and the PLO, and the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule, Sourani has advocated strict adherence to international standards for the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. And despite the danger of repercussions, he is an outspoken critic of human rights violations committed by both sides. In his bold and principled stance, Sourani has won wide respect, and has been recognized by numerous international organizations for his courageous work.
"Of course, I have to talk about torture. Under international law, torture is absolutely illegal, and we cannot be selective. We have to have one standard for all people, Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of race or religion. But for decades the Israeli General Security Service has been torturing Palestinian detainees with impunity. Recently, a report released by the Israeli Special Controller confirmed what we have been asserting to the world community for years torture has been widely and systematically used by Israeli interrogators against Palestinian detainees.
"After twenty years of struggle against torture, we Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations and lawyers received a decision from the Israeli High Court of Justice in September 1999, finally recognizing that torture is systematically practiced. The Court, however, went on to find that the reason torture is illegal in Israel is simply because there is no law to legalize it. The Court, scandalously, went as far as to suggest that if the government of Israel should decide that they wanted to allow the use of torture, they should pass a law to that effect.
"The Palestinian people are impatient to have their state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, a combined area that composes only a scant 18 percent of historical Palestine. Even so, the current Israeli government has gone even further and has clearly stated its intentions: the complete annexation of East Jerusalem, no return to the 1967 borders, no right of return for refugees, and the continuing existence of Israeli settlements. Clearly this does not meet the minimum level of Palestinian aspirations. This has become a situation leading nowhere.
"It must be stressed that in the past six years, the Israeli occupation, in its legal and physical form, has remained a very real part of our daily lives. The world may think that peace is on the way here, but the reality on the ground is very different. I can assure you that never before has the overall human rights situation deteriorated as dramatically. The Gaza Strip has a total area of around 165 square kilometers, of which Israel continues to control around 42 percent. Twenty Israeli settlements have been established in the Gaza Strip, housing some five thousand settlers. In the remaining 58 percent of the Strip, 1.2 million Palestinians live in some of the most cramped conditions in the world.
"In the year 2000, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa behind us, this situation cannot be tolerated. In fact, if the situation continues it will inevitably lead to a renewed cycle of bloodshed and violence. We observe with deep disappointment that the fruits on the ground of the Oslo process could not be further from the stated intention of building confidence between the parties and resolving a final agreement for a just and lasting peace in the region. We also affirm our belief that there can be no possibility of real, just, and lasting peace without respect for human rights.
"The Oslo Accords were signed between the government of Israel and the PLO, the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, expressing their aspirations and having led their legitimate resistance against the occupation. We, the Palestinian human rights community, believed from the very beginning that it was essential to both our self-respect as a people, and for the ultimate achievement of our goal of a democratic state, that the practices of the Palestinian Authority, in the very limited areas in which it was granted jurisdiction under the Oslo Accords, be closely monitored. We were, from the outset, committed to the development of a society that would respect the rule of law, democratic principles, and human rights.
"We believe that the particular experiences of the Palestinian people, and the consequent development of a strong Palestinian civil society, can enable us to develop a unique state in the region namely, a truly democratic state. We still hope to succeed in this goal, and many Palestinians remain steadfast in working towards this end.
"As local human rights organizations, we thought that the struggle for the development of this democratic society and the strengthening of Palestinian civil society would be easier than the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Now we see we were wrong; it is a deeply complex process and much more difficult than we imagined. We are deeply concerned by certain practices of the Palestinian Authority which violate human rights standards, including restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly, undermining the independence of the judiciary, and the establishment of state security courts.
Without in any way offering this as an excuse for those practices, we nevertheless deem it necessary to express our concern at the role played by both the Israeli and American administrations in promoting these violations of human rights by the Palestinian Authority.
"This role is particularly perplexing since the stated strategic interest of both these parties is real and lasting peace in the region. The development of a genuinely democratic system in the Palestinian Territories not only promotes the necessary stability for such peace, but is in fact an essential prerequisite for any kind of true peace. For fifty years Israel has complained that it should not be expected to make peace with dictators. This only makes Israeli and American obstacles to the development of a genuine democratic society in the Palestinian Territories all the more perplexing, while raising serious questions as to their genuine intentions."