Raji Sourani, Gazan lawyer with South Africa’s delegation at The Hague: ‘The law of the jungle applied by Israel is a two-way street, and anger at the West is growing’

The Palestinian human rights advocate, who survived an Israeli air strike on his home, is confident the U.N. court will rule in favor of ending military operations in the Strip, and urges Europe to call for ‘an end to the genocide’

Raji Sourani, Palestinian lawyer and human rights defender
Palestinian lawyer and human rights defender Raji Sourani during an interview with EL PAÍS on January 20, 2024 in Madrid.Beatriz Lecumberri

Raji Sourani (Gaza, 1953) left the Strip over a month ago when his house was bombed — but his mind and heart are still there. “I never wanted to leave, but I had no choice. They would have killed me,” he repeats, as though needing to justify the decision. Sourani, who spoke with EL PAÍS upon his recent arrival to Madrid, is a lawyer and the founder and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which has worked since 1995 to document the impacts of the Israeli occupation. He is also a member of the South African delegation that has accused Israel of committing “genocidal acts” before the U.N. International Court of Justice (ICJ) and has requested the implementation of precautionary measures to halt the ongoing military offensive in Gaza.

Israeli attacks have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza since the Islamist movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, carried out an unprecedented assault on Israeli territory, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 200 others.

Despite his more than 40 years of experience, Sourani still cries when he talks about the thousands of wounded who will die if they don’t receive adequate medical attention, or the corpses “eaten by dogs in the ruins of Gaza,” or the families sleeping in the streets with no food to feed their children. He’s exhausted, but he can’t stop. After travelling to The Hague he went to Brussels, and from Madrid he will travel to Dublin, aware that time is running out. Running out, he says, for the Gazans who will eventually have no choice but to make a desperate attempt to force entry into Egypt, and for the West, which risks paying “a very high price” for its inaction.

Question. What’s your reading of what happened at The Hague on January 11?

Answer. South Africa made history. A country that bears immense moral and legal weight, as the very embodiment of resistance to apartheid, accused Israel of genocidal acts before the ICJ, the most important court in the world, by invoking a convention created precisely to prevent another Holocaust. This is historic. The legal team presented a masterful overview of the facts, which are incontestable, as well as Israel’s genocidal intentions in committing them, which were also proved beyond any doubt. They were able to do this because the Israelis are arrogant and believe they’re above international law, which led officials, including the president, the prime minister and others, to openly say that they were going to cleanse Gaza, that they were going to deprive us of water, food, electricity and fuel, that there are no innocent people in Gaza, that we’re all animals. The evidence is irrefutable.

Q. You participated as a member of the legal team, but you are also a witness.

A. Yes, that’s right. The South African lawyers contacted me because we’re colleagues, because they know my work and the work of the PCHR. And because they needed us, given our ties with Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh. Ireland, Palestine and South Africa speak the same language, we have the same spirit.

Q. Are you hopeful about the court’s decision? Is there a risk it might be influenced by political interests?

A. No one can question the integrity of the judges in The Hague. They are committed professionals with a ton of experience, and they’re carefully selected. This case is not some farce, it’s a real case, and a very well-founded one. I’ve been practicing law for 43 years and I can say with confidence that the case presented is airtight. I think that the court will rule, at the most, on the precautionary measures we’ve requested: ending the aggression and allowing entry of humanitarian aid. [The ICJ’s ruling on precautionary measures is expected this Friday]. A decision on the merits of the case, on the accusation of acts of genocide, may take one or two years, at least.

Q. But even with that decision pending, you don’t have any qualms about using the word genocide.

A. We say it loud and clear: this is a genocide. And if people went to Gaza, they would see for themselves that it goes even beyond that, because of the way people are killed, the way everything is being destroyed, how people are being pushed to the limit. Gazans die many times a day in different ways. No one in Gaza knows if they’ll still be alive in an hour. I’ve witnessed several wars and documented them, but I never imagined something like this. I never imagined there could exist, in the minds of the Israelis, the intention to carry out even 5% of what I’ve seen happen in Gaza since October 7.

Q. What is your last memory from Gaza?

A. My broken heart as I fled south with only the clothes on my back. I never wanted to leave, and to this day I blame myself for leaving. The night my house was bombed, I looked into my wife’s eyes and said to myself: “It’s happening. These are our last hours.” And you feel useless, you can’t do anything and you see it all fading away. They bombed the area for over two hours until a bomb hit our house. I still don’t know how we got out. We fled with our passports and nothing else. I had no choice. I’m sure I would have been killed. I came back two days later just to see what my house looked like, and it’s clear that it was intentional. During these past 100 days and more of war, Israel has carried out strikes against very precise targets. Eventually I was able to cross the border to Egypt thanks to the help of some friends, both inside and outside of Gaza. They convinced me that I was more useful alive.

Q. Unlike in 2006, 2008 or 2014, this time neither you, nor the majority of people in Gaza, have a home to return to.

A. There are no houses, there are no streets... This is all very deliberate. But people will come back, even if it’s to tents. And so will I. I think 70 to 80 percent of the people in the Strip will want to go back. But if Gazans don’t come out on the other side of this war with justice and dignity, the West will pay a very high price. The law of the jungle applied by Israel is a two-way street, and anger at the West is growing. That’s why this has to stop now. Because the international community’s complicity with Israel will come with a cost. One cannot eternally render the executioner as victim and vice versa.

Q. But the shelling is relentless, even in Rafah, in the south, where the vast majority of Gaza’s population has been displaced on Israel’s orders.

A. Every day, 300 to 700 people die in the Gaza Strip. Israel can easily make that number jump to 3,000 to 5,000, and then people who are in Rafah will start jumping the border and Egypt won’t shoot them, because they can’t shoot them. Why hasn’t this happened yet? Because we’re resilient people. Israel has not succeeded, for example, in displacing the entire population to the south, as it originally intended. There are still tens of thousands of people in the north. And it’s also suffering significant military losses.

Q. Last Friday, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, accused Israel of having financed Hamas for years in an effort to undermine Palestine.

A. The EU and the U.S. have the blood of Palestinians in Gaza on their hands. They have given Israel full political support, backed Israel with vetoes against a ceasefire, and have bought the line that this all started on October 7, when really it started 75 years ago. They also backed Israel’s position that it has the right to defend itself. Since when does an occupying belligerent power have that right? These countries are witnessing war crimes, are witnessing a genocide happen in real time, and are choosing to ignore it? Support a ceasefire now! Sanction Israel. Europe has to take a clear position and call for this genocide to stop. They’re fully capable of it.

Q. And this will be your message to the Spanish officials you plan to meet with?

A. It seems like what Europe was saying is: “Palestinian pain doesn’t matter; we don’t care about their suffering.” But Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg have said no, this is not the case. When Pedro Sánchez and the Prime Minister of Belgian went to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, they sent a strong message. We need more governments to wake up, we need to go further and secure a ceasefire. We’re here in Madrid, speaking in comfort; meanwhile, people are going without food and water in Gaza. Yesterday, several thousand people sheltering in schools were forced to flee. Where are they now? We may be a resilient people, but everyone has a limit.

Q. Does Israel’s bombing have any effect on support for Hamas in Gaza?

A. I don’t care about Hamas. And neither do the people. On the streets of Rafah, parents are just trying to protect and feed their children. Israel is pressuring civilians, trying to convince them that Hamas is to blame for all this, for the October 7 attacks, and it’s perfectly understandable that there are Palestinians who feel that way. But the Israeli offensive has made it clear that Hamas isn’t just some small gang of thugs. If it were, this would all have been over in two weeks.

Q. While the world is focused on Gaza, the situation in the West Bank is also worsening.

A. When we use the term genocide, we’re not just talking about Gaza — it applies to the West Bank and Jerusalem as well. Genocide doesn’t just mean killing someone, it means forcing them to lose their identity. To make Palestinians literally cease to exist. Israel is carrying out raids and offensives in various parts of the West Bank, where there are also dozens of dead. And these attacks are not just against Hamas. There, too, the ground is slowly being prepared for mass displacement. We can’t take it anymore. We have a right to live in peace, to have a job, to educate our children… It’s not possible to be constantly terrorized with the threat of a new war, to feel that we’re hanging on by a thread and that we’re alive almost as if by accident.

Translated by Max Granger.

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