The reality of life in the Gaza
Strip is hard to convey. Individuals throughout the world have seen the
pictures and the images: shootings and maiming, air strikes and artillery
shelling, and the unforgettably horrific sight of white phosphorous raining
down over Gaza city. However, beneath these images lies a complex reality. The
civilians of Gaza have lived under occupation for over 40 years. They have been
collectively punished since 15 June 2007, cut off from the outside world for
1,285 consecutive days. (15 june – 20 december) Systematic violations of
international human rights law have created abject poverty, and reduced
approximately 1.7 million people to ‘beneficiaries’ of international aid,
forced into dependency as the result of a human-made, and completely
preventable, humanitarian crisis.

 

International human rights law and
international humanitarian law offer necessary protections to every individual
on the basis of their shared humanity. However, if they are to have meaning,
these laws must be enforced. This is a core component: in the event of a
violation, accountability and judicial remedy are the essential consequences.
Customary international law, binding on all States, recognises that this
accountability should take the form of criminal accountability, through
investigations and prosecutions, and civil accountability, through the payment
of compensation.

 

It is this right to compensation
that the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) is fighting for today. In
the current climate, given the bias inherent in the Israeli judicial system,
compensation is one of the only hopes for achieving some form of justice.
Importantly, this compensation – although insignificant in comparison to the
loss suffered – is essential for victims as they attempt to rebuild their lives
and their homes.

 

This right is being comprehensively
denied by the Israeli authorities.

 

Israel imposes a 2 year statute of
limitation on the submission of civil complaints. Given the scale of violations
committed in the context of the 27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009 offensive on
the Gaza Strip alone (Operation Cast Lead), this places an often insurmountable
burden on the legal representatives of the victims. Until the second intifada, the statue of limitations was
7 years.

 

Second, and in a requirement that
places the final nail in the coffin with respect to the right to a remedy, the
court imposes an insurance (or guarantee) fee on each claimant, before a case
can proceed. There is no fixed amount for this insurance fee, it is set at the
discretion of the court. However, it represents a significant financial hurdle,
typically in excess of 10,000 shekels, and often much more. In one case brought
by PCHR, the claimants were asked to pay 20,000 shekels for each of the five
deaths reported. This raises the bizarre, but all too real, scenario whereby
the greater the violation, the greater the financial hurdle. Palestinian
victims are simply unable to raise this money, and the case is closed firmly in
their faces. This insurance fee is completely discretionary. It is not
mandatory. In practice, it is always applied to Palestinian claimants.

 

 

On top of this is the reality of the
closure. PCHR’s lawyers cannot travel to Israel to represent our clients, and
we are forced to hire lawyers in Israel. However, these lawyers cannot come to
Gaza to meet the clients, and the clients cannot go to Israel to meet them. In
addition, since June 2007, the Israeli military has refused permission to
Palestinians involved in civil cases to appear in court, despite the issuance
of a court order. This results in the effective dismissal of the cases, and the
absolute denial of justice.

 

PCHR represents over 1,000 victims
of Operation Cast Lead. The approximately 500 cases prepared on their behalf
constitute the overwhelming majority of cases prepared following Operation Cast
Lead. These individuals, who have suffered virtually the entire spectrum of
rights violations – from illegal killing and injury, to the illegal destruction
of their homes and workplaces – have the right to justice. They deserve to be
heard by a court.

 

Since March 2009, when the last
notice to the Ministry of Defence was submitted, we have been systematically
ignored. Despite repeated requests, PCHR has only received interlocutory
responses – with no information – with respect to 23 cases.

 

On 20 December, PCHR and attorney
Michael Sfard, are filing a petition before the Israeli High Court of Justice,
demanding that these victims rights to a judicial remedy be upheld. Our request
is simple, that the statute of limitations be delayed, that the victims of
Operation Cast Lead are at least afforded the opportunity to take their case to
court.

 

If the court rejects this position,
it will be closing the door to justice on all the victims of Operation Cast
Lead.

 

The rule of law is something we
respect and hold dear. But it is a self evident truth that in order to be
relevant, the law must be enforced. The absence of justice has resulted in the
dire situation we face today, in the systematic violation of fundamental human
rights, and the closure of the Gaza Strip. Without justice, what is there to
prevent what happened in Gaza from happening again?

 

Behind the closed doors of the Gaza
Strip, it is our shared humanity that continues to link us to the outside
world. We demand that our human rights be respected and protected. We demand
that the international community stay silent no longer, that it exerts its
influence in the name of fundamental freedoms and justice.

 

Raji
Sourani is the Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. He is the
recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for human rights, and was twice names
as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. He is currently a
vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Paris
and is on the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists
(ICJ) Geneva.