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'Do something practical': New Palestinian justice centre launched in UK

British MPs, lawyers and academics to coordinate global legal work protecting Palestinian rights
A Palestinian protests against Israeli settlements
A Palestinian protests against Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in February 2020 (Reuters)

The founders of a new Palestinian legal centre based in the UK say they will use the law where politics has failed to bring justice and accountability for Palestinians.

The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), which launched in London on Wednesday, brings together lawyers, UK politicians and academics who will coordinate legal work in jurisdictions around the world to protect Palestinian rights.

Just weeks after Israel's latest assault on Gaza, the centre opens at a time when there are increasing calls for investigations into alleged Israeli war crimes and growing public awareness of the realities of the occupation.

But the idea for its work came more than a decade ago, during an earlier Israeli assault on Gaza - the three-week Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, during which 1,400 Palestinians were killed.

Tayab Ali, a partner at the UK law firm Bindmans and the ICJP co-director, said Palestinians and their supporters watched the conflict from Britain, wondering what, if anything, they could do.

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The answer came a year later when Ali and other lawyers, acting on behalf of Palestinians harmed during the offensive, successfully applied to a British court for an arrest warrant under universal jurisdiction laws for Israel's former foreign minister Tzipi Livni over alleged war crimes. 

Livni, who had been scheduled to speak in London, evaded arrest, but an idea was born: if states on their own wouldn't hold alleged war criminals to account, maybe using law adeptly to force their hand was the solution.

'All the activity in parliament frankly has achieved very, very little apart from making noise'

- Conservative MP Crispin Blunt

"The police wouldn't do it. The British government wouldn't do it. And the American government wouldn't do it. It is their job to prosecute suspected war criminals," said Ali. "So when they failed, it was left to the Palestinian victims to find lawyers in Britain and ask for justice themselves.

"It shouldn't be the victim's job to hold the perpetrator of their crimes accountable, but if the people that should be doing this fail, then the victims have no choice."

Along with Ali, the centre, a private, non-profit that has been able to launch with funding from Palestinians living in the diaspora, will be directed by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who told MEE that he planned to be much more than a patron.

"Over 30 years now, I've been engaged sympathetically on the side of the Palestinians in the sense of addressing the underlying cause as I see it of permanent instability in the Middle East. Nearly 25 of those years spent in parliament," he said.

"All the activity in parliament frankly has achieved very, very little apart from making noise and I think I'd much rather do something practical which can be done under the law."

The centre's first case was filing a legal complaint last month with Facebook on behalf of a Palestinian data rights group, two news agencies and a translator who say the social media giant censored their posts and, in some cases, shut down their accounts. 

Ali said the centre will soon lodge complaints with the International Criminal Court on behalf of property owners in the occupied Palestinian territories who have had their property stolen by Israeli settlers or the state of Israel itself.

It will also be investigating UK organisations that have misused their charitable status in order to support crimes against humanity in Israel, as well as the alleged laundering of money in the UK which has come from illegal activity.

'An extraordinary situation'

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, several members of the ICJP's advisory board expressed optimism about the turning tide of understanding among western publics and the foreign policy community as to what Palestinians face on a daily basis.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the US-based Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the type of legal work undertaken by the new centre "has been underway for many decades".

"But there is an increasing recognition and understanding that the solution for the ongoing military occupation and apartheid in Israel will depend on a legal framework that centres on equal rights for all of the people under Israeli sovereignty," she said. "Not fake peace processes, and not an illusory unicorn of a two-state solution.

"When Carnegie or Rand put forth analysis and recommendations that say the US and the UK should end military support to Israel and should approach the issue of resolving conflict from a perspective of equal rights... when that language even seeps into the words of President Biden and Secretary Blinken... we know that the discourse is changing."

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the first UK MP of Palestinian descent and another ICJP board member, said she had been struck by the significant shift in public perception in recent months "in a helpful way to the cause".

Moran's family lived in Jerusalem for seven generations until they left in 1946 for what they thought would be a week after the bombing of the King David Hotel. They found they could never return, "like so many families", she said.

"Whilst I've never hid the fact that I was a Palestinian, it was not really something that I thought the great people of Oxford West and Abingdon cared as much about as, say, education policy," she said.

"It wasn't really something that I spoke about in the early part of my career, but now that I've found my feet a bit, I think it would be utterly wrong for me not to get involved in a way that's very meaningful to try to shift the dial on what I think is the biggest unresolved issue in the Middle East."

Moran said the current British government seemed to want to use the Palestinian-Israel conflict to its own domestic ends, a position she said she doesn't think actually reflects the private thinking of many Conservative MPs.

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As a board member, she said she would try to connect with MPs who "perhaps don't fully understand what that picture is like on the ground".

John Dugard, a renowned international law professor and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory who is also an ICJP board member, called on the UK-based organisation to compel Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government to support the ICC's investigation into possible war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who will retire in June, announced the opening of the investigation in March. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the inquiry.

"You might say that the question of the illegality of settlements is so obvious that the ICC should already have prosecuted persons for this crime," Dugard said.

"You don't need a rocket scientist to inform you that there are some 700,000 settlers in some 200 settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories, nor do you need a rocket scientist to tell you who is responsible for this enterprise."

So why, he asked, hasn't the ICC initiated a prosecution? "The answer is really clear," he said. "Member states of the ICC - and non-member states such as the US and Israel - have brought pressure to bear upon the prosecutor not to investigate."

Along with the US and Israel, he said that several former British states - Canada and Australia - and the UK are "equally to blame". He specifically pointed to an April letter sent by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the Conservative Friends of Israel in which he said he was opposed to the ICC's investigation.

"This is really an extraordinary situation where the PM of a country which has nominated three important offices of the ICC opposes the investigation," he said.

"I think its incumbent upon the British PM to change his attitude completely. If he won't, I think [British Foreign Secretary] Dominic Raab should declare that the British government doesn't agree with him."

He added: "I do believe that an organisation that is based in the UK should use every endeavour not only to persuade, but to compel the British government to change its attitude and to announce very clearly that it is neutral on this position."

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