Many of our followers will have heard of Gisha – the Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organisation promoting the right to freedom of movement for Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip. However, the story behind its founding isn’t widely known. Can you tell us about your background?
I founded Gisha in 2005 together with Kenneth Mann, a human rights lawyer and law professor who founded the public defender system in Israel. I had just completed a clerkship on the Israeli Supreme Court and wanted to do human rights work. Kenneth deeply believed in the value of providing legal aid, and we were drawn to Gaza, where Palestinians need travel permits from the Israeli authorities to reach their studies, reunite with family members, access medical care and get to their jobs. We began providing legal assistance, but it quickly became clear that we needed to try to change policies that prevent Gaza’s residents – now numbering two million people – from traveling and engaging in dignified, productive work. So we started publishing reports, reaching out to journalists, and developing strategies not just to help individuals but also to lift Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza.
Can you tell us more about your background and how early experiences in your life led up to Gisha’s founding?
I was born in the United States to an American-born mother and an Iraqi-born father who grew up in Israel. Although we weren’t religious, my mother sent us to a Jewish school. I was an adolescent when the First Intifada broke out, and my teachers framed the Palestinian uprising as another event in the long history of persecution of Jews. Looking back, I think that my teachers took the very real and very brutal history of anti-Semitism in Europe and uncritically superimposed it on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I didn’t think much about it at the time – we didn’t talk about current events or politics much in my house – but later, when I moved to Israel and saw the reality of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, those earlier memories came back to me. The contrast between what I had been taught, and what I saw, was a great lesson for me about the importance of seeing things for myself and drawing my own conclusions.
So, where did you study and why?
I did my first degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University. I had always been interested in public issues – including issues of justice – and I wanted to have a chance to influence public policy.
What employment did you seek when you finished your degree?
I worked as a journalist for the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press. It was the late 1990’s, during the Oslo peace process. I felt optimism about the future but also reported on settlers taking over land, discrimination in water allocation between Palestinians and Jews, and military violence. I wanted a chance not just to report on the occupation but also to try to advocate against its abuses. I went back to the United States to study law at Yale Law School.
Did you know that you wanted to return to Israel?
I wasn’t sure. As a law student, I also worked on issues of economic and racial justice in American cities, and I considered looking for a job in the United States. But I had always felt a draw to Israel/Palestine, even as a child visiting family here. I looked back at the professional choices I had made up to that point, and I realized that I had worked hard to put myself in a position where I could work as a lawyer in Israel – studying the Israeli legal system, learning to draft Israeli legal documents, securing a clerkship – I graduated from law school, took the New York bar exam, moved to Jerusalem and began clerking for Justice Edmond Levi of the Israeli Supreme Court.
What were the major lessons you learned or greatest impressions you had during this period?
I felt tremendous respect for the skills and professionalism of my fellow clerks, the lawyers working in the court and the justices. They were also, for the most part, kind and friendly. But I also felt like an outsider, not just because I was insecure about my skills but also because I thought I was alone in being horrified at the content of the cases. This was 2003-2004, when the Israeli authorities were building the separation wall in the West Bank. I remember having lunch in the cafeteria with other clerks and listening to one of them describe a hearing – it was a petition against a decision to build a wall around a Palestinian family’s house near Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, a holy site for religious Jews. In order to protect Jewish worshippers entering the occupied territory, the army decided to enclose a Palestinian house nearly entirely behind walls. When the family objected, the army explained that it would build a gate, manned by soldiers, that would be opened in the morning and evening to let family members enter and leave. The clerks were discussing the question of proportionality, as if it were reasonable to build walls around someone’s house to allow worshippers from the occupying country to make use of a religious site, if only the soldiers would keep the gate open for enough hours of the day. I didn’t dare say a word, sure that I was the only person who thought it was crazy to build walls around someone’s house, to protect the safety of settlers who had no right to be there. But then one of the clerks spoke up and challenged the others, and I felt relieved not to be alone. To this day, she is one of my closest friends. The experience persuaded me not to try to change the Israeli legal system from within, for example by working at the court or a government office, which I had considered. The gap was too wide.
Ah yes, so by moving outside of the Israeli legal system, your next step was to establish Gisha.
I wanted to fight the occupation. I wanted to help people. I wanted to try to change the injustice I saw around me. I wanted to stop the Israeli authorities from abusing power.
What were the major challenges you had? How did disappointments affect you?
In the first year of Gisha – before we started to hire staff – I found it scary to take on the military in Israeli courts with only Kenneth to back me up. As a lawyer representing Palestinians in Gaza, I was always, of course, in a weak position in court. The absolute power that the state claimed, and its erasure of Palestinian human rights and humanity – scared me. I also took the law, and myself, too seriously. Even if I got what I wanted for my client, I would worry that the case would set a negative precedent, or that we had conceded too much. It took time to realize that as a lawyer, the best I could do was to try to get a remedy for individuals, and that it didn’t really matter what was written in the court decisions, because the entire system was morally and also legally bankrupt. It was and still is hard, when someone really needs help, and we can’t help them. I remember a client, originally from Gaza, who was arrested in the West Bank and removed to Gaza. His wife and young daughters were in the West Bank and couldn’t join him in Gaza, because he couldn’t support them there. We tried for years to get permission for him to return to the West Bank. We failed.
What were some of the greatest achievements you had with Gisha?
I have always felt that our greatest achievement is helping thousands of people remove obstacles to travel. I think of the clients who were able to complete their doctoral studies, reunite with their children, or re-open their factory – after we helped them. It’s so hard to measure how much you are really changing policies or influencing public opinion, but there’s a certainty in looking at one individual and to know that her life is a tiny bit better because of something you did.
In terms of broader impact, I’m proud of our work to undo a ban on students from Gaza studying abroad. That was in May 2008, almost a year since Israel had tightened the closure of Gaza following the Hamas takeover of internal control there. We were representing many students who were trying to leave Gaza for study abroad. We became aware that the United States government was cancelling Fulbright grants to students in Gaza, because Israel wouldn’t let them reach their studies. We reached out to a New York Times reporter, who wrote a front-page story that made it right to then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was a whirlwind – within days, the policy was cancelled. Beyond the students, I think the story about Fulbright students helped change the way powerful people, including in the United States Congress, conceived of Palestinians in Gaza. It helped undermine the consensus that people in Gaza somehow didn’t deserve to have their rights respected.
What have you gone on to do since you stepped down from your role with Gisha?
I have continued working in the human rights community – with Human Rights Watch, a human rights centre at Yale Law School and now Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the advocacy group that slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi founded. I’m also doing a lot more writing and will publish my first book later this year.
When did you become interested in the movement for one democratic state in historic Palestine?
Like many Israeli human rights lawyers, I think I chose legal advocacy because it was more straightforward: I could learn the law, argue on behalf of my client, and if she got what she needed, I had done my work. The political sphere was messier and less clear. But ultimately, we need to take responsibility for political change. Just as the Oslo process was a disaster because it was a political process devoid of human rights, promoting human rights in a political vacuum will not be effective in ending oppression. The more I tried to push back against human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank, the more it became apparent that the problem was not just the occupation but rather an entire regime that is based on privileging Jews over Palestinians. As complicated as the situation is in Israel/Palestine, I didn’t see a reason why the solution couldn’t be simple: a rights-respecting democracy where everyone is equal. I know the way ahead is very, very long. There are layers of demonization and fear that need to picked away slowly. We need to reframe the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine as part of a broader movement for democratization throughout the Middle East.
What attracted you to give time to be part of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC)?
It feels urgent, even though I know we have a long way to go. I started being active in the campaign during a series of coronavirus lockdowns, when I had few or no childcare options. I scrambled to find a way to attend virtual meetings and do volunteer tasks. I really appreciated encountering like-minded people of tremendous integrity who shared the vision of a just future, devoid of ethnic or religious domination, and who were ready to do the slow, long-term work of making it a reality.
How have you found explaining this position to your fellow Israeli Jews?
So many Israeli Jews have negative views of Palestinians, fed by decades of separation and fearmongering by the Israeli government. Many Israeli Jews believe that they won’t be safe unless they are part of a Jewish-dominated political entity. I try to meet people where they are. So if someone opposes a single democratic state because they fear Palestinians, I try to engage their fears, with respect and curiosity, rather than try to persuade them to support my political vision, because that’s not where they are.
Do you feel that the demonstrations against Netanyahu’s policies in governing Israel, especially during Covid-19, has made civil society more open to change in working for a more just and inclusive democratic society?
I think that Netanyahu’s policies are making it harder for liberal Zionists to continue to support ethnic partition. I know many Israelis who have struggled with the so-called balance between Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. The further the Israeli government slides away from democracy, the harder it is to ignore that a state that claims to be democratic cannot privilege one ethnic group over another. So there is a tiny sliver of Israeli society who would be more open to working for democracy and inclusion. But many people are now supporting right wing leader Naftali Bennet, who supports annexing the West Bank, because he seems to have better policy proposals for managing COVID-19.
As there still is a long way to go with Israeli society, what strategies are you working on as you progress the work of the ODSC?
I think we are struggling with organization – how to mobilize people, how to communicate and coordinate – especially with pandemic-related restrictions on meeting in person. We would like to transform the campaign into a movement, but we need to build more capacity.
What is the final message that you would like to leave with those who campaign for a just and sustainable solution for those who live in historic Palestine?
This is a marathon, not a sprint. If we are smart, we will create our objectives and strategies based on where we are now, even if it’s not as far along as we would like to be. We need to be patient but also doggedly tenacious.
Sari Bashi’s book, ‘Maqlouba’, is a love story about the occupation. It will be published in Hebrew by an Israeli publishing house called Asia in 2021. Hopefully, it will then be translated into English.