1. I understand that you are part of the Nuseibah clan, one of the oldest Muslim families in Palestine. Can you tell us about your family background?
It is widely believed that the Nuseibah family has lived in Jerusalem since the 7th century except for the period when Jerusalem was occupied by the European Crusade Campaigns. Throughout this history, our family has served Jerusalem and enjoyed living in it. One of the tasks that the family is famous for is that it has been charged with the daily opening and closing the Church of Holy Sepulchre, arguably the world’s most important church, for over a millennium. This is an attempt to help keep the peace among the different Christian sects represented therein.
During the Nakba, most of the Nuseibah family members were made refugees, and most of them have been denied the right to return to Palestine. Some had houses in other parts of the West Bank and have been denied their right to enter and live in Jerusalem since Israel, the occupying power, assigned them the status of “West Bank resident” which greatly restricts the right of its holder to enter Jerusalem.
In addition, during the Nakba Israel destroyed a house in East Jerusalem owned by my grandfather and after the occupation of 1967, confiscated the land on which it was built. However, my father and his family moved to another house nearby where he grew up. I was raised in that same house and it is where I am currently living.
2. Who were your role models during your youth?
In my youth I was influenced by several people. My late father, Zaki Nuseibah, who was a historian, journalist, and a teacher, passed part of his character to me, including an immense love of Jerusalem and the belief that justice will eventually prevail. He lived a simple life, away from direct political activism, focusing his energy on his rich research, writing and translation. He was a walking encyclopaedia especially on Jerusalem. His political awareness was sharp, and he was immune to believing the lies of political propaganda. I also learned from my late uncle Nahedh Rayyes, who served in the Palestinian revolution in Palestine and in the Diaspora and who returned to his home city, Gaza, as soon as he could. During his life he served as a judge, legislative council member and minister of justice. He was a role model in his fight against corruption, his belief in justice and his hardworking character. I also had the privilege to know, work with and learn from Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian philosopher and academic who headed Al-Quds University for more than two decades, during which he restlessly worked on unifying and expanding the university across both sides of the Israeli apartheid wall in Jerusalem, against all odds and obstacles. He also had an active role in political struggle serving Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine. I observed his open mind, intellectuality and his use of every opportunity to develop his community and serve its individuals and institutions. His genuine motivation has always inspired me. In addition, I leaned from Ata Qeimari, a Palestinian journalist and teacher who served several years of his youth in prison and then continued to contribute to justice and freedom through his active research, translation and writing. He was my English teacher in school for one year, but I continue to learn from his wisdom until today. He has been a role model as a man who was never defeated and continues to serve his community using the written word and by generously giving his time and advise to those who want to learn through his company.
I also feel influenced by the strength and dedication of famous strugglers for freedom, equality, and justice in the world such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and many others. I respect those who struggle and insist on doing the right thing even if they might not see the result of their struggle in their lifetime.
3. Why did you decide to study law?
When I finished high school, I knew that I wanted to work in a field that would serve Palestine in general and Jerusalem more specifically. I thought studying law was the best option because it entails more professional experience in human rights and international law. During my undergraduate studies at Al-Quds University, the second Palestinian Intifada broke out. Throughout this period, Israel maximized its movement restrictions and violence against Palestinian cities, towns, and individuals. It was during this period that Israel erected the wall in Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied territory that now separates Palestinian communities from each other. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I headed to the US to pursue my LLM at the American University in Washington DC. A few years later, I moved to the UK to pursue my PhD at the University of Westminster in London. My PhD studies focused on how the framework of Transitional Justice offers remedies to victims of human rights violations in the aftermath of a conflict or an authoritarian regime.
I have never doubted for one minute in my life that my goal was to return to Jerusalem and work there using the knowledge and skills that I acquired during my academic and professional journey.
4. When you returned to Jerusalem, did you have ideas about what you wanted to impart to young Palestinians that you would be able to influence?
During my undergraduate years studying at Al-Quds University, I was active in volunteer work that aimed to help my community, including one attempt to help people with legal advice. However, that did not work well because it lacked professional supervision.
During my LLM studies in the US, I was exposed to the concept of clinical legal education whereby students are trained and supervised by the Faculty of Law enabling them to provide pro-bono legal aid to the disadvantaged in their community. While this was a prominent model in the US, this type of program did not exist in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world. But remembering my former experience, I knew that using this model would be extremely helpful in Palestine. I envisioned providing the community with trained volunteers willing to serve their community under the supervision of professionals from the Faculty of Law. Simultaneously, it boosts the skills of the students from that Faculty through practical training.
Once I returned to Palestine, I communicated with the Dean of the Faculty of Law. I wrote a proposal which was accepted and resulted in building the first Clinical Legal Education Program in the Arab world: Al-Quds Human Rights Clinic.
This clinic has been working on two programs since its establishment in 2006. First, it has been documenting human rights law and international humanitarian law violations in the occupied territory, mainly in the south-eastern suburbs of Jerusalem. Secondly, it has been providing pro-bono legal aid to Palestinians in Jerusalem to help them against the discriminatory Israeli legal system that deprives them of their most basic rights, including the right to merely live in their city.
5. What inspired you to get involved in the Community Action Center in Jerusalem?
After I earned my PhD degree in 2013, the Administration of Al-Qud’s University asked me to head another university centre that is based in Jerusalem’s Old City which had been providing legal aid to Palestinians since 1999. This centre started by giving simple legal advice on social welfare issues but developed over time to provide legal aid against home demolition, residency revocation as well as restrictions of family unification and child registration within Jerusalem. In 2016, we also founded an international advocacy unit, which aims at seeking international pressure to stop human rights violations in Jerusalem.
6. What is your vision for Jerusalem? Do you believe that it is possible for those who live there amongst Muslims, Jews, and Christians to co-exist?
My vision for Jerusalem is informed by my drive towards justice, equality, and peace. It is also inspired by the role played by my family in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is shared by several Christian sects, who have historically competed for their roles there. This led to their agreement to ask a Muslim family to open and close the church, while they share the spaces inside and rotate their service of the Tomb area. Their competition stems from their love for the church, but over the years, they learned to share it.
I see that Jerusalem is a city loved by people of faith from multiple religions and sects. It cannot be imagined that one religious group could be allowed to expel the other. However, this threat has been the case because of the establishment of a Jewish state that restricts rights of non-Jews.
I do believe that all religions can co-exist in Jerusalem and everywhere else around the world. But this can only be doable when justice is provided for everyone.
7. Have you always wanted to see one democratic state in historic Palestine rather than a two-state solution?
The first decade of my life was in the 1980s, when I learned that Palestine was occupied. I witnessed the major Palestinian revolt known as the Intifada which was brutally but unsuccessfully suppressed by Israel. In my second decade, it was widely believed (although many in my circles did not agree) that a peace process was going to bring about peace and permanent change based on international legal principles. In my third decade, when I was an Al Quds University student between 2000 and 2004, I witnessed the collapse of the Oslo framework for peace. I learned that even if it worked, it would not serve justice and nor be based on international law or human rights frameworks, but rather it would be grounded in the imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis. From then on, I’ve believed that this was not the right track for peace or justice. Since that time, the more I read, witnessed events, and learned, my belief has been strengthened that only through one democratic state can justice be served.
Throughout my life, I refrained from joining any political party or movement because I never wanted to be bound in my thoughts to any political agendas. I also felt that there is very little space for change within the current political dynamics. However, I decided to join the One Democratic State Campaign because it represents the principles in which I believe and involves respected figures including human rights advocates, historians, and politicians. This campaign promotes equality and all other human rights, including the return of the Palestine refugees and displaced persons. Hence, it only seemed reasonable to join this voice.
8. Do you have any final thoughts to leave with internationals who are involved in campaigns on behalf of Palestinians?
Yes. I call upon internationals who are involved in campaigns for Palestine to organize their campaigns based on our shared universal principles of human rights. Freedom in Palestine does not need pro Palestinians but pro humans. When you think about the right decision to make, compare the situation in Palestine with any other abstract situation and select the right choice accordingly.