Palestinian Law Students Get Practical Experience in Human Rights Work
The Al-Quds Human Rights Clinic is training the next generation of lawyers to confront the numerous and complex legal issues that arise for Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the occupied territories.
The clinic is an independent unit of Al-Quds University and is located on its campus in the West Bank town of Abu Dis, which is separated from Jerusalem by the Israeli West Bank barrier. The town and campus are the site of frequent raids, the most recent of which was on February 12 of this year, in which Israeli forces surrounded the university and clashed with students, causing 17 to suffer tear gas inhalation injuries.
Against this backdrop, Munir Nuseibah and students at the Human Rights Clinic are working to ensure Palestinians have access to legal representation through two core services the clinic provides: the documentation and reporting of human rights violations, and advocacy campaigns to raise awareness.
Nuseibah, a law professor and human rights lawyer, is a co-founder of the clinic, which was established in 2006 and is believed to be the first accredited clinical legal education program of its kind in the Arab world.
Through the clinic, students get both theoretical and practical training and earn credit for the work they do under the supervision of the law school. Alumni and interns have gone on to work in both local and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
Nuseibah also heads the Al-Quds Community Action Center, established by Al-Quds University in 1999, which provides pro bono legal assistance to Palestinians who need help on issues like protecting their residency status and claiming their rights of access to education and health-care services.
A ‘Turning Point’
Marah Nader Risheq, who was a student at the Human Rights Clinic from 2017 to 2018, describes the legal program as a turning point in her academic career.
“As students at the Law Faculty, our education was mostly theory-based. When we began the clinic, however, we had the opportunity to interact with others in the community and learn while we supported them.”
Risheq says the program equipped her with both practical skills—including documentation, reporting, research, and presentation—and knowledge.
“We learned how difficult it is to effect change and about the limitations of the main bodies responsible for ensuring respect for human rights, like the U.N. I found that learning about these limitations, as well as other experiences like those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, was inspirational in that it showed us that change is only achieved through concerted and united efforts.
Defending Palestinians’ Rights
Students from the clinic also sometimes assist lawyers with the Al-Quds Community Action Center, acquiring practical knowledge of the human rights violations Palestinians contend with on a daily basis and their position in the context of international law.
Among the most important issues the center deals with are problems arising from the precarious residency status of Palestinians living in Israel.
“When East Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, Israel annexed the territory, applied Israeli law, and considered Palestinians living there as permanent residents, not citizens,” says Nuseibah. “This made it easier, as time went by, to revoke residency status from Palestinians, which meant removing the right to live in the city, as well as added restrictions on child registration.”
Preventing parents from registering children as residents has left many children without any legal status, unable to avail themselves of rights like the freedom to travel outside the city, or of services like education, health care, and social welfare.
“If they reach adulthood and are still not registered,” explains Nuseibah, “they will effectively have no status. Without an ID card, they cannot open a bank account or work. So we help with child registration according to the existing Israeli framework.”
Residency issues can also lead to family separations and displacement. Under a 2003 law, Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza or other countries who marry spouses in Jerusalem or Israel are prevented from acquiring permanent status or citizenship. They can obtain only a temporary permit that has to be renewed annually.
“Because of this,” explains Nuseibah, “there are many families who are facing difficulty living under the same roof.”
“They are essentially treated like unwanted immigrants who can never get a permanent status,” he adds. “They are all dependent on the renewal of the permit.”
The center often comes up against cases that reveal the systemic obstacles preventing Palestinians from claiming their rights.
Nuseibah tells the story of a man whose applications for family unification with his wife and registration for his child were rejected because the Ministry of the Interior had erroneously concluded that they were not living in Jerusalem. The family had temporarily stayed in Nablus, where his wife was from. Under Israeli law, extended stays outside Jerusalem, whether for medical treatment or studies, can mean the loss of residency, even for permanent residents of the city. Once lawyers at the center requested a hearing, the man’s child was registered and his wife’s family unification application was processed.
“This is one of our success stories,” says Nuseibah. “It is not even just a case of simple misunderstanding, though. The occupation authorities have this method of trying to find any way to deny people their rights.”
Residency revocation can have devastating repercussions. The center is trying to help one Palestinian woman, now in her 60s, who has been trying to reclaim her status as a permanent resident of Jerusalem for more than 20 years.
Even though she was born and raised in Jerusalem, her residency status was revoked after she visited Gaza.
“Israel considered that by going to Gaza, she had left Israel and lived abroad, which is sufficient reason to revoke her status,” says Nuseibah.
She is now living in Jerusalem without proper documentation. That means she is not part of the social welfare system and cannot access basic services, like medical care.
The center only recently started working on her case. “As of yet, we do not have an answer,” Nuseibah said.
Other cases the center is working on involve Palestinians who have lost residency status or even their homes under Israeli policies that punish whole families when one member is convicted of a crime.
“The state can decide to demolish the house of an entire family because one of the members breached their security laws,” Nuseibah said. “They can do this every time they identify a security threat by saying that they are deterring future potential terrorists.”
More Advocacy Efforts
Despite impediments and uncertainty, Nuseibah and his colleagues are pressing forward. They’ve started and international advocacy program that works through institutions, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, to ask states to pressure Israel to stop its violations of human rights.
Nuseibah has also launched the website Al-Marje, which provides translations of Israeli law and court decisions from Hebrew to Arabic in order to make them more accessible.
“We are trying to help people understand the law,” Nuseibah says, “and to challenge the system from within.”
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, praises the work of the Human Rights Clinic: “The clinical model for human rights education is an incredibly valuable way for students to get practical experience in human rights work,” he said. “The clinic has really been at the front lines of doing rights-based documentation and advocacy on human rights issues in Jerusalem. It offers students the unique opportunity to ground their education in practical experience that can help them become better advocates.”