Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

On a crisp November day in 1984, I first stepped into the small apartment on Ramallah’s main street that housed the offices of what was then known as Law in the Service of Man (a somewhat ungainly translation of the more universal al-qanoun min ajal al-insan — Law in the Service of the Human Being). The receptionist, who doubled as administrative assistant, sat in an entrance space immediately off a small glassed-in veranda. The dining room served as meeting room-cum-library. Two small bedrooms offered working space for researchers. And the tiny bathroom accommodated copies of the organization’s few but accumulating publications, stacked neatly on thin metal shelves that I, in an inattentive moment, once managed to collapse on top of me.

A handful of staff resided there in the fall of 1984. The organization’s founders, gainfully employed elsewhere, would stop by for meetings. The three field investigators visited periodically to hand over and discuss their latest yield. There were, if memory serves me, only two or three computers.

I came to Al-Haq just as it was primed for a major expansion. It had just gotten its books in order and, thanks to a handful of pioneering reports and actions, was starting to receive the attention and accolades of key Western institutions. And it had the good luck to arrive on the scene at what was, from a funding perspective, a particularly propitious time: the happy coincidence of the rapid growth of an international human rights movement and the equally stunning emergence of an indigenous institutional infrastructure in the Occupied Territories. By the time the popular uprising broke out in late 1987, Al-Haq was able to deploy the strengths of one in the service of the other, and vice versa, thus becoming an influential Palestinian voice at the height of a mor human rights emergency.

The founders of LSM/Al-Haq, Raja Shehadeh, Jonathan Kuttab and Charles Shammas, began their professional careers in the West Bank just as a new generation of activists had begun to graduate from high schools and colleges. This was the post-1967 generation, born perhaps before the June war, but whose formative years had coincided with the ferment that followed the 1973 war and Yasser Arafat’s landmark speech at the United Nations in 1974. The “external” solution — a dream, really, of Arab states sweeping in to liberate the Palestinian masses — had been laid to rest, and a new national movement began to take form whose center of gravity lay essentially inside the territory of historic Palestine.

At a grassroots level this new movement found expression first in voluntary work committees that fanned out across villages and refugee camps to perform services that the occupying power would not. Politically, it took the shape of student activism, including demonstrations and strikes, and the emergence of a local leadership — which was promptly subjected to threats, detention and deportation by the military government. In the late 1970s, under the Likud party’s interpretation of the autonomy plan agreed to in the Camp David Accords, the new “civilian” government in the Occupied Territories proceeded to expropriate vast new tracts of land and to weave a web of military orders that made a mockery of whatever law had existed in 1967. This permitted the occupier to insinuate itself into all aspects of Palestinian society with the aim of subverting, dividing and, ultimately, pacifying it — an autonomy entirely on Israel’s terms.

The new laws and new violations screamed out for a new approach. A fresh crop of recruits from schools and universities provided the intellectual core and urgent energy for an array of initiatives launched in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The women’s movement emerged in the West Bank and Gaza at this time; the trade unions became infused with new life, the student movement expanded, and a grassroots primary health movement was spawned from the ruins of the civilian government’s health system.

Taking a nod from the international human rights movement that emerged in earnest only after the 1975 Helsinki Accords, Al-Haq’s founders were keenly attuned to the need for devising new strategies to contest the ever-growing reach of a predatory occupying power and its highly mobile citizenry (settlers). The institution they established — alongside the universities, the Arab Studies Society and the Arab Thought Forum that all began to come into their own in this period — became by its very objectives a part, along with the grassroots movements, of what sociologist Salim Tamari has referred to as a “strategy of informal resistance” to the military occupation. Planted squarely in the society that had given rise to it, Al-Haq offered an example to its constituency of the alternative path that might be taken to divest itself of the occupation. It began to provide an ever-growing audience with a new vocabulary and a concrete methodology to challenge specific actions by the governing authority. These were presented in the form of the “Know Your Rights” series, one of Al-Haq’s most important undertakings during its first decade. These booklets sought to inculcate in those who read them the crucial notion that not only did they — Palestinians, victims, fighters, people — have fundamental rights, but they had a right to assert these rights, and the booklets showed them how they might begin to do so.

Even as Al-Haq was serving an educational function in its home community, it reached out to the outside world both for a receptive audience and for protection, as the military government could never be trusted not to kick in the doors one day and shut the place down. This, too, required a great educational effort, as a deep-seated prejudice against Palestinians dissuaded many activists in the United States and elsewhere from turning their attention to the Middle East, and that rendered Al-Haq’s objectives and methodology immediately suspect. If the organization succeeded in making its case abroad, this was due less to its advocacy strategy, which for a long time was barely a strategy at all, than to its professionalism in documenting and reporting what even the most skeptical observers had to admit were unconscionable violations of human rights. The Israelis offered a helping hand, of course, by engaging in public acts of collective punishment such as house demolitions.

The Palestinian institutions and grassroots organizations that proliferated in the 1980s were served by their semilegal status. Even if the military government denied them a license to operate formally, by applying for a license they signaled their intent to function openly and undertake legal activities. They also benefited enormously from the material and political support they received from Western governments and institutions, and the fact that Israel had an inwardly democratic and open society that was broadly permissive of outspoken criticism of the outrages committed across the Green Line. But it was especially because of Israel’s outward democratic posture that the military government found it very difficult to crack down on institutions like Al-Haq — assuming for a moment that such institutions presented any sort of real threat to the occupier’s hold over the territory and its population. The Israeli state had to constantly mollify its supporters in the US and Europe, who saw little wrong with plucky groups like Al-Haq as long as they stayed away from advocating violence and terrorism. The genius of the method fashioned by Al-Haq’s founders was that Al-Haq took Israel at its word (of being a democracy, as well as a self-declared reluctant, tolerant and benign occupier) and played fully by the rules of a democratic society. Holding Israel to its declared commitments, the organization succeeded in pressing it further and further as it retreated into a growing tangle of self-generated contradictions. How could punishing a “terrorist” be said to correlate with destroying the home in which that person’s family lived? How could the claim to maintain the rule of law be said to mesh with the creation of a maze of military rules, the purpose of which was to emaciate and utterly destroy the very notion of the rule of law? Or how could Israel’s professed adherence to the freedoms of expression and association explain the systematic muzzling of the press, the constant closures of trade unions and other grassroots organizations, and the extrajudicial (“administrative”) imprisonment and deportation of their leaders?

There is no doubt that the occupying power became its own worst enemy, its rough tactics exposed and exploited by Al-Haq’s sophisticated reporting. Yet Israel’s strength was such that no amount of reporting could have brought an end to the military occupation. It took a largely non-violent popular uprising, massive repression marked by the extremely crude and brutal response of Yitzhak Rabin, and the mass media’s sudden interest in the Palestinian reality to reverse what had seemed irreversible. The leaders of the grassroots organizations — at least those not already in prison or in exile — metamorphosed into the leaders of the uprising. And Al-Haq, its credibility established by years of accurate reporting and its voice amplified by the force of the mass movement, blasted onto the international scene. Its magnum opus on the first year of the uprising, Punishing a Nation, became a standard reference work for human rights groups, journalists and policy makers alike. Holly Burkhalter, an early admirer of Al-Haq who as Washington director of Human Rights Watch oversaw the production and distribution of the US edition of Punishing A Nation, today sees the significance of Al-Haq as two-fold: “There weren’t, at that time, many groups in the South that were doing highly sophisticated human rights investigations,” she says. “The movement, even in the West, was very young. To have that kind of quality of documentation, especially from Palestinians, was very important in dispelling prejudices that existed. In the US, a Palestinian was an adjective modifying the noun ‘terrorist.’ Al-Haq’s work was essential in getting out the truth not only about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, but about the Palestinians themselves.”

That was then and this, alas, is now. As the intifada turned inward and petered out, Al-Haq lost much of its audience and its steam, while it also began to pay the price of too rapid and uncontrolled a growth in the late 1980s. The 1993 Oslo Accords and the arrival of the Palestinian Authority threw the organization into further confusion, and except for pursuing the brilliant innovation that was its human rights enforcement project, it was forced to spend the better part of the 1990s trying to regain its footing. Today, as it marks its twentieth anniversary, Al-Haq is a transformed organization, a different creature altogether, set to mark its course in tune with the requirements of the new situation prevailing in Palestine.

To me, Al-Haq will always be the Al-Haq that I knew intimately then, the Al-Haq that gave me my best friends, taught me my passable Arabic and gave me insight and an entree into Palestinian society. Above all, Al-Haq showed me the power of human rights. My five years in Palestine were a rite of passage, my formative years, the threshold that separates the before from the after in my life. Working for Al-Haq was frustrating at times — the infuriating but indispensable legalese of its analysis, the (primary institutional) elite focus of its activism. It often forced me to step outside and engage in extracurricular activities: writing articles for magazines in the US, Britain and the Netherlands, traveling throughout the West Bank to document house demolitions while delivering basic necessities to the newly homeless, and making friends among the people who were most affected by the daily depredations of the occupier — all of this on top of research and writing relating to my doctoral studies. But my experience at Al-Haq never was anything but authentic, full of meaning, extraordinary.

When I left Al-Haq in 1990 it occupied a large office across the street from the old one, with two dozen well-trained staff, plenty of computers, and its spirit unbent despite the never-ending misery it had mandated itself to document in towns, villages and refugee camps. I sometimes now recall, at night when my children have gone to sleep and I have a moment to myself, the sounds that uniquely evoke for me my privileged existence in what was my home for five matchless years: the constant roar of the bulldozers razing dwellings and trees to make way for new settlements, the angry bark of soldiers breaking open stores on strike, and the wailing of mothers newly bereaved. But also, amidst the din, distinctly and unmistakably, the steadfast and rhythmic tap, tap, tap of the keyboards at al-Haq.

How to cite this article:

Joost R Hiltermann "Al-Haq," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).
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