Palestine Works: Advocacy in the Post-College Age

Palestine Works (PW) is a U.S.-based, nonprofit advocacy organization. It is hosting the inaugural Young Palestinian Lawyers Fellowship (YPLF) Conference from August 1-5, 2016 at Birzeit University in the West Bank. The conference, which is geared towards young lawyers, law students, and other rights-based Palestine advocates, explores the legal and political dimensions of rebuilding the Palestinian national movement on an inclusive, representative basis, and the interplay between this initiative and the Palestinian statehood project. (More information and registration is available here.)

Palestine Square recently sat down with PW’s founding director, Omar Yousef Shehabi, to discuss the organization and its role in the Palestine advocacy movement.

It might be fair to assume that most in the Palestinian rights community have not heard of PW, can you introduce yourself? 

We got started in early 2013 as an all-volunteer venture. We’re best known for our original program, the Law Fellowship, which utilizes law students and recent law graduates to support the work of human rights organizations serving Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Israel. The program develops new advocates for Palestinian equal rights and a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over 60 law fellows have participated in our first four classes.

Our first legal advocacy project was a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry investigating violations of human rights and international humanitarian law during the Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Ours was the only report filed with the Commission of Inquiry that was devoted exclusively to the situation in occupied East Jerusalem. This report showed us the incredible advocacy potential of our alumni if we keep them properly engaged through high-impact projects.

We’ve also launched our most ambitious advocacy project to date, called Post-Oslo Palestine in International Law, which sheds light on international law questions raised by the Palestinian Authority’s recent legal and diplomatic initiatives and to inform a coherent strategy for future such initiatives.

And we’re growing up as an organization. Now we’re trying to assemble the team and the resources that we need to sustain these programs and keep innovating.

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2014 PW Fellows in the Negev in southern Israel. (Palestine Works)

You mentioned your human rights submissions. Do you see PW as a human rights organization?

No. We have tremendous respect for Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, and we support their work through our Law Fellowship. They do a great job monitoring and documenting human rights violations. But that system has failed to create meaningful accountability. I’m not suggesting that the human rights organizations should stop engaging the UN human rights system: it has value, if only to deny Israel total impunity, to create a historical record, or to serve as a foundation for more effective forms of advocacy. But Israel has basically neutralized this system. The criticism rolls off its back. It has won the narrative that UN human rights reporting on Israel is, to quote U.S. policy, “repetitive, disproportionate, and one-sided.”

We’re not interested in working in this system. Instead, we’re searching for new advocacy channels. We have a different starting point and a different dynamic. So we’re a Palestine advocacy organization rather than a human rights organization or an activist organization.

Give me an example of Israel neutralizing the human rights system, as you say.

What I mean is that even when the human rights community gains some traction on a certain issue, Israel knows how to work the system.

For example, UNICEF released a report in 2013 declaring that the ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention was “widespread, systematic, and institutionalized.” For a UN agency, that’s exceptionally strong language and the top brass at UNICEF was reportedly split on whether to go that far. So what happened? Israel effectively coopted UNICEF. The agency praised Israel for agreeing to a never-ending “dialogue” wherein Israel makes marginal changes to its practices, such as greater use of warrants in lieu of arrest raids. It refuses other recommendations, which extends the dialogue, and it reserves the right to reintroduce any practice in the name of security, whereupon the dialogue would presumably start again.

Over 550 Palestinian children were killed in the 2014 Israeli military operations in Gaza, the third highest number of children killed anywhere in the world that year. Yet the Secretary-General declined to add Israel to the UN’s list of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights. So just as the “peace process” is a tool for preserving the status quo, the UNICEF dialogue is useful for Israel. It poses no threat to its military objective of neutralizing Palestinian youth resistance, while it distinguishes Israel from “unenlightened” regimes that would outright reject such a dialogue.

What makes PW different than other advocacy organizations?

I’m impressed by the level of student and citizen activism around Palestine, but as student or citizen activists move into the professional world, how do they maintain that connection with Palestine, or rather, how does their connection with Palestine evolve in a way commensurate with their professional status? There are precious few ways for young professionals to put their talent to the service of Palestine. I know because I tried – and found that the only way in was all the way in. I left my job as a labor lawyer and made Palestine my career. Not everyone can or wants to do that, nor should they have to. That’s where we come into play. We want to be the platform for young professionals to do professional work in service of Palestine.

Our greatest strength is our network of young professionals, whose commitment to Palestine is borne of service rather than experiential education. Bearing witness is important, but learning through service creates the competence and understanding needed for sustained, effective advocacy for the Palestinian cause.

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2014 PW Law Fellows in Hebron. (Palestine Works)

Our emphasis on innovation and efficacy reflects both our experience working on Palestinian rights and our frustration with the current advocacy channels, which are oversaturated and ineffective.

For example, we are making the first ever submission on religious freedom in Israel and occupied Palestine to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. This Commission was established nearly 20 years ago to monitor religious freedom around the world and make policy recommendations to the U.S. President, the Secretary of State, and Congress, yet has never reported on Israel’s religious freedom record. In fact, it has gone to great lengths to avoid even mentioning Israel, while it decries the religious freedom records of other hollow democracies characterized by a dominant religion or ideology, such as Russia and Turkey.

You worked as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. What, if any, relationship does PW maintain with the Palestinian Authority?

We’re not affiliated with the Palestinian Authority or any official Palestinian institution. But our experience and relationships with “official Palestine” are an asset and are factored into our perspective.

Of course, we want a more inclusive, representative and effective Palestinian national movement. But we also don’t let the current state of the national movement obscure the fact that the Palestinian people have always faced great obstacles in their pursuit of self-determination, and those obstacles are no less today. One can demand a better, more accountable Palestinian government without denying the huge challenges facing any Palestinian leadership or government.

Above all, we want to be effective. When that involves working with official actors, we have the experience and connections to do that effectively. And when that calls for working outside the system, we’ll do that, too.

What’s next for PW?

I see Palestine Works becoming the place where young professionals work together in pursuit of peace and justice for the Palestinian people. The fellowship model is how we incubate young professionals for a lifetime of advocacy for Palestinian rights, advocacy we drive through projects with real potential to advance the discourse on Palestine. With the appropriate resources, we will extend this fellowship model to fields beyond law. And through the YPLF Conference, we are also supporting the development of Palestinian young professionals. Our goal is to build a platform for young professionals in all fields and of all backgrounds to channel their professional talents in service of Palestine.