A lawyer in Gaza wants to bridge the divide

I wrote the following piece for the American Bar Association in July 2013. It’s about a Palestinian lawyer in Gaza. I haven’t heard from him and don’t know if he or his family are still alive.

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A Palestinian lawyer and long-time ABA member in Gaza, Sharhabeel Y. Al Za’eem, wants to raise the bar on the legal profession in Palestine. He runs his office with the same high expectation.

A lawyer for thirty years with his own successful commercial (intellectual property, banking and business) practice, it seems he could have any job he wants.  Arafat asked him to be the Attorney General, and at different times he was approached to be the Palestinian Minister of Justice, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He refused them all. He felt he could make a bigger difference remaining in private practice as a mentor for new attorneys and an advisor to his clients and colleagues.

When he was a boy, Al Za’eem’s grandfather told him that he was a lawyer by nature because he loved to defend others and think of excuses to help absolve his friends in trouble. Graduating from high school in the mid-1970s, he chose a different path and decided to pursue engineering studies in Alexandria, Egypt because there were no universities in Gaza at that time (today there are six.

The Gaza legal aid society works from this office.

The Gaza legal aid society works from this office.

Then, as now, it was not easy to travel out of Gaza. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated his travel through Rafah, crossing the Sinai and the Suez Canal in buses with the windows covered, even the front window, leaving only a little peep hole for the driver.

His studies came to an abrupt end when Egypt expelled all of the Palestinian students in the country in response to an assassination of a high-ranking Egyptian official.  Al Za’eem asked an Egyptian friend to intervene on his behalf.  He learned he could remain in Egypt but would not be allowed to study engineering, pharmacy, medicine or science. He selected law.

After he completed his legal studies (he was 2nd in his class out of 400 students), he returned to Gaza and clerked for one year in a law office before receiving his license to practice law in 1983. Today there are 2 law schools in Gaza and graduates are required to clerk for two years before obtaining their license.

The new lawyer traveled abroad for a few years, but when he returned to Gaza in 1987, Israeli security banned him from leaving again unless he would cooperate with them as a spy. He refused and opened up his law firm in Gaza that year.

In the past 25 years, Al Za’eem estimates that he has mentored 120 new lawyers, many of whom are now serving as legal advisers to Ministries and municipalities throughout Palestine. His is the only law firm in Gaza that pays the law clerks because he wants to give them self-confidence so “they will be proud to be part of his team.” He is a hard task master, demands a lot from his clerks and staff, and expects everyone to meet the standards he sets. He expects no less from himself.

My friend Bashir Alghussein, a lawyer in Gaza who introduced me to the Palestinian Bar Association and took me to court to observe a hearing.

My friend Bashir Alghussein, a lawyer in Gaza, who introduced me to the Palestinian Bar Association and took me to court to observe a hearing.

Rule of Law and Access to Justice

A March 2012 survey, under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), found that many people in the Gaza Strip do not trust or understand the role of justice and security institutions. Access to legal assistance was also identified as a big problem. “We need a revolution in the legal system to regain trust,” Al Za’eem says. The UNDP has a rule of law strategy, but Al Za’eem isn’t waiting.

His goal is to bring new skills and tools to the legal community in Gaza from the examples he has observed in the United States and western law practices. That was one of his motivations for joining the ABA.

Al Za’eem traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 1990 and found that the law firms he visited were very different from those back in Gaza. He networked with American lawyers, attended ADR and mediation courses, and then googled “ABA.”  When he learned that an ABA member does not have to be American citizen or licensed to practice in the U.S., he signed up. He quickly learned that ABA membership has tangible benefits.

On one of his trips, Al Za’eem landed at JFK Airport and was taken aside by a security guard for a “random” search. Two hours later, after repetitive questioning, the security guard tore up his Palestinian documents and told him he needed to apply for an Israeli passport. He asked if he was under arrest, and if not, he wanted his cell phone. He called the ABA number on the back of the membership card in his wallet and within thirty minutes, two attorneys arrived to assist him. Needless to say, he was quickly released. He has returned to the U.S. many times since, and remains a life-long ABA member.

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The never-ending peace process

In 1992, Al Za’eem was part of a Palestinian delegation sent to outreach to the Jewish community to tell them “we are not terrorists” and “we want peace.” Those meetings, he said, gave him a different perspective about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He served as a negotiator in Madrid and Washington in the early 90s and as a legal adviser to the PLO (94-97). Al Za’eem has spent a long time trying to bridge the gap between Fatah and Hamas as part of a group effort called the Palestinian Independent Gathering.  He points to some success.  They convinced the Ministry of Education in Gaza and the West Bank to unify the Palestinian curriculum and testing for all students.

In 2007-2008, no one from Gaza could travel to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj.  He helped negotiate an agreement with the Ministries in both Gaza and the West Bank — to facilitate their travel.

After a three year hiatus, many Palestinians in Gaza are skeptical that any progress will come from the new round of talks announced recently by Secretary of State John Kerry. Al Za’eem remains hopeful. He met then-Senator Kerry in 2009 and believes “if Kerry invests the time, he has the knowledge, capacity and personality to make it work.” Al Za’eem admits that bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table is challenging, but reconciling the gap between Fatah and Hamas might even be more challenging. “Kerry is smart, well-informed, and has a deep knowledge of the problem.” If anyone can do it, Al Za’eem thinks Kerry can.

Lora with the head of the Palestinian Bar Association

Lora with the head of the Palestinian Bar Association

New Offices

His optimism carries over into his private practice. Al Za’eem has sentimental feelings for the building that housed the Palestinian Bar Association since its start in 1976. When the Association moved into new quarters earlier this year, he leased the building, refurbished it and moved his offices in.

Despite the Israeli blockade, Al Za’eem’s practice is expanding. His international clients, he notes, need someone on the ground to represent them in Gaza. He expects the lawyers in his firm to be specialists – telecommunications, oil & gas, power purchase agreements – and he’s bringing new tools and techniques from the U.S. and Europe to his law practice in Gaza. He hopes his son, in his final year in law school in London, and his daughter, a law student in Gaza, will join the firm.

The family continues to feel the sting of Israel’s travel restrictions. His daughter was going to study law at Birzeit University in the West Bank but Israeli authorities refused her permission to travel. Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit founded in 2005 to advocate for the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, took her case up to Israel’s high court two years ago but lost.

One lawyer in Gaza is trying to bridge many gaps – East-West, Israel-Palestine, Hamas-Fatah, and this generation and the next. If anyone can do it, ABA member Sharhabeel Y. Al Za’eem can.

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