Legal Protection for Palestinians

A firsthand account of an Israeli lawyer’s fight for the rights of the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

by Lynda Brayer
photos by Karen Lagerquist

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In December 1987, a Palestinian wounded and killed an Israeli in the Gaza Strip. This was not extraordinary; since Israelis began to move to the Occupied Territories, a number had been killed. In revenge, an Israeli drove his truck against a wall, crushing four Palestinians. The response was electric. Rioting began; the Israeli army lost control. In a show of defiance, Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli minister of defense, took up residence in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. These events sparked the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against twenty years of Israeli occupation.

At the time, I was a lawyer in private practice in West, or Jewish, Jerusalem. I dealt mainly in civil and divorce law; it was enjoyable and the practice, fairly successful. I looked forward to establishing myself within the Israeli legal community.

However, two things changed my direction. First, for reasons known and unknown, I found myself exploring Christianity and attending Mass daily. This began to shake my secure social framework, and yet I could not draw back. I had not yet decided to be baptized, nor did I consider the consequences if I did. I simply followed an intense schedule of readings knowing that I would rest in the truth as I understood it.

The second event was the intifada. Instinctively I knew that with Ariel Sharon’s defiance of the status quo a religious balance held for nearly 500 years was irrevocably destroyed. Palestinians went on strike; the Israelis tried to break the strikes. Riots ensued and violence was used to quell them. Before we knew it, there was a full-scale uprising.

Then, for the first time, I read a book in Hebrew. It explained the legal practices and implications of the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza – Palestine. I was shocked and horrified. I now understood what we Israelis were doing to the Palestinians.

The first year of the intifada was a gruesome battle between civilians and soldiers. Palestinians of all ages were beaten, shot and often killed. Many were wounded and maimed. I felt completely helpless; my only response was to scream and shout at anyone who would listen. The intifada was an uprising for freedom, a peoples’ innate desire to throw off the yoke of oppression. The world saw this as well and used the analogy of David and Goliath. This time David was Palestinian; Goliath, the Israelis.

In early 1990, I offered my services to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights documentation center. After a few exploratory trips to the Occupied Territories, I concluded that while it was necessary to document all human rights violations, a legal organization was needed to alleviate the pain and losses suffered by individuals.

On 11 May 1990 (a year and a half after my baptism as a Catholic), I left Mass to prepare for my Jewish family the traditional Friday night meal. I stood outside the Pontifical Biblical Institute and in sheer frustration I turned to the Jesuit who said Mass and said, “Father, what is the Catholic Church doing for the poor and oppressed in Palestine? Why don’t we have legal aid services for Palestinians under occupation?” We looked at each other and realized we had probably hit on something important.

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Tags: Palestine Israel Occupation Occupied Territories