Human rights, in itself, have long been a contentious industry, developing over the decades and adapting to particular regions and surroundings. It is no different in Palestine, and perhaps even more so under the ongoing Israeli occupation, which remains one of the greatest focuses for human rights work in contemporary times.
Central to the field of human rights in Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the NGO Al-Haq – otherwise known as Law in the Service of Man (LSM) – which the professor Lynn Welchman extensively lays out in her book ‘Al-Haq: A Global History of the First Palestinian Human Rights Organisation’, published in 2021.
In the book, Welchman takes the reader through the story of its beginnings and establishment in Ramallah in 1979, describing the context of that time and its political situation, its evolution as an organisation, its growth from a small setup of lawyers into what became the first and most major Palestinian human rights group exposing the crimes of the Israeli occupation.
The author also takes the reader through a detailed study of LSM’s methodologies in law and practice which were ahead of its time and which, essentially, proved to be a solid foundation for the field of human rights in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the decades.
The book lays out the fact that one of the main catalysts for the start of the organisation was Israel's success in presenting its occupation of Palestine as "the most benevolent in history", which made the main challenge for Al-Haq on the international front the countering of that claim.
By observing, monitoring, collecting information, sending out field workers on the ground, compiling the data and then publishing them in reports or newsletters, LSM successfully exposed and shed light on human rights violations perpetrated by occupation forces. As the book extensively lays out, the organisation also used such information and its members' knowledge of Israeli and international law to challenge the occupation authorities and attempt to prompt them to respect human rights, despite the numerous obstacles the Israeli legal system employed to justify violations on the basis of security.
What fascinated me was that Welchman not only detailed the conflict in the legal sphere between occupation authorities and Al-Haq, but also revealed that the concept of human rights and its importance were at first hardly understood by many Palestinians. That was not the result of any orientalist notion of barbarism, but rather the confusion regarding the role of human rights within the struggle against occupation.
That misunderstanding in the early years even went so far as to cause the Palestinian intelligentsia themselves to view human rights as a "Western weapon aimed at undermining the Palestinian struggle", as one field researcher named Iyad Haddad was quoted as saying. "I didn’t just feel or hear this," he said, "a leader in the Palestinian Communist Party at that time told me that the party didn’t support these organisations; they were American organisations and possibly the CIA was behind them."
Another field worker who worked for LSM, Abdel Karim Kan’an, was also quoted as saying many thought that "we were working to tame the Palestinian people, move them away from the armed struggle to a legal, liberal struggle". He countered the view that human rights work was "all CIA stuff to make the Palestinians non-violent" by stating it was, instead, "part of the struggle to show the world what was going on, very important; it was one form of struggle."
In that way, the book also details well the group's evolution not only in its size or depth of operations but, more interestingly, its internal struggle with regards to the extent of its opposition to the occupation. While it focused primarily on objectivity and accountability for human rights violations during its early years, especially for survival under the occupation, it eventually had to make a choice whether it would maintain that softer line or move to a firmer stance, directly condemning Israeli occupation.
According to the book, one of LSM's founders, Jonathon Kuttab, admitted that Niall MacDermot, the Secretary-General of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the time, took him to task “for Al-Haq being so careful about being neutral” in the mid-1980s. That neutrality was apparently detrimental even to the point of the organisation not clearly acknowledging Israel's use of torture against Palestinian detainees. MacDermot told Kuttab that "there is a point when torture is torture, and you’re not neutral when you’re dealing with either the torturer or the victim.”
In 1987, the organisation then came out openly against the Israeli occupation in its report titled 'Twenty Years of Occupation: A Time to Reflect'. In that report, Al-Haq stated that it is "dedicated to the protection of human rights and upholding the rule of law … it confronts the illegal acts of the occupier by documenting and contesting human rights violations while, at the same time, it seeks to analyse, promote understanding of, and improve or alter existing legislation; in short, enforce adherence to the rule of law." It also admitted that "in the early years of its [Al-Haq's] existence, its activities were by necessity limited to the very basic tasks."
Welchman carries the story of LSM in the book all the way through to the Intifada years, the unstable Oslo Accords era and, finally, to the current standing of the organisation, when it is more targeted by Tel Aviv than ever before. With the book being published in the summer of 2021, it, of course, pre-dates the occupation's later direct outlawing of Al-Haq and other Palestinian NGOs, which enabled Israeli forces to raid their offices and ordered the organisations to close down on allegations of "supporting terrorism".
Despite condemnation of Israel's actions by the UN and even Western nations, as well as the intelligence agencies which admit the allegations are unfounded, the occupation's closure of Al-Haq and Palestinian NGOs seem to be the latest manifestation of Tel Aviv's war against efforts to uphold Palestinian human rights.
'Al-Haq: A Global History of the First Palestinian Human Rights Organisation' – although, at some points, seeming to be disordered with a variety of dates and events scattered throughout different chapters of the book - perfectly details LSM's story, leading up to its current persecution in the Israeli war on human rights.