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France gives high honor to lawyer who pushed Palestinian cause at ICC

Consul general to Jerusalem gives National Order of Merit to Raji Sourani, who represented hundreds of Gazans at The Hague; Israel accuses him of maintaining close ties with Hamas

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

French Consul General in Jerusalem Rene Troccaz decorates Palestinian human rights lawyer Raji Sourani with his county's National Order of Merit, at the French Institute in Gaza City, on July 7, 2021. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
French Consul General in Jerusalem Rene Troccaz decorates Palestinian human rights lawyer Raji Sourani with his county's National Order of Merit, at the French Institute in Gaza City, on July 7, 2021. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

France conferred its second-highest honor on a Gaza-based lawyer who has submitted dozens of cases against Israel to the International Criminal Court, days before Foreign Minister Yair Lapid heads to Europe.

Raji Sourani, a 67-year-old Gaza-based lawyer who heads the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, was given the rank of Knight of France’s National Order of Merit on Wednesday.

The ceremony, hosted by France’s Consul General in Jerusalem René Troccaz, was held at the French Cultural Center in Gaza City.

“As the Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, you contributed to Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” wrote Troccaz in a letter to Sourani ahead of the ceremony, according to PCHR. “As a man of peace, you have worked tirelessly in favor of justice and endeavored all efforts to achieve reconciliation.”

“The latest crisis and tensions prove that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will remain at the top of the international events and that France took several initiatives to promote the two-state solution and emphasize the basic principles of international law,” said Troccaz at the ceremony.

In his remarks, Sourani accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians, and promised “to hold war criminals accountable.”

Sourani has represented hundreds of Palestinians before the ICC since 2009, accusing Israel of war crimes.

PCHR also submitted joint amicus curiae observations to the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber urging the court to investigate alleged war crimes committed in the West Bank and Gaza.

“PCHR has worked restlessly for more than 11 years to reach the ICC,” read the organization’s 2019 annual report,”this work was intensified in the past 5 years after the Public Prosecutor announced opening a preliminary investigation in January 2015. Starting in 2020, PCHR will employ all its resources and energy in this trajectory.”

In a February 2020 statement on its website, the Foreign Ministry accused Sourani of maintaining “close ties” with Hamas, and the PCHR of being involved in the violent Hamas-backed marches on the Gaza border fence with Israel.

Former Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, center, and Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart, right, attend the first audience with the chief of Central African Republic’s soccer federation Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands on January 25, 2019. (Koen Van Well/Pool photo via AP)

The Foreign Ministry site also pointed out that Jaber Wishah, PCHR deputy chairman until 2017, led the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the West Bank, and was sentenced to two life sentences for terrorism and attempted murder. He was released in 1999.

Sourani founded the PCHR in 1995. He gained prominence defending Palestinians before Israeli military courts, and claimed he was subject to mental and physical abuse by Israeli authorities during repeated detentions.

Sourani won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1991 along with Israeli human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman.

“It is disturbing that France should award such a high honor to someone who openly takes credit for pushing for the case against the State of Israel at the International Criminal Court and has been convicted of involvement with terror in the past,” said Olga Deutsch, vice president of NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel organization.

Palestinians pray by the bodies of members of the Ezz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group who died in Israeli bombardment of a tunnel, during their funeral in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“Sadly, this is not the first time that France has done something like this. In 2018, France awarded its Human Rights Award to Shawan Jabarin, head of Al-Haq, who is one of the leading voices in politicizing human rights and demonizing Israel internationally.”

The National Order of Merit recognizes “acts of devotion, bravery, generosity, real merit or a measurable commitment to serving others or France,” according to The Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honor.

The Legion of Honor is the only French award higher than the National Order of Merit.

Former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on March 3 that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since June 13, 2014. The announcement of the investigation came less than a month after the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe. A preliminary investigation to settle the justiciable question took more than five years.

The ICC announcement followed a request by the Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015, after being granted non-member observer status in the United Nations General Assembly.

Israel has fiercely condemned the investigation, accusing the ICC of bias, asserting that it is capable of investigating any alleged Israel Defense Forces crimes through its own legal hierarchies, and saying the ICC has no jurisdiction, since the Palestinians do not have a state. Israel is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens could be subject to arrest abroad if warrants are issued.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) in Rome, June 27, 2021.
(Andrew Harnik/AP)

Former president Reuven Rivlin called the ICC move “a morally and legally bankrupt decision.”

Lapid is scheduled to visit Brussels for the first time as a foreign minister on Monday. He will hold a working meeting with 27 of his EU counterparts. Experts expect Israel and France to work to mend ties after a rocky relationship during Benjmain Netanyahu’s tenure.

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