Nazzal fights to bring Israeli officials to justice

Mary Nazzal is creating legal waves in the campaign to bring Israeli officials to justice.

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Last May, heavily armed commandos stormed on to the deck of the MV Mavi Marmara - one of the ships that formed part of the Freedom Flotilla en route to Gaza - and then opened fire when they met resistance. When the fighting stopped, nine lay dead and many more were injured.

Mary Nazzal watched the events unfold on television. Those fatal moments, and the subsequent abuse and imprisonment of many of those who survived, galvanised her into action. "I had friends aboard. One still has recurring back problems as the result of his beating," she says. "All of them were kept for several hours, on their knees, in the sun, unable to go to the bathroom … I mean, just really inhumane conditions," she says, the passion evident in her voice, when we meet in a central London hotel.

A British-trained barrister, Amman hotelier and long-time human rights activist, Nazzal is also the chairman and founder of the recently formed Palestine Legal Aid Fund (PLAF, part of a wider initiative called the Human Rights Legal Aid Fund).

The PLAF was designed to give a legal voice to ordinary Palestinians and support the pursuit of Israeli officials via international courts. The fund was modelled on the International Defence and Aid Fund, a South African initiative during the Apartheid era, which defended Nelson Mandela in 1963 when he was faced with the death penalty.

Within days of last year's attacks, Nazzal's team had engaged London solicitors Hickman & Rose. One of the firm's key members of staff is Daniel Machover, a long-time supporter of the Palestinians, and the man who brought an arrest attempt against Israeli General Doron Almog in 2005 (Almog was tipped off by the British and turned around at Heathrow airport). Later, with PLAF support, Machover attempted to bring about the arrest of the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, over her role in the 2008 Gaza assault.

Tracking down the scores of activists who were slowly making their way back home after being released by the Israelis, Machover began collecting evidence that would later be used by the UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission when it investigated the attacks. The evidence has also been shared with other possible criminal prosecutions being prepared in Turkey, Spain and further afield.

Remarkably, there is no history of Palestinian nationalism in Nazzal's background. Her husband is not Palestinian, but Jordanian ("he's my number one supporter," she says), while her own heritage is mixed Colombian and Anglo-Indian, although she has a Palestinian grandfather on her father's side.

Her family are hoteliers. In 2005, they suffered a devastating Al Qaeda attack on one of their Amman properties, which killed 60 guests. The young Nazzal spent much of her youth in London, learning the hotel trade from her parents. Alongside her legal work, she now doubles as president of the Landmark hotel chain in Jordan. Her interest in Palestinians began during her first year of studies at Columbia University in New York. She started travelling to the territories, running "work camps" to bring international visitors to experience life under occupation. "We would bring people over and just take them around, basically, show them what a checkpoint is, what a refugee camp is; show them a settler." She laughs in disbelief. "All these things you really cannot understand unless you see [them for yourself]."

For Nazzal, the Palestinian issue is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in the world. "What's happening now may have been acceptable 100 years ago, when most of the world was colonised, but now - in 2011 - that it still exists and not enough is done about it."

The breaking point came with Operation Cast Lead, Israel's assault on Gaza in December 2008.

"It was time to hold Israel accountable," Nazzal says. "The Gaza assault, and Israel's response to the international community, indicated to all of us that Israel is now convinced that it's above the law.

"They can engage in the most brutal behaviour against a trapped and occupied people, using illegal weapons, and they know that no one will do anything about it. So that was the trigger." The inspiration for the fund, however, was the question of how the Palestine Territories fitted into international law.

"I was trying to figure out why so few cases had been raised in support of Palestinian rights," she says.

Aside from the headline-grabbing pursuits of high-level Israeli officials, Nazzal's first case was a judicial review in the UK's High Court against British government ministers.

Although she lost the case - an attempt to halt arms-export licences to Israel in February 2009 - Nazzal says: "You don't have to win to have judicial impact." She says the British government subsequently launched an official review of these licences and then put an embargo on one component part, "an indirect fact of the case".

Aside from her legal campaigns, Nazzal has been instrumental in putting together the Gaza Speaks Campaign, an award-winning web-based commemoration of the victims of Operation Cast Lead. And she has hosted speakers at her hotels from the Viva Palestina convoy movement. Meanwhile, she has not been afraid of calling for more direct action: she took part in a protest outside the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year, where more than 50 protesters blocked the entrance to the building in opposition to "British complicity in war crimes".

While such stunts may not achieve results directly, the signs are that Israel is taking the PLAF and other similar movements more seriously. Recently, the Reut Institute reported that such organisations - leading boycott, PR and legal campaigns - were helping to "delegitimise" Israel.

Nazzal isn't so sure. "What's going over their heads is that Israel's behaviour is delegitimising itself! They don't need any help from us. They're doing a fine job by themselves.

"If they want to be legitimately respected around the world, all they need to do is start respecting the law and human rights. Either you embrace the law of the jungle, or the law of the nations, which we have been following since the Second World War."

A report published this week by the Turkel Commission, the body set up by the Israeli government to investigate the Freedom Flotilla deaths, ruled that Israeli soldiers had acted in "self-defence" during the raid. The commission's findings have subsequently been widely questioned by the international community.