In Italy, a Palestinian lawyer who fled Gaza builds Israel genocide case

Raji Sourani left the strip with his family as the war raged. He then joined colleagues in Sicily to try to take Israel to the ICJ.

Raji Sourani, Palestinian human rights lawyer from Gaza, stands in front of a reproduction of Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, following an interview with Reuters, in Guernica, Spain, January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Vincent West
Raji Sourani, a Palestinian human rights lawyer from Gaza, stands in front of a reproduction of Pablo Picasso's antiwar painting Guernica in Guernica, Spain [File: Vincent West/Reuters]

Messina, Italy – Piles of court documents in English and Arabic filled the desk and covered the floor of Triestino Mariniello’s home office for much of March in Messina, a city in southern Italy overlooking Mediterranean waters on one side and the smoking Etna volcano on the other.

Here, far from the war, a team of lawyers from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCGR) in Gaza, to which Mariniello belongs, worked last month on their attempt to prosecute Israel for genocide.

“We thought it was a good way to try and be more productive in a place where you can actually detach yourself from the constant horrors, even though that may seem impossible these days,” Mariniello told Al Jazeera. “We also considered this as an opportunity for our colleague from Gaza to catch a breath after what he’s been going through.”

The PCHR legal team – including criminal prosecutor Mariniello and Chantal Meloni, an Italian professor of international criminal law at the University of Milan – is led by Raji Sourani, a Palestinian lawyer from the Gaza Strip and the director of the centre. They plan to take their case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“I have two great Italian colleagues,” Sourani told Al Jazeera with a tired smile, still astonished to have made it to Sicily, a place that he said reminds him of home.

Sourani is one of the few Palestinians to have left Gaza with his family, crossing into Egypt in late February after narrowly surviving an Israeli air attack.

Mariniello invited him to Messina, his hometown, to decompress and work on the case.

“For years, we’ve been documenting the horrors Gazan families have gone through, and through this professional cooperation, a very genuine friendship was born,” Mariniello said.

The PCHR team represents victims of war in Gaza.

Mariniello and Sourani have worked together since 2020 on cases that date back to the 2014 blockade, the 2018 border protests and 2021 crisis involving rocket fire from Gaza and air strikes by Israel. They have collected thousands of testimonies of grieving families whose relatives were killed by Israeli forces.

“All these past testimonies prove that it didn’t start on October 7, that it is a much more systemic aggression that needs to be addressed through the right legal tools,” Mariniello said, referring to the day the current war in Gaza began. “With our work we want to humanise those who’ve been stripped of their humanity. Some of the victims we will represent in The Hague are Hind Rajab, killed in a car with her uncles and cousins at the age of six, and Nour Naser Abu al-Nour, one of our lawyer colleagues.”

Abu al-Nour was a PCHR lawyer killed by Israeli attacks targeting their centre in February.

Another of their colleagues, 26-year old Dana Yaghi, was killed in an attack two days later.

“What we are witnessing is unprecedented. And what’s more concerning is that the people documenting the horrors are dying too, erasing the evidence of what is happening,” Sourani said. “The world is just watching Israel go beyond human rights law. So we felt the urge to speed up our legal battle. That’s another thing that’s missing in Gaza – apart from food and safety – is time.”

After submitting documentation for a pre-trial in 2021 to the International Criminal Court and having received no resolution for more than two years, the PCHR team decided instead to move through the ICJ, the highest United Nations court, which recently put Israel on notice, warning of a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza.

After their relentless work in February and March, the lawyers feel confident they have gathered enough evidence to prosecute Israel for genocide and will soon head to The Hague.

Israeli forces are “blocking the course of life in Gaza”, Mariniello said, “from impeding childbirths and targeting hospitals and maternity wards, to blocking vital humanitarian aid at the border and mass killings”.

Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 people, including almost 14,000 children, began on October 7 when Hamas, the group that governs the strip, attacked southern Israel. During that assault, 1,139 people were killed and hundreds of Israelis were taken captive.

Sourani considers himself a genocide survivor. He said that during his time in Messina, he realised that most of the world, even in unexpected corners, is on the side of the Palestinians.

In Sicily, the legal team spent a lot of time locked away working on the case. But they also engaged with local citizens in a public debate.

At the Salone delle Bandiere conference centre in downtown Messina, about 300 people gathered to listen to the experts talk about Gaza and the steps Italians can take to support their legal battle.

Mariniello highlighted how individuals, despite widespread misconceptions, have a crucial role in supporting the work of lawmakers “because it’s thanks to ordinary citizens that the apartheid ended in South Africa. Without public support, a single legal case cannot change the course of history,” he said during the lecture.

Carmelo Chite, a 65-year-old who was in the audience, told Al Jazeera: “Since the start of the conflict this past October, I feel that there’s much more curiosity and interest, in Italy and elsewhere, compared with the past.

“Ordinary people finally want to understand more after realising that mainstream media in Italy are controlling the narrative and are genuinely seeking to help the legal cause. And that’s positive because, hopefully this time, it’ll lead to a change.”

The Italian government supports Israel and has sent it arms but in recent months has condemned the scale of attacks against Palestinian civilians.

Sourani said he was surprised to find “a very supportive crowd to have a candid discussion with”.

Sicily, he added, helped improve the quality of his legal argument before a trip to the Netherlands.

“Watching the Etna volcano reminded me of my people. Like a volcano, we will never calm down until we achieve justice.”

Source: Al Jazeera