Just Vision Skip to main content

Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

Browse Interviews

Sari Bashi

Trained as a lawyer, Sari Bashi and Professor Kenneth Mann founded Gisha, an organization that utilizes direct legal assistance and public advocacy measures to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians. As Gisha's current Executive Director, Sari works to promote awareness of and sensitivity to human rights, challenging Israeli audiences, policy makers and thought leaders to recognize the great importance of ensuring those rights even during times of conflict. Gisha integrates new media with creative outreach methods and responds to the challenges collective security-oriented restrictions pose to the daily lives of civilians in Gaza.

  • Please tell us about your background.

    I was raised in the States, in New Jersey, my father is Israeli and my mother is American. I came to Israel in 1997, after completing my undergraduate studies. I spent a year doing research as part of the Fulbright Program; I studied ethnic identity among Ethiopian Jewish youths. I have respect for ethnic identity, it's important for me and I was curious about it. I discovered a little bit about my identity - in terms of language, food, history, and I also realized how the history of my people is related to that of other peoples. My father was born in Bagdad, he moved to Tel Aviv when he was nine, so of course I wanted to investigate his roots. We weren't a political family, nor were we very strongly connected to Israel. As a child I visited my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, but the decision to come here was really the result of some kind of curiosity. When I arrived, I found myself getting sucked in. At the end of that year I stayed in Jerusalem; I started working for the Associated Press. It was a really beautiful period in Jerusalem, the Oslo period. There were hopes and aspirations for peace, and that wonderful things would transpire. Jerusalem seemed like the gate to the world, to the Middle East. I covered events I had an opinion about, such as human rights infringements under Occupation. I wanted to not only cover without taking a stand, as the Associated Press reporters are expected to, but also cover events, voicing my views and if possible, assist people. After two years of working in the media, a little before the second intifada, I returned to the States and attended law school at Yale. I studied law with the intention of advocating human rights. After I finished school I returned to Israel and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, which provided a good basis for understanding how to employ litigation for promoting rights in the context of the Occupation. Towards the end of this period I started talking to Professor Kenneth Mann, a senior colleague, about a human rights project and that project became "Gisha" [literally, access].

  • Was there any specific experience that motivated you to set up this project?

    When I worked as a reporter it was hard for me to witness human rights violations committed allegedly for security in the name of Israeli citizens and the Jewish people. I felt that since these things were done in my name while I disagreed with them, and I also believed they aren't in the best interests of my people, I had to voice my opposition in a manner that would affect and maybe even change things slightly. Kenneth had just left the Public Defender office and established a private practice but he also wanted to keep working on public issues. He began to receive calls from Palestinians who suffered from restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement, this was at his private practice. He realized it was going to be difficult and problematic addressing all these complaints individually and that it was unfeasible as part of his practice. We talked over the possibility of addressing these problems in a more comprehensive manner. Freedom of movement is important and affects hundreds of thousands of people. The restrictions mainly hurt innocent people, civilians. While Palestinian society is the one largely affected, ultimately Israeli society is also hurt. [The restrictions] prevent positive development in terms of economy, education, health services, aspects everyone agrees are important. Everyone agrees children should be allowed to study, business people make a living, sick people be eligible for medical treatment.

  • At Gisha you deal mainly with freedom of movement. Please tell us a little about this.

    We decided to focus on freedom of movement, especially regarding the Gaza Strip. This was before the disengagement. We had a feeling that if Israel were to withdraw its troops from Gaza, it would seal the borders and this would create a problem. This is what happened. In practice, Israel announced it would leave the Gaza Strip unilaterally, close the borders and discontinue its responsibility, and this troubled us. After the government decided to implement the disengagement, it announced that Israel would continue to control the borders, pedestrian traffic, traffic in goods, and that the government was no longer responsible [for the Gaza Strip]. The way they saw it, Gaza's occupation had come to an end and the government was no longer responsible for anything there, which created a problem. Our work deals with Gaza and the West Bank, but we focus mainly on Gaza because its problems are particularly bad and aren't usually addressed. It is especially important that we focus on Gaza, given that now all connections have been severed.

  • Why did you choose litigation, rather than another approach, for Gisha?

    Kenneth and I are lawyers, and it was natural for us to establish a legal organization. After we encountered many obstacles in this approach, we developed other approaches and our strategies evolved. We started by and continue to provide legal assistance, but we've adapted our tactics to the circumstances. We are engaged in public activities: we target diplomatic missions, disseminate information, circulate private petitions to the army and engage in litigation. We try to select effective tools; the restrictions and the situation are so dire that we don't have the liberty of selecting a tool that won't produce the most effective result. We are engaged in holistic work, we try to promote individual cases through the legal system as well as reaching out to the media in order to pressure decision-makers and the State of Israel. We try, when necessary, to publish general information and employ creative measures, such as new media, animated films and computer games to underline human rights for the Israeli public and international communities and influence the manner in which the public views its interests.

  • Is it effective to deal with Palestinian's human rights as an Israeli interest? What is the price you pay and what are the advantages to using this particular language?

    As a human rights lawyer, I'm not supposed to address effectiveness. Violating human rights isn't legitimate even if it works. Collective punishment is illegal and immoral, as well as ineffective. Israel is crushing the very same people we want as partners. Israel grants a lot of power to Islamic states, the Hamas government, yet disenfranchises citizens in Gaza, young people seeking an education. People attempting to live regular lives are blocked. People with access to political power aren't being blocked in Gaza, and I'm not quite sure that's Israel's intention. There has been a siege for the past three years. For three years it has been impossible to enter or exit the Gaza Strip and I don't see that Israel has achieved its goals: free Gilad Shalit, stop rocket fire [from Gaza], block the Hamas government or change the government. It's clear to me that it is neither in the interest of the Palestinian society, nor the Israeli society to prevent the natural development of a civil society - or its creation [in Gaza]. Very few restrictions are imposed because of security - most are connected to political motives. Therefore, there are several inclusive restrictions unrelated to specific security concerns, nor do they pertain to more general security suspicions. There isn't a clash between human rights and security, rather illegal use of political motives for infringing human rights. Of course, there are cases where there is a specific security-related allegation, a certain person isn't allowed to exit Gaza, enter Israel or receive wares because the GSS possesses specific information regarding this person [as a security threat]. But this information is secret. We have no way of examining the information, only the judges at court examine it and it is only in very few cases that they actually take a stand.

  • What do you consider an achievement?

    There are several types of achievements. Some achievements seem relatively small but they are significant to someone whose life has been altered. In 2004-5 the army prohibited Palestinian students from entering Israel to study. In 2006, Sausa, who is a young, feminist woman from the village of Anata, as well as a brilliant doctoral candidate, was accepted to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to complete her doctorate. She encountered the army's refusal to permit her entry to Israel, without any reason. We represented her case and discovered this was actually a general restriction on Palestinian students. We organized a campaign, petitioned the High Court of Justice, as well as a successful media campaign - coverage in Ha'aretz and the New York Times. Because Sausa is so impressive, everyone who read the story wanted to intervene. When we arrived at the High Court of Justice it was clear that something had changed. We made sure the articles were published a week prior to the date that the petition was scheduled for discussion. On the morning of the court gathering, all the universities in Israel except Bar Ilan University sent an urgent letter to the Minister of Defense demanding to revoke the collective restriction preventing Palestinian students from studying in Israel. They demanded all students be permitted to enter Israel subject to individual security checks. This was our initial demand - allow people to enter; if there are individual security issues, investigate them, but don't apply collective restrictions. The support was amazing, as a result of public and international pressure. The universities' donors read the articles and wanted to understand why Palestinian students weren't permitted to study at the universities. Many people in Israel and scholars - people who may not agree with us on many issues - agreed that education is important and that a brilliant doctoral candidate who is unable to study anywhere else - there are no doctoral candidates in the West Bank - should be allowed to enter [Israel]. Sausa is in her third year, and she has herself to thank because she's a very impressive young woman. Her life has changed, and she's on her way to becoming the first female chemistry professor in the West Bank, educating an entire generation of women to study. I look at Sausa and see how her life changed.These are achievements in the context of very difficult circumstances. Sometimes I'm concerned I don't talk enough about achievements and hopes, but if I elaborate excessively on achievements and hopes, in a way it would be understating the severity of restrictions imposed on freedom of movement, which are grave. There has been an important achievement in terms of studies too, but it's more general. In our own modest way, we've changed policies, and perhaps perspectives too. For a long period we attempted to revoke the ban on Gazan students to study abroad. In July 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, the borders were sealed almost completely. Initially, Israel permitted students to leave [the Strip] using a special transportation system. In 2008 that was terminated and the academic year 2008-9 was approaching. A collective ban was imposed on Palestinian students from Gaza to study abroad, even though they were accepted to the very best universities. The [State's] reply was that nobody was going to travel because it wasn't a humanitarian need. We did our best to think how to respond. We realized that even an appeal to the High Court of Justice wouldn't be adequate and decided to take on a more holistic approach.We organized a discussion at the Knesset's Education Committee, which provided us with very positive support. The committee chairman, Rabbi Michael Melchior addressed not only the damage to these students' human rights but also to the Israeli interest - how are we, people who experienced attempts to restrict our education, willing to inflict this upon another people and how will the world perceive us if we do. His quote ultimately led to an article published in the New York Times. We found out that Fulbright scholarships awarded to Gazans to study in the US would be discontinued. The US was withdrawing its funding because Israel wasn't permitting the students to leave for their studies. Using these prestigious students, we raised the more general problem and received media coverage. The message we sent to readers was that the seven Fulbright scholarship recipients were not the problem: the problem is hundreds of students unable to leave, as well as a million and a half ordinary people, civilians, whose lives are on hold because they cannot move, and this message was conveyed. The article was published on Friday morning, incorporating quotes from the Knesset's Education Committee. As well as amazing interviews with students from Gaza. Within three hours, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Stockholm at the time, heard the news. She asked, why were Gazan students' scholarships being terminated? How could Palestinian students be deprived of a future? This statement worked. Israel changed its policy and enabled some of the students who were accepted to study in Western countries to leave. The pressure also made Egypt revise its criteria and enable more students to leave using the Rafah Border Crossing.That didn't resolve the problem. Still, many students - approximately one thousand - were unable to leave the Gaza Strip to study, but the policy changed, enabling additional students to reach their studies, and we were able to put a crack in the consensus that residents of Gaza should be punished because of the Hamas government. Later, I traveled to Washington and spoke to people who claimed the article on the Fulbright Scholar Program was the very first time they realized innocent people were being penalized. They said perhaps the policy of shutting in a million and a half people in a giant jail should be reconsidered. While we didn't succeed in raising the blockade from Gaza or enabling all students to reach their schools, we did improve the lives of hundreds, and managed to crack the controversial consensus in both the US and Israel that regards residents of Gaza punishable and their rights dispensable because of Hamas.

  • What are the challenges you encounter in your work? Are you met with resistance or support?

    So many challenges exist; I try to call them challenges, rather than obstacles. Over the past few years, Israel has crossed red lines in Gaza. I'm referring to its own red lines, in terms of combat, orders for opening fire, hurting civilians, harming infrastructure, as well as restricting freedom of movement. These are things we wouldn't dare consider in the past. Israel used to at least attempt to justify restrictions with using security claims. They would claim a certain restriction was required in order to counter a security threat. We at Gisha said, true, there is a security threat - let's create a balance between civil rights and security concerns. But since 2007 or even prior to that, Israel ceased to feel the need to use security as an excuse [for restrictions]. It imposed a collective punishment and has been restricting people's movement - not because they are security threats, but to pressure Hamas. In September 2007, the government decided that restricting the passage of people and wares to and from Gaza to pressure the Hamas government was justified. That's a red line. There used to be recognition of civil rights and a need to at least excuse restrictions with security threats, but that is no longer the case. We've experienced a sort of internal process of becoming merciless. We no longer care when families are separated, patients no longer receive medical treatment, factories collapse or the economy disintegrates. This has become part of the daily discourse. Making the Israeli public perceive Gazans as people is a very difficult task, as is making them understand their interests and enabling them to live regular lives. We are trying to persuade the Israelis that it is in their best interest that students in Gaza be allowed to study, people earn a living, families stay together - healthy and united. It's a very arduous task, in terms of the public and in the legal system. On a personal level, it's very hard to incessantly fight forces that are much stronger than you are. I have a staff of thirteen. I have to watch out for myself and for them, and also ensure they don't get too frustrated and that isn't easy. It's like banging your head against the wall. Every attempt to enable someone to leave for studies or ensure the passage of vital wares requires so many resources and encounters so much opposition that continuing requires a lot of strength and motivation. There are also the professional challenges; I'm a lawyer, I didn't study management.There is significant and tangible opposition - [freedom of movement for Palestinians] makes people angry. I think sometimes it's difficult for me too because there is a gap between the people around me and myself. I don't want to withdraw and live only among the community of human rights activists. It's an amazing community, but I don't want to be cut off. Sometimes people have a hard time understanding me, and I have difficulty understanding them. Finding the public messages that will bridge the divides, collective messages are a professional challenge for me. Evading all that - whether we'll agree or we won't - and always finding what I share with people who think differently is a personal challenge.

  • What are the difficulties in approaching other audiences, which messages are the hardest to convey?

    People in the US have totally adopted the Israelis' security concerns, as well as the lack of perspective regarding what a security reason really is and what is not. We reach out to audiences in the US and attempt to convey the message that asking questions and voicing criticism of Israeli's policy is legitimate, not anti-Semitism. We provide more accurate information regarding the implications of restricting freedom of movement. For example, it is widely believed - and Israel promotes this claim - that border crossings into and from Gaza for commercial wares should be closed so they [Gazans] will realize they made a mistake allowing Hamas to take over the Gaza Strip and subsequently depose Hamas. We try to provide information about how closing the border crossings to commercial wares harms the private sector, which is secular and which we would want to encourage; this strengthens Hamas - they raise the tunnel taxes because wares that can't enter through the regular border crossing arrive by tunnel. Using different examples, we try to set information straight and grant people in the US tools to influence the government's policy, which affects us here as well.

  • How is Gisha's struggle received among Israelis?

    There are many Israelis who react negatively the instant you say "Gaza Strip" or "Palestinians". In June 2008 we conducted a survey among Hebrew-speaking Jewish citizens of Israel. The responses were harsh, there was widespread support for the siege on Gaza. We asked an allegedly straightforward question, which we were nearly too embarrassed to ask: "Are Palestinians entitled to human rights?" One third of responders said no. That is very worrying because there is no context, balance or conflict involved in this question. It's a gap in values, which we must bridge. There were similar questions, "Whoever struggles for the rights of Palestinian residents is working against Israel. Do you agree?" Two thirds didn't agree and one third did. We realize this is a deeply rooted problem. In our public messages we make an effort to humanize residents of Gaza in order to alleviate fears and concerns. We try to grant Gazans the opportunity to speak for themselves, so that [Israelis] will experience this term called Gaza in the first person and be able to see faces of people there, hear their voices, read their narratives, listen to their stories. This requires sophistication because if we show [Palestinian] suffering, [Israelis] will immediately clam up, and we want to portray something Israelis are able to identify with. We need to address objections that "it's dangerous" and "they deserve it for choosing Hamas." We take both these objections into account in every public message we develop. Our response is that no, it isn't dangerous. No, it isn't because of Hamas. These are ordinary civilians and they have the right to lead regular lives.

  • What advantages are there to using media for reaching out to the Israeli public?

    Using the Internet and new media is in part an attempt to bypass the opposition. We produced a short animated film about the siege on Gaza called Closed Zone. We took the animation artist who created [the film] Waltz with Bashir, we wanted him to create a short film and maybe it would be interesting. That's how we overcame the first hurdle - people watching - that's a central obstacle. We chose a universal character and decided to produce a slightly surreal film that would enable people to let go of their conventions and assumptions regarding Gazans and connect to a universal story. We try to shape our messages - restricting people is immoral - to appeal to Israelis' values. In terms of interests, preventing the development of civil society [in Gaza] isn't smart. We're trying to use the Internet as a tool for transmitting information concisely. We want to offer an interactive Internet tool for creating an interactive experience, illustrating the restrictions on travel between Gaza and the West Bank. The user selects a character; the user needs to try and put him or herself in the character's shoes in order to cross from Gaza to the West Bank. To illustrate the game's point, we try to anticipate the obstacles and address them in the game.

  • Do you think human rights work contributes to ending the conflict?

    Without having set the goal of ending the conflict, I think it does. It seems like quite a large goal, even for me. Our fear is that the peace process disregards what is happening on the ground, ignoring the matter of human rights. We remind people who care about political processes that increasing human rights infringements is detrimental to their attempts at peacemaking. We do not take a stand regarding the process or the political opportunities, saying, "Do you wish to create a certain reality here? Take the people here into account as part of that reality. If their access to basic provisions is limited, what will be their role in the new reality?" I believe focusing on human rights and what is happening to Palestinian society could lead to a more intelligent [peace] process. The information human rights organizations disseminate is very important because it reflects what is happening on the ground, granting decision makers information that will aid them in shaping policies. To a certain extent, it's important that even in Israel there be voices from the opposition, people like us with less consensual opinions, voicing other views, trying to challenge what is commonly believed.

  • Some people claim that it is precisely human rights work that enables the Occupation to continue, because it succeeds in slightly alleviating the hardships of life under occupation. What do you think?

    I wish we could be effective enough to transform the Occupation so it would be enlightened and pleasant, because there would indeed be a question of whether it should be ended. We haven't succeeded in doing this, and unfortunately we aren't going to succeed. Circumstances are harsh and there is no chance of us making them more pleasant. We are trying to protect rights in a state of conflict in order to preserve hope for a future and to remind people of their obligations. It's very important that everyone - in Israel too - grasp that even during conflict or when there are concrete security threats, there are limits. There is a limit to what you are allowed to do to another person, even if you fear for your own safety.

  • What is the role of fears in the conflict? Are Israelis' and Palestinians' fears similar or identical in your opinion? Do you share these fears?

    I'm better acquainted with Israelis' fears. Part of our work is to try and sidestep [the fears] or address them with logic. The policies result from fear - this might be general fear that the world is a dangerous place and will always be and the only way of protecting ourselves is by using force, with no prospects or hopes of creating a better future. I share these fears on an individual level, as someone who takes the bus or views what is happening down south, on the human level of fearing rockets. We allow fears to take over us and control us and cloud our judgment, and that needs to change. We have a history we have characterized and painted in a certain shade, but it is still real, a history of persecution, of Holocaust, of an eternal minority. We didn't dream up the Jewish people's complex history and that should be taken into account. Unfortunately, the government and army take advantage of these fears, exacerbating them and altering our real interests, as well as reality. They paint everything with thick strokes of security concerns, even matters unrelated to security. Saying "a threat" is sufficient, there is no need to give details or include any other content. My fear is that politicians manipulate this history in order to exacerbate fears and rule out the possibility of creating a different reality.

  • What have you learned from your work over the past four years?

    When you are fighting something so powerful and you are conscious of your tools being fairly new, you learn your place. I'm not going to put an end to human rights infringements. I've learned the power of my counterparts on this path, seeing myself as part of a very large and extensive struggle, and I have no idea when and if it will end. There is something realistic in the realization I'm a part of something much larger. I've learned to respect our different partners, not only human rights organizations in Israel and the Palestinian Authority but also journalists, artists, lecturers and people who are trying in their own ways to push forward the implementation of civil rights. That grants me the feeling of not being alone, and that's very important.

  • How have the events concerning the war in Gaza [in the winter of 2008/9] affected Gisha's work?

    [The effects] were severe. I believe the definition is secondary trauma, obviously we [at Gisha] weren't in danger. We kept in touch with people in Gaza, who were not safe, people who were traumatized, while we were safe. That affected us - the staff. The war's effect on reality is that it impedes promoting rights. In terms of brutality and destruction, red lines were crossed. The physical destruction won't be constructed; there are restrictions on [importing] construction materials, so there is no intention of enabling reconstruction to take place. Hopes and expectations were also destroyed. The [Israeli] public also crossed red lines in terms of values; this will require a long time to change, and as usual, the trend isn't positive, rather a tougher and merciless approach and that draws us farther away from people in Gaza. It's harder for people [in Gaza] to interview for Israeli media and talk to Israelis because the scars are still fresh.

  • Where do you draw inspiration from?

    It sounds like a cliché, but from people in Gaza. Talking to people who live in impossible conditions - the factory shut down, no food, they can't leave, they need to reach a relative and the army won't allow it, the uncertainty, lack of electricity, they have no idea what will happen, Gaza is dangerous, terrible things happen. But people in Gaza continue to insist, cope, smile, laugh, work with us, and that's a kind of survival. Sometimes I wonder whether other people would have exploded by now. Would other people consent to so much suffering? That isn't to say that people in Gaza accept the circumstances. Quality of life in the Gaza Strip is gradually deteriorating, it's becoming extreme, and the next level isn't clear. Other people might have collapsed, and that could have led to a different response, but people in Gaza have amazing strength and optimism. If they can be optimistic, we have no reason not to be.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    People essentially seek very simple and positive things: raise their children, earn a bit of money, fulfill personal dreams - or sometime even larger dreams. We have to peel away the layers of fears and the wrong choices and processes made, then we'll get to that essential place. I see this when we manage to convince someone, especially in Israel, that the right to access something serves both the Palestinians and the Israelis.