Putting Out Fires
An Interview with Israeli Human Rights Lawyer Nery Ramati

Nery Remati with Grace Gleason 

Many of the Israeli activists we interviewed this summer spoke about the tension they felt between "putting out the fires" - ameliorating suffering now - and fighting for long-term political change. Human rights lawyer Nery Ramati, who I interviewed with Aliza Becker in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017 for the American Jewish Peace Archive, shared his perspective on this tension. We talked about why he has chosen to focus on one court case at a time, even though it means working within the system of the occupation instead of railing against it.

Ramati is a human rights attorney at the Gaby Lasky and Partners Law Firm in Tel Aviv, Israel. He often invites American Jews to visit the Israeli military courts with him in the West Bank, because the courts so clearly demonstrate both how the occupation functions and how the immense damage it has wrought harms future possibilities for peace and reconciliation. 

Military court law in the occupied territories is incredibly complex.  According to international law, the law of an occupied territory is supposed to remain consistent with the laws prior to the occupation. In Palestine, this means Jordanian law in the West Bank, and Egyptian law in Gaza. In addition to this complexity, the Israeli military commander has the right to enact new laws, which are not codified or published. Instead, Ramati explained, lawyers and defendants discover these nearly 2000 new laws as they encounter them in court.  

Most Palestinian defendants in Israeli military court settle for a plea bargain, resulting in an incomprehensibly high conviction rate of 99.3%.  Ramati's law firm rarely accept plea bargains -- for several reasons. One is to "do resistance through the courts." It takes longer to run a trial than it does to accept a plea bargain, Ramati explained, and forces the courts to deal with due process. It's important to argue a case because, without doing so, "the court doesn't hear what's happening." Because the evidence is never presented, the military judges never have to face the facts of systematic abuse and international law violations. When the evidence shows illegal military activity the judges are more likely to document the details of the case, writing decisions which can be brought to the media or be used as legal precedent in some cases.

Ramati described the example of a case of Palestinian defendants who were charged with participating in an "illegal political demonstration." By bringing the case to court, he got the court to state: "There is the law against illegal demonstration, but Palestinians do have the right of freedom of speech," for the first time clearly writing out the fact that Palestinians have this right.

The firm's strategy has netted positive results for their clients. In 30 to 40 percent of their cases, they have won a full or partial acquittal. And in those cases in which the defendant is found guilty, the punishment is on par with those who accept a plea bargain. 

Ramati described how he has come to terms with his choice to work within the system rather than outside it. "There [is a] Leninist idea that if we let things get worse, then change will come, then the world will wake up. No. If you let things get worse, they get worse, and then they go even worse. Then they get to a point that they are unsolvable, like in Syria." Ramati sees his work as lessening the harm done by the occupation.

Ramati admonished progressive American Jews to protest the actions of the more right-wing factions of American Jewish institutions which are supporting settlements and right-wing NGOs, therein worsening the situation and harming the prospects for peace.

He also expressed appreciation for the difficult questions posed to him by progressive American Jewish activists. For example, "when they ask me if I am Zionist, I always answer, 'Nobody knows anymore what that word means.' Probably [according to your definition of] Zionist, I'm not. On the other hand, I am an Israeli Jew who lives in Israel who have nowhere else to live. I have no other citizenship. All my grandparents...were born here. In that sense, I am a Zionist. I have no other place to be."

Ramati maintains hope for the future. "Here there are two nations that still have a lot to lose. If we manage to make pressure on people who have interests [to maintain], then we can push them to agree." That's something he believes civil society - in Israel, Palestine, and among international activists - can do. "That's why I think there is still a chance. We haven't passed the point of no return, as many people think."

Grace Gleason is a Project Assistant for the American Jewish Peace Archive.  A Jewish educator, she served  as a Leadership Fellow at Mishkan Chicago from 2014-2016 and as a fellow at SVARA: A Traditional Radical Yeshiva in 2016. Gleason is an activist and leader with IfNotNow. She earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with honors from the University of Chicago in 2014. She currently lives in Jerusalem.


The mission of the American Jewish Peace Archive is to document through oral history the accounts of Jews in the United States who have worked in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation since 1967, and in so doing, to facilitate dialogue and inquiry between the generations, to provide primary source material for scholars, and to provide guidance and inspire hope for the future.