On the afternoon of his 15th birthday, Attiya Nabaheen was walking home from his school in Gaza when an Israeli soldier shot him in the neck. It was November 2014, and Mr. Nabaheen was on his family’s land, situated about 500 meters from the militarized Green Line demarcating the Gaza Strip. In court proceedings, a lawyer representing the Israeli government claimed that Mr. Nabaheen was too close to the fence and didn’t heed warning shots before he was hit. Neither his age nor the fact that he was unarmed stopped the soldier from firing at the boy. The injury left Mr. Nabaheen permanently paralyzed and wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. This all happened during a cease-fire, a time of supposed peace, or status quo, in Gaza.
I’m a human rights lawyer from Haifa, now completing my doctorate studies in the United States. I also litigate Palestinian civil and political rights cases, and Mr. Nabaheen was my client. I represented him as part of a landmark case that sought civil remedies for his life-changing injuries through the Israeli court system. The case didn’t go how we had hoped it would: It ended with the Israeli Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of a 2012 law under which residents of the Gaza Strip are effectively banned from claiming civil remedies against Israeli actions, including unlawful actions with no connection to active situations of armed conflict. Put simply, Mr. Nabaheen’s case set a chilling precedent such that no one in Gaza can seek compensation for any damages caused by Israel.
I say Mr. Nabaheen was my client because last month I received word that he, along with 12 of his family members, 10 of them children, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his family’s building the day after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Mr. Nabaheen, who was 24 at the time of his death, had survived five major attacks on Gaza. This was the one that finally killed him. His short life is emblematic of the policies and practices that the Israeli regime imposes on Palestinians in Gaza. Without meaningful avenues to make a claim against injustice, Palestinians are effectively left with no place to turn. But the people of Gaza, like all people, deserve to enjoy full civil rights, including the right to compensatory damages. Without those rights, what can we expect them to do with their pain?
I took on Mr. Nabaheen’s case in the summer of 2022 on behalf of the Haifa-based Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. His original claim, filed in a district court in 2016, sought compensation from the Israeli Ministry of Defense for his debilitating injury. By the time I took his case, the Supreme Court had already dismissed his initial appeal, upholding the 2012 law shielding the Israeli government from providing civil remedies to the potential war crime he was the victim of. The rehearing request I filed would be the final episode of his tedious legal battle.
Mr. Nabaheen sued Israel in Israeli courts. His odds of success were low: Over the past seven decades, Palestinians in Gaza have brought fewer than 10 successful claims for compensation in the Israeli court system. Most of those cases were brought before the 2000s.
As a lawyer, my ability to tell the stories of those killed and injured by the Israeli carnage in Gaza is almost nonexistent because of the siege. I never met Mr. Nabaheen in person: The intense blockade over Gaza made it impossible for him to visit me, and vice versa. But for my client, and for all of us at Adalah and Al Mezan, giving up on effectively the only pathway to claim redress for Mr. Nabaheen’s injury was not a choice. Our client decided to challenge the constitutionality of the law that prevented people like him from suing in the first place.
This was the first case to do so, and it became all the more important as the use of snipers surged during the 2018 Great March of Return protests across the Israeli fence encircling Gaza. Later that year, the United Nations established an independent commission of inquiry to investigate Israeli conduct in the protests. The commission found that the district court’s dismissal of Mr. Nabaheen’s case in 2018 denied residents of Gaza from fulfilling “their right to ‘effective legal remedy’ from Israel that is guaranteed to them under international law.” In the same report, the independent commission found that over the course of nine months in 2018, Israeli security forces shot and killed 183 Palestinians, including 32 children. It found that Israeli snipers shot and injured over 6,000 unarmed demonstrators with live ammunition.
Despite these grave violations of international law, the Israeli Supreme Court refused to assess key evidence collected by human rights groups and granted a green light for Israeli military snipers to continue to use live ammunition against demonstrators. The chair of the U.N.-convened commission remarked that Israel’s conduct “may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel.” The U.N., in effect, was requesting that the fox guard the hen house.
The Supreme Court’s approach toward potential war crimes remained consistent. Mr. Nabaheen’s first appeal to the court was dismissed in 2022. Then, in February, the Israeli Supreme Court president at the time, Esther Hayut, rejected our request for a rehearing of the Nabaheen case, despite confessing that the result for him “is difficult, and so are its potential ramifications on Gaza residents in similar circumstances.” Ultimately, though, she did not deem the case “special and exceptional” enough to pass the legal grounds for holding a rehearing. Last year, the Hayut court had rejected a petition to reopen an investigation in the case of the four Bakr boys, who had been killed in an Israeli airstrike while playing on the beach in Gaza City in July 2014. Taken together, these cases demonstrate how the Supreme Court has been an active participant in the effort to shield the Israeli government from any form of accountability, be it criminal or civil.
When an Israeli soldier shot Mr. Nabaheen in the neck, it was the status quo. There was no active war, and yet the daily situation was dire for Palestinians. Even so-called perfect victims like Attiya Nabaheen — 15, unarmed, on his family’s land, and shot during a cease-fire — could not pass the legal muster of the Israeli system or prevail over the violent bureaucracy of the law.
Mr. Nabaheen’s life and death encapsulate the Palestinian search for undelivered justice, an ongoing nakba, meaning “catastrophe,” that has only intensified in the last month. So many Palestinians continue to suffer a similar fate to that of Mr. Nabaheen, falling victim to the arbitrary brutality of Israeli shelling. As I write this, more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Gazan health ministry. Many of them, like Mr. Nabaheen, had already survived several wars before finally succumbing to this one. And like Mr. Nabaheen, there will likely be no recognition or recourse for their tragedies. There will be no meaningful avenues through which their families can seek justice.
The last three weeks have brought with them daily news of death and destruction. Since the war began, I have not been able to reach any member of the Nabaheen family, despite trying three different phone numbers. As I’m writing these lines, my texts to my client’s brother from over a week ago still display one checkmark on WhatsApp, indicating they were not delivered. I wake each day worried about how many more people will be added to the death toll as the specter of genocide hangs over Gaza.
Nothing could have prepared me for the moment I learned that Mr. Nabaheen had been killed. Something in me died that day. His story unveils a systemic design that devalues Palestinian lives: The 16-year Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip has always been lethal, even when so-called calm is restored, and Palestinian civilians always pay the steepest price.
Mr. Nabaheen’s life and death are reminders that the only status quo we should accept is one where the siege is lifted and the occupation has ended. A status quo of freedom.
Rabea Eghbariah is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School and a human rights lawyer.
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