Inside CILC: Improving legal education in Palestine

Unlike previous ones, this CILC story takes place on the road. It’s the story of a journey through the West Bank and East-Jerusalem, accompanying CILC director Willem van Nieuwkerk on his first steps in a new project on legal education. The Palestine mission agenda is packed with meetings with a kaleidoscope of local and international legal experts and other stakeholders, all shedding a different light on rule of law in Palestine. Van Nieuwkerk: “The success of this project depends on the professionals working within the universities. What we would like to see happen is that the Palestinian academics come up with an interesting research project and find a professor in the Netherlands with matching interests. That we succeed in creating this match-making.”

Series of interviews by Marjolein C. Groot, 1-5 February 2016



In the middle of the night the direct KLM flight from Amsterdam delivers CILC director Willem van Nieuwkerk and myself at Ben Gurion airport, outside of Tel Aviv. A suspicious customs officer, who seems to have some difficulties believing Van Nieuwkerk’s story of “we are here to meet with an envoy of the Dutch embassy in the Ambassador hotel in Jerusalem”, provides us nevertheless with an entry visa. Israel does not stamp your passport. A rather tall, muscled Palestinian taxi driver picks us up and drives us along dimly lit deserted roads to East-Jerusalem, while updating Van Nieuwkerk thoroughly on the latest developments in his long quest to win the heart of the woman he loves. At times the taxi follows a road alongside the enormous, grey, intimidating, hundreds of kilometres long “separation wall” or “fence” with watch towers between Israel and the West Bank. The first night is spent in an old and somewhat hidden monastery, which had been turned into a B&B run by Palestinians. Without any visible sign, it was a bit hard to locate in the middle of the night. After only a few hours of sleep, the sun is already rising, painting everything in gold. From my monastery room with barred windows I notice an old wall separating the monastery complex from the lively street life outside. Inside the compound and next to my window there’s a lush garden with very old fruit trees, carrying tiny shiny yellow lemons. A breakfast with Arabic coffee, hummus, olives, bell peppers and pita breads awaits me. Van Nieuwkerk, who I find at one of the tables, has been up and working already for some time, it seems.

Soon we will be on our way to the first of many meetings of a busy schedule for the week – at the Faculty of Law at Al-Quds University in East-Jerusalem. An SUV driven by the new CILC representative in Palestine, Marja Mollema, will pick us up and join us on this journey.


Israeli separation barrier (photo: Flickr/André)

Israeli separation barrier (photo: Flickr/André)

A patchwork of laws


To outsiders, the system of laws in the Palestinian Territories can be quite confusing: to determine which law is applicable on a case in Palestine, one has to research multiple legal systems and codes. This patchwork of laws originated in various jurisdictions and reflects the rich history of the region: it includes Sharia and customary law; Ottoman law, which also incorporated elements of European law, especially the law of France; British law (British Mandate laws); Jordanian law; Egyptian law; and Israeli law (military orders). In addition, there’s the Palestinian Authority’s Basic law.

“In the Netherlands, we have one set of laws. In Palestine, there are several sets. That makes it extremely complicated and requires very capable professionals to deal with it.” Henny de Vries, head of development cooperation at the Netherlands Representative Office (NRO) in Ramallah – the second expert on our long list we meet – recently looked into the subject of registration of land in Palestine. “You have to look in the Jordanian, the British, the Israeli and the Palestinian codes. It’s really very complex and often results in a ‘tournament’ between lawyers. In a way, being a lawyer here is a much more demanding job than in the Netherlands”, she adds.

“In the Netherlands, we have one set of laws. In Palestine, there are several sets. That makes it extremely complicated and requires very capable professionals to deal with it.”

“Because of the occupation, several of the laws are really old and they date from long before 1967. However, when the Israeli military want to change any of these laws, they simply issue military orders. There are at least 1700 of these orders”. On the next day of our visit we meet Salwa Duaibis and her colleagues of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), an independent non-governmental organisation in Ramallah. We had initially planned to reach Ramallah already the previous evening. However, an incident at one of the Israeli military checkpoints outside the city had caused a closure of all checkpoints, which forced us to travel the next morning in a convoy instead. Duaibis summarised the real problem in regards to changing laws and issuing new laws in Palestine: the non-functioning Palestinian parliament. “Some of the Members of Parliament are in Israeli prisons, some are in Gaza; the Parliament hasn’t held any sessions in ages for all kind of reasons. So there’s no real democratic mechanism to change laws and issue new ones.”



Meanwhile, the authority to legislate and pass laws has been delegated to the president of Palestine and the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Duaibis: “Despite the Abbas’ laws fortunately being of the type we have been advocating for, the democratic process is effectively not operational. When a new president takes over from Abbas, there’s no certainty about the survival of these laws. We want to make sure that an institutionalised process is put in place.”

According to her, Palestine is “in a deadlock”. Duaibis: “To me, the closest thing the current situation resembles is a sick body: a body in pain that might stumble here and there, but which is still walking, managing to go on. Nobody is interested in getting up and running, because then, some benefits will be taken away from them.” Duaibis says that many people seem satisfied with this “situation of illness” and profit from the inertia. Duaibis: “This is a very unhealthy situation. And the first to suffer, of course, are the most vulnerable groups in this society, among them women. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Enriching the available legal education


The new CILC project in Palestine, ‘Capacity development in higher education’, funded by EP-Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, with a proposed budget of 2.3 million Euros, has started last September. Van Nieuwkerk: “We started out with a low profile. Project partners are now working on the ‘inception report’, which contains a baseline study.” In November, the dean of An-Najah National University, Dr. Akram Daoud travelled to The Hague for the official project launch. An-Najah National University is the lead project partner in Palestine. The project has been designed to provide support to the law faculties of four Palestinian public universities and the Palestinian Judicial Institute and will run until May 2019.

The context of Palestine is not exactly new to CILC: for seven years the organisation has been already involved in various projects in the local security and justice sector, such as MATEEN, which provided support to the Palestinian Public Prosecution Service. Van Nieuwkerk: “As a director I want to get a little bit of a grasp, a feeling of the current situation on the ground. We have terms of reference from our donor organisation and it’s all nicely written down, but I want to experience it in order to understand it.”

The project aims to develop “a national curriculum” and explore possibilities for academic research and “upgrade it” in the Palestinian Territories. Other project goals are “achieving better teaching and pedagogical skills and techniques”, “creating better access to the labour market”, and incorporating the Dutch policy goal of “gender sensitivity” in the curriculum.


Ramallah city centre

Ramallah city centre

An overcrowded sector


From various sides, such as the Ministry of Justice and the Palestinian Bar Association, we are told that during the last few years, with the establishment of new law schools, the number of law students in Palestine has increased tremendously. Huge numbers of law graduates are trying to enter the legal professions. This worries many within the legal sector.

“In 1995, we had only one law school, at Al-Quds University. Now there are ten law schools in Palestine. If we continue like this, we will have 20,000 lawyers after five years.” Hussein Sholi, legal researcher at the Attorney General’s Office in Ramallah with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) advocates for universities to limit their numbers of students, as the medicine faculties already do. “We need an institution that grants accreditation to the universities and that tests the quality of the specialisations they offer. Only then will outsiders be able to review their credentials and distinguish between universities.” Sholi feels teaching law in Palestine has become “like a business.” “Most of these schools are looking for new students to pay fees to fill their purses, all the while claiming to be the best, but being secretive about their actual achievements.”

He adds that, often, recruitment of legal teaching staff takes place on the grounds of personal interest, not necessarily reflecting qualifications and experience. Sholi underlines the importance of appropriate lecturers and the incorporation of case law in the lectures, and this is something the CILC project could assist with. “Not only the Palestinian case law, but also judgments from the highest courts of the European Union, the United States and Canada. We should teach students the underlying principles these courts apply to arrive at their judgments. We need them to see the difference”. Another improvement would be creating specialisations by linking the law degree with other disciplines. For example, combining Law with IT & Computer Sciences, when specialising in cybercrime. Or with political/criminal sciences, which would help law students when it comes to understanding the taking of fingerprints, DNA and other forensic techniques, while obtaining the technical skills required for preparing evidence in criminal cases.

Practical skills


Hussein Shabaneh, chairman of the Palestinian Bar Association, also advocates a change of teaching methodologies at universities. “Law graduates are lacking practical skills. There’s a need to focus on real cases and present them to the students.” A representative from the Ministry of Justice confirms that he has experienced the same problem: law graduates who seek employment at his Ministry do not know how to really apply the laws. On the other hand, international staff working at international organisations such as EUPOL COPPS and UNDP-UN Women say their local colleagues with law degrees have impressed them with their knowledge and professionalism.

According to De Vries of the Netherlands Representation Office, “the general level of law teaching in Palestine needs to improve”. De Vries: “When they hold court sessions, lawyers are not capable of doing their utmost. This should really change. You can have a huge impact if you have well educated people that really know how everything should work. This would result in a totally different court case.” She says the law students feel they can’t prepare their cases sufficiently, since they do not possess the correct knowledge and practical skills. Van Nieuwkerk emphasises that one should invest in the educational system: “A practical system of education: one that enables a decent mastery of the issues involved and gives practical skills to use when operating in the legal field. Today, there are wonderful tools available to truly prepare students to the legal practice they will enter after graduation.”

Dr. Mousa Dwek, Associate Professor of International Law and Dean of the Faculty of Law at Al-Quds University in East-Jerusalem, the oldest law faculty in Palestine, agrees that students are not exposed to the practical part of learning, other than through moot courts. “We are glad to include the practical side of a lawyer’s education in our curriculum. In addition, we have to upgrade the learning resources, such as the library and electronic databases, gain access to international journals – since most of our journals are in Arabic – and include the most recent trends and topics, such as cybercrime, in our education.” Dwek and his colleagues are looking forward to upgrading legal education in the country and “opening a gate to the world”. Dwek: “I hope to link the faculty of law and the labour market and have the students well prepared for entering the work force.”


Entrance to Al Quds University, Abu Dis, East-Jerusalem

Entrance to Al Quds University, Abu Dis, East-Jerusalem


The target groups of the project are professors and researchers in four Palestinian universities (Al-Quds University, Birzeit University, An-Najah National University and Hebron University) and the Palestinian Judicial Institute, as a professional training institute. At a later stage, universities in Gaza may be involved in project activities as well. The final beneficiaries are meant to be the students of the four universities who, as a result of the project, will receive higher legal education fit to better prepare their access to legal professions in the Palestinian labour market and beyond.

A gender sensitive approach


An important component of the project is ‘gender’, one of the main priorities of the Dutch policy regarding development cooperation. Van Nieuwkerk: “We will work on a more gender sensitive curriculum at the law faculties. I think this is very important.” He hopes that the new CILC project can offer a bit of support. “We’re a little brick in the foundations of a building, the construction of which has a long way to go still.”

Duaibis of the women’s rights organisation WCLAC provides some insight in what gender inequality can constitute in practice. “The list of issues that women suffer from in Palestine and towards which the laws and practice are very discriminatory is long. For example, with regard to family status and financial transactions, women only receive half the share of their inheritance, whereas men get a full share.” To her, it is “as if women are used as pressure points and bargaining chips to either upset or please the international community”. Palestine has become a signatory to a number of international human rights conventions. “…even the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). All the rest of the Arab world has reservations on certain clauses that have to do with religion and sharia law. Mahmud Abbas signed all these papers unconditionally. This makes us worry that maybe they did not even read the text of the Convention. There’s no way for him to be able to meet these obligations.”

She adds: “If Fatah and Hamas are negotiating for reconciliation, then our requests are going to be put on the back seat, because the government does not want to upset Hamas, whose members are more conservative when it comes to women’s rights. When there’s a rift between the two parties and there is no attempt to reconcile, then women’s issues come closer to the front. However, they never make it all the way it to the front.” Duaibis says the politicians speak with two tongues: “To the international community they say one thing, but, in practice, what we see internally is completely different. It is really very difficult. And yet we look around us in the region, at the Syrian women and what they have to deal with, or the Egyptian women, they’re suffering even more. It’s a big mess. Sometimes we feel we are drops in the ocean, but we continue to do what we do.”

Randa Siniora, director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling says it would require a lot of substantive work to change the mentalities of those who are really going to be charging on legal cases in a different, more gender sensitive, way. According to Siniora, jurisprudence should be developed using a much more human rights based approach, utilising the accession of Palestine to the international human rights treaties and conventions, such as the CEDAW. “Obviously, what’s mostly going on is that the law is interpreted in a very narrow way. Which is to say, no one is taking into account how a law develops, what the power relations in society are. They don’t realise that the laws that are in force are a result of the power balances within society, which results in male domination over the legislation. That is the mentality that is driving the whole legal judicial system in Palestine. How can we change that?”

In Siniora’s experience, the interest of law students in human rights is still limited. “They don’t see it as law. This is a problem. We want them to litigate cases in Palestinian courts on behalf of women on gender based violence cases. We want these lawyers to come to court and help these victims from a human rights perspective. Otherwise, we will not get very far.”

Education as ‘weapon’


The CILC project will also look at improving the access to the labour market, in particular by female graduates. According to Duaibis, women who obtain degrees find it extremely difficult to find jobs. “Roughly speaking, nowadays 80 percent of the Law graduates are women, but in the labour market their participation is minimal, only a small fraction.”

Siniora underlines the importance of improving access to education by women: “Perhaps education is being perceived as what we call here a back-up ‘weapon’ for women, in case life becomes difficult. The traditional gender division here is still that the private sphere is for women and their priority is raising the children, taking care of the household and so on, while the public sphere is for men. However, because of the increased cost of living, it has become more acceptable for women to seek employment outside the home.

Partner with a real say


“I am not a dreamer. If we can improve the legal education in Palestine, even if it becomes only five percent better than what we have now, that would be excellent.” Dr. Daoud, dean of the law faculty of An-Najah National University in Nablus, the lead project partner from the Palestinian side, says he hopes that the EP-Nuffic project will give space to the Palestinians to improve the way things are. “We will do our best to improve the legal education, the infrastructure, the mentality, even the general culture within the faculties of the legal education. We want to make it a success story”.

He notes that, thus far, there have been already hundreds of projects dealing with legal education in Palestine. “There have been numerous projects, but unfortunately the foreign donors all had a mentality of imposing their vision and methods, without listening to our real needs.” This resulted in poor outcomes on the ground, disproportional to the millions spent by the donors. Daoud says he rejects this donor mentality. “We have our own culture, we are educated people, know how to run a project and how to improve things.” By being a partner with a real say in this project, he hopes to prevent a similar unsatisfactory outcome.


Dinner with law students at An-Najah University, Nablus

Dinner with law students at An-Najah University, Nablus

Peer-to-peer assistance: enriching differences


The project is designed around the ‘peer-to-peer’ method, in which staff from two Dutch universities (Utrecht University and the Free University Amsterdam), the University of Jordan, one Dutch university of applied sciences (Saxion) and the Dutch MDF Training & Consultancy will make their knowledge available to their Palestinian colleagues.

Daoud: “We will be learning, but it’s not teaching. It’s mutual learning. Call it sharing of experiences, perhaps. They should not come with an attitude to impose, assuming they have all the knowledge and we have none. I think they will also be learning from us about our legal culture. The differences are what enriches this kind of cooperation.” According to Daoud, they cannot simply adopt the Dutch system, because here they have their own particular environment. “However, we can find best practices, to improve our teaching methods or our curricula or research”. He says the expertise is not lacking in Palestine: “At Birzeit we have better people, also in regards to gender issues. Telling Palestinian people that they are coming to teach them on gender issues would be a bit odd, because the knowledge is not lacking here. I believe we even have one of the best experts in the world. We at the law schools are much more adapted to the needs of society than many other players within the Palestinian legal system think.” Daoud strongly disagrees with those complaining about the low quality of law graduates.


University campus, Birzeit University, Ramallah

University campus, Birzeit University, Ramallah


The project is the first ‘peer-to-peer’ assistance project in legal higher education in Palestine financed by the Netherlands, involving this many universities. Usually, an investment into ‘the hardware’ takes place, with money on the ground instead of assistance ‘in kind’. De Vries of the Netherlands Representation Office in Ramallah underscores that the rule of law is a very important sector. “We are very committed to this project. It has to succeed.”



Van Nieuwkerk says that he’s now awaiting a list of what the Palestinian universities require, showing their real needs. “It does not have to be the same for all four universities. As long as the approach and the end goals are similar. It all depends on the professionals working within the universities. One of them may come up with a very interesting research project and find a match with a professor in the Netherlands. That’s what I would like to see. That we succeed in creating this match-making. We will do our utmost. That would give the project a tremendous boost.”

De Vries adds: “You should try to find the kind of people who can be ‘change makers’ or ‘drivers’ at each stage of the project. They could propose research topics.” Van Nieuwkerk: “You should search for someone of whom you feel that he or she wants, can and should be facilitated to grow professionally.”

Sit on your hands and do not act


How to continue from here? Van Nieuwkerk has been involved in the project since last November. “We have established an initial work plan deriving from the proposal. I want to make this plan as good and concrete as possible. However, this should not be written in stone. What’s important is that we all know what we have to do in the coming years.”

In EP-Nuffic programmes, the most important issue is that both the partners in the project receiving country and the partners from the Netherlands agree strongly on what activities will be undertaken. De Vries of the Netherlands Representation Office: “This makes it a failure or a success. Therefore it’s crucial to invest quite a bit in the first months. Without commitment and understanding from these two sides, you run the risk of not reaching the objectives.” She says that once a consultant advised her: “At the beginning, sit on your hands and do not act. Wait for the first move of the project partners in the project receiving country.” De Vries: “The risk is that if you initiate the project you are going to act for them.” She underlines the importance of only facilitating the process. “You cannot do it for them. Then the commitment is not there, then you run the risk that, in the end, they don’t feel like they need to implement it.”

Van Nieuwkerk and De Vries are quite satisfied with EP-Nuffic as a donor. Van Nieuwkerk: “You have quite some freedom to do various things in your project.” De Vries agrees. “You can do such special things. I have experienced small programmes growing into years of commitment.”



The February sun is already quite strong. So is the wind that is seriously attempting to blow away the terracotta flower pots on the terrace of our hotel, where I am waiting for a taxi to return me to Ben Gurion airport. Van Nieuwkerk will stay a few more days on the West Bank. The taxi driver seems like an older copy of the one that picked us up in the middle of the night, only a few days ago. ”I am his older brother.” Unlike his brother, he’s not in a quest to win the heart of the woman he loves. Instead, he shows me pictures of his two kids and shares his desire to marry a second wife, something which is legally possible in Palestine. The Qalandia checkpoint, one of the largest Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank we have to cross, is very busy. Many cars, busses and a crowd of Palestinian pedestrians is waiting in line. The two youngsters guarding the checkpoint, an Israeli boy and girl carrying machine guns, seem to exchange a joke and smile at each other. After a short look at our identity cards we are allowed to cross without any problem. The taxi driver tells me that the biggest issue for Palestinians is security. “We are never safe. There’s nobody to protect us from the Israeli police.” While approaching the airport, he asks me: “If they stop us, can you just tell them we are friends?”


Qalandiya checkpoint, the main access point through the Israeli separation barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah (Photo: flickr/Anna Lund Bjørnsen)

Qalandiya checkpoint, the main access point through the Israeli separation barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah (Photo: flickr/Anna Lund Bjørnsen)

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