Nonprofit head brings legal services to groups working with Palestinians
October 21, 2015 12:00 AM
Omar Yousef Shehabi, usually an East Jerusalem resident though now in Washington, D.C., runs the nonprofit Palestine Works, which brings the services of law students and recent law school graduates to 20 human rights organizations working on Palestinian issues.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Omar Yousef Shehabi first shuffled up to the Qalandia checkpoint dividing Israeli turf from Palestinian towns in 2004, it was “a handful of very simple structures with soldiers checking ID,” he said. He was a young law school student, son of a Palestinian father transplanted to Ohio but woefully unprepared.
He dragged his new suitcases through the mud, scanning unfamiliar faces for the cousin who was due to pick him up. “I didn’t know where I was going to meet him or even how to ask directions” in Hebrew or Arabic.
Eleven years later, Mr. Shehabi, 33, knows his way around, and a card from an international relief agency allows him to pass through checkpoints that most Palestinians and even Israelis can’t penetrate.
Also changed is Qalandia. It’s now a fortified gap in the winding wall that Israel built to restrict the passage of Palestinian suicide bombers into the open country that includes Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Some Israelis see it as a safety success story. For many Palestinians, it is the ultimate symbol of control.
Born in Warren, Ohio, Mr. Shehabi often visited Uniontown, where his grandmother grew up, and enjoyed lush Ohiopyle and by the burbling Youghiogheny.
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After graduation from George Washington University, law school at Notre Dame and six years as a labor lawyer, Mr. Shehabi decided to dedicate himself to the Palestinian cause. He now runs the nonprofit Palestine Works, which brings the services of law students and recent law school graduates to 20 human rights organizations working on Palestinian issues.
He splits his time between the Jerusalem area and Washington, D.C. Though Jerusalem is flanked by walls and checkpoints, it’s within the Beltway, where he’s spending this autumn, that he feels most constrained.
“Sometimes when I’m here [in D.C.], I do get kind of stir crazy because of the amazing dynamism of [Jerusalem],” he said. “It is a rich and dynamic place despite all of its problems.”
At last count, Jerusalem’s roughly 800,000 residents included nearly 500,000 Jews and 280,000 Muslims, with most of the rest Christian. Of the Jews, around two-thirds describe themselves as religious.
The city is increasingly polarized between similar numbers of religious Jews and Muslims, with a shrinking number of secular people of both backgrounds, said Mr. Shehabi. From his perspective, Israel is trying to drive Palestinians away. It provides lesser services to their neighborhoods, won’t give them building permits and tears down unpermitted buildings, he said.
It’s not working. “We have lots of kids. That’s the problem,” said Mr. Shehabi, half-jokingly. “The Palestinian population as a percentage of the overall population of the Israeli-defined East Jerusalem has been increasing every year.”
He believes that the “high point of goodwill” came in the early 1990s, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands as a framework for peace emerged from secret talks in Oslo, Norway. Palestinians believed they would get their own country. Mr. Rabin was assassinated, though, 20 years ago by a Jewish extremist.
“If you were to ask Yasser Arafat, peace died when Rabin died,” said Mr. Shehabi. “I don’t think peace died then.” He said he isn’t sure whether the two-state plan, in which the Israelis and Palestinians would have neighboring countries, was ever really alive.
Coming this afternoon: Jewish and Palestinian perspectives on Jerusalem, the conflicted city
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