The Al-Azhar University International Criminal Court Moot team 2016. L-R: Linda Afana, 20, coach Maher Masood, 23, Sara Sbaih, 20 and Riham al Naji, 21. Image: Darrian Traynor

The Al-Azhar University International Criminal Court Moot team 2016. L-R: Linda Afana, 20, coach Maher Masood, 23, Sara Sbaih, 20 and Riham al-Naji, 21. Image: Darrian Traynor

The immediately striking thing about the three young women of the 2016 International Criminal Court Moot Competition team from the Gaza Strip’s Al-Azhar University is their already formidable lawyerly abilities. In immaculate English they explain the competitive process they went through to be selected for their university’s 2016 moot team, to compete against law students from another sixty universities around the world. Over six months, with thoroughness and enthusiasm, they considered and prepared elaborate written memorials which set out in detail the cases for the Government, Prosecution and Victims, and their desire to prove each case beyond all reasonable doubt.

Somewhat unusually for a part of the world where men have tended to dominate the legal profession, the Al-Azhar moot team consists of three women – Linda Afana, Riham al-Naji and Sara Sbaih – and their male coach, Maher Masoud. Wearing a floral hijab, 20-year old Afana, who studies English literature as well as being one of Gaza’s top law students, says that all the women saw the opportunities afforded by the moot: ‘We wanted to do something for our country. Something that would paint us to the world, not just as terrorists, or people who have nothing to eat, but as an educated people who can really think and solve cases and problems.’

A Moot Court competition is designed to simulate the rigours of preparing and presenting different legal arguments in formal court proceedings. Although no witnesses are called to the stand, in nearly all other respects, moots offer law students the opportunity to intellectually joust in a realistic simulation of an international legal tribunal. From the Jessup to the Vis, international mooting competitions enable students from diverse backgrounds and cultures to engage with each other over the nuances of a fictional but realistic legal case. The challenges of a moot encapsulate the skills that are mandatory for all future lawyers – teamwork, preparation, communication and an ability to understand different viewpoints and legal arguments.

Moot courts offer a rare forum for uninitiated lawyers to present a legal argument backed up by thorough research and acceptable evidence. But of course, what the judge, jury and audience see in the courtroom or in the written memorials is just the public face of a much greater battle behind the scenes. To prepare adequately to fight in court, a lawyer must be methodical, regarding the case from different angles, a chimera that continually changes form. The truth is elusive – an advocate’s ideas of motive, the narrative of events and the best arguments to present may shift to accommodate the varying shapes of the beast.

It was this multi-faceted nature of the law that proved enticing for Linda Afana. While each team in a moot must prepare all three briefs – the case for the Government, Prosecution and Victims – Linda says that she was thrilled to be nominated by her team to act primarily as defence counsel for the Government in the case. ‘I love literature very much. And when I read a book, I usually love the villain. I don’t know what kind of a guilty pleasure this is, but I love to justify him, to think about the circumstances that made them a villain,’ she says. Participating in the moot allowed Linda to formalise and better understand her interest in the ‘other’.

Likewise, in preparing the briefs for the court, which included arguments about pirates, child soldiers and habeas corpus, Riham al-Naji says, ‘We made a masterpiece. We did something really great.’ The skills and experiences of the Moot are something remarkable that the team will always retain despite, or perhaps because of, the uniqueness of their circumstances.

Of course, simply living in Gaza means that the women are necessarily part of the ongoing Israel–Palestine conflict, where, for either side, the ‘other’ is all too apparent. This is part of what makes acquiring the critical thinking skills to revisualise an opponent so vital, and why a competition like the International Criminal Court Moot, which offers participants that ability, is so relevant and timely.

Simply living in Gaza means that the women are part of the ongoing Israel–Palestine conflict.

These skills are the nascence of the process many peace and conflict practitioners call ‘re-humanising’ one’s adversary. While the defendant in this year’s ICC moot scenario might be called Mance Rayder after the Game of Thrones character (little dry in-jokes like this abound in moot scenarios) and not Benjamin Netanyahu, the fictional ICC scenario may be an apt metaphor for the competing narratives of the Israel–Palestine conflict itself. In Game of Thrones, as in life, one man’s villain can so easily be another man’s hero, and as Yasser Arafat demonstrated, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

The realities of life in Gaza, sadly, also mimic legal bureaucracy. The Gaza Strip has been subjected to a blockade by Israel since the election of Hamas in 2006. In order to leave Gaza to compete in the oral rounds of the international moot competition in The Hague, the team must request permission from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli government authority that administers the Palestinian territories. However, because of the restrictions imposed on Gaza by Israel, permission is difficult to obtain.

Despite the difficulties in leaving Gaza, the team remain optimistic and determined to continue trying to live normal lives, despite precedents that suggest this will not be the case. Through the moot, they have learned that whether or not someone is a villain can be a matter of perspective. The women relish the chance to have an intellectual battle rather than a physical one.

‘We know the kind of perceptions people have of Palestinians. That’s what we wanted to prove by doing the Moot, that these perceptions are wrong,’ Riham says. Like good lawyers, these tenacious young women have been able to look at their fictional beast from different angles and present their case. They have come to understand that while their opponents may have legitimate motivations and drivers, they still have the right to argue we are here, and we are people too.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article stated that the team was not allowed to travel because their request was denied. The team members have since advised that their difficulty in travelling was due to the blockade on the Gaza Strip and not because an application was denied.

Marika Sosnowski mentored Riham al-Naji as part of the We Are Not Numbers writing program.