A Palestinian village is filing an unprecedented lawsuit against two Canadian corporations for allegedly violating international and domestic law by aiding in the construction of perceived illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The plaintiff, the village of Bil’in, located in the West Bank about 12 kilometres west of the city of Ramallah, is taking Quebec registered corporations Green Park International Inc. and Green Mount International Inc. (who could not be contacted for comment) to the Quebec Superior Court on June 22 for taking part in the commission of war crimes by allegedly constructing buildings in an occupied territory and leasing them to settlers.
Emily Schaeffer, the Israeli lawyer representing the village of Bil’in, has been practicing law in Israel and the United States for about 10 years. She specializes in human and gender-based rights, as well as international humanitarian law. When she first took on the case, she knew it would not be easy.
“We realized this was going to be bigger than Bil’in,” Schaeffer said. “If a Canadian court will say that settlement buildings are illegal, then it’s as big as Palestine… And if a Canadian court will hold a corporation viable for aiding war crimes, then it’s bigger than Palestine, it’s the size of the world,” she said.
Bil’in is a small village of 1,800, inhabited mostly by Arabs, located about four miles east of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, adjacent to the Israeli West Bank settlement of Modi’in Illit. Bil’in residents say the barrier cuts them off from more than half of their rightful land, including important olive tree fields that serve as the base of the village’s agliculture.
In July 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) unanimously ruled that the West Bank Barrier as well as the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are contrary to international law because they “Annex the land, destroy property and change the landscape of an occupied territory.” Annexization is illegal under international humanitarian law, and yet according to Schaeffer, the barrier annexes 16 per cent of the West Bank to Israel.
The village went to Israeli courts in 2005 with a petition against the barrier and the Israeli settlements. In Sept. 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court (ISC) rejected the ICJ’s analysis of humanitarian law, saying that security is an exception, and proclaimed the neighbourhood of Matityahu East (an extension of Modi’in Illit) legal. However, the ISC acknowledged that some aspects of the barrier were built unlawfully, and decided that homes already built can stay, and the wall has to move to the last approved house.
But Schaeffer says the wall has yet to be moved, and still occupies the same territory.
“Our office continues to be in contempt of court proceedings with the Israeli military commander and the state because they have haven’t implemented the decision,” Schaeffer said. “There have been other cases where the Israeli Supreme Court told the commander to move the wall, and not once has it actually happened.”
Not able to find the verdict the village wanted in Israel, Schaeffer looked elsewhere for her cause.
She met Mark Arnold, a Toronto based Jewish-Canadian lawyer who would come to serve as Bil’in’s Canadian legal counsel. He found out that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate article 85 of the fourth Geneva Convention, which says an occupying power cannot move its civilian population into the territory it occupies.
Not only have both Canada and Israel ratified the Geneva conventions, but the government of Canada also incorporated the international decree into two Canadian laws: The Geneva Conventions Act, and The War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act.
Thus, both Green Park International Inc. and Green Mount International Inc. are accused of breaching Canadian and International law by building on disputed Bil’in land. The corporations have asked the Quebec Superior Court to dismiss the case on the grounds of inappropriate jurisdiction, saying Quebec isn’t the right place to deal with a matter based in the Middle East.
Arnold said a corporation has never been sued in Canadian courts for commission of war crimes, making the case the first of its kind. The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would make it illegal for the corporations to operate within the West Bank.
“Bil’in made it very clear to me that they are not suing for damages, because their land has no price,” Arnold said. “So the lawsuit seeks two things: stop (construction), and go away.”
“You measure success in a human’s right case in a very different way, it’s not how much money you recover,” he said.
Mohammad Khatib, a long time resident of Bil’in and member of the Bil‘in Popular Committee Against the Wall, agrees with Arnold. He has been organizing non-violent protests in the West Bank against the settlements since 2005, and feels the media attention they have gathered is in itself a success.
“We know it’s not easy to use non-violent demonstrations,” Khatib said. “But we do it so that everyone will know, and everyone will see who the victim is, and who the victimizer is.”
He said they choose to use non-violent protests as a way to contrast with the Palestinian authority as well as the Israeli military, both of which he said frequently use violence.
“The Israeli military think that by power they can control, that by force they can control,” he said. “We know they have power, but also we know we have the power of our rights, which is stronger than any other power.”
And while some may see it as odd to see an Israeli lawyer and a Jewish lawyer defending the rights of Palestinians, to Schaeffer and Arnold, who both come from a background of fighting for human rights, it’s only natural.
“When someone comes to you and says I want my land back,” Schaeffer explained, “And you know you have a very good chance of giving them even a piece of their land back, and that will feed their children and give them some hope…It’s very difficult to turn them away and say no.”