Seeking a settlement on settlements

June 4th, 2009 | Posted in Palestine, Quebec
    Vue news, by Bryan Birtles, June 4th, 2009.

    Photo: ActiveStills. Palestinian resting after protest in Nil’in, Palestine.

In a somewhat stunning reminder of the way the globalization of commerce has connected the whole world in recent decades, two Canadian companies are being accused of war crimes and are being sued in Canada by the village of Bil’in, located in Palestine’s occupied West Bank.

Green Park and Green Mount International, two Québec-based construction companies, are facing accusations that their construction efforts in the occupied territories violate international law and can be considered war crimes. Violating article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which states, in part, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”—Green Park and Green Mount are building settlements on behalf of Israel, for Israeli civilians on land that belongs to Palestinians.

“We’re accusing the corporations in aiding and abetting Israel in committing a war crime, and also in violating Canadian law by doing so,” explains Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli lawyer representing the village of Bil’in. “They are marketing, selling and constructing settlements for Israeli civilians on Palestinian land, on occupied land in the occupied territories. That is a violation of international law, and it’s also a violation of Canadian law because Canadian federal law has incorporated international humanitarian law specifically addressing this point.”

It’s this incorporation of international law into Canadian law that has allowed the village to take their case abroad. Because Israel’s legal system has thus far refused to return all of the land taken from the village of Bil’in through the building of the separation wall and the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements—which are estimated to have confiscated as much as 60 per cent of the village’s land—the villagers and their representatives feel they have no choice but to take their struggle for justice to an international arena.

“When the Israeli Supreme Court and government can’t declare settlements illegal—even though international law says so very clearly—it’s time to go seek other means of getting justice,” says Schaeffer. “The fact that Canada has this opportunity for us is not a beautiful thing—it’s a sign that our government is failing and we have to go abroad.”

The land seized by Israel for settlement is land that Palestinians were not living on—which made it easier for it to be confiscated—but it was the village’s agricultural land. Stripping the village of the resources that come from the olive trees and other crops grown on the now-occupied land has drastically affected the quality of life in Bil’in. The village’s official website states that Bil’in is “struggling to exist,” and describes how the wall has “strangl[ed] the village … creating an open air prison for Bil’in’s inhabitants.”

Because the Israeli government declared the confiscated land to be state land, it was able to then award it to Green Park and Green Mount to be developed. In this way, the Israeli state has been able to sidestep responsibility for bringing settlers into the territory it occupies, and has passed that responsibility onto the corporations it gave the land to. As Schaeffer explains, the court case she will fight at the end of June in a Montréal courtroom will determine the level of responsibility a corporation has in participating in a war crime.

“The facts are not in dispute—Green Park is very openly building these settlements and marketing them. If you take an aerial photo of the settlement you’ll see a giant Green Park sign, so it’s not that they dispute that. They dispute that they should be liable given the fact that Israel gave them permission,” she says. “The real battle is whether or not the Canadian court will say, ‘We have jurisdiction over this case and we’re not confused over the property-law issues that the defendants are trying to bring up in this case. We see this as occupied territory, we see construction for occupying civilians within an occupied territory as illegal and therefore we’ll rule on this issue.'”

Prior to the court case actually being fought, however, a speaking tour has been arranged for Schaeffer which will see her crisscross the country throughout June, including a stop in Edmonton on June 10, to raise awareness about the legal battle, as well as the creative ways the people of Bil’in have struggled for more than four years against the forces of occupation.

“I want to concentrate on what is the point, what does the wall mean. I think Bil’in is a microcosm for all of the ills of the occupation on Palestinian life in a very real and daily sense. I want to bring out what the occupation means on a daily basis and what international law has to say about it and also highlight the case and show Canadians how they’re connected, how we’re all connected, how these seemingly localized conflicts actually impact all of us,” she says. “The other thing is I want to highlight is Bil’in as not only a microcosm for the trademarks of the occupation and the injustice that’s happening but also as a village that’s fighting back in very creative ways and fighting back in a very persistent way, which includes their weekly non-violent demonstrations, but also turning to Israelis to defend them in the Israeli court. [It’s] a tribute to their perseverance and also to their commitment to cooperation.”

Whether or not the court battle itself is successful, Schaeffer is proud of the way that her work and the work of the villagers has raised awareness internationally of the struggle that Palestinians face from the Israeli occupation. It is her hope that by taking the legal battle out of the hands the country that is occupying the land in the first place, pressure will be put on Israel to rethink the way it has disregarded international law in terms of the settlement movement.

“This opportunity to bring this case to Canada is hopefully the beginning of something that will cause us to see winds of change both in the sense of bringing the issue to the wider public, but also bringing the legal status to other systems as a counterbalance to what’s happening in Israel, which, as I said before, I think is a corrupt democratic system—hopefully we’ll put pressure on the legal system to make it rethink itself,” she says. “This litigation—if it even gets out the door of these preliminary hearings—is already a success and I would say even the fact that we’ve brought suit is already a minor victory in terms of the attention we’ve gotten and the press that we’ll generate.” V

Edmonton Bil’in tour event:
Wednesday, June 10th, 7 pm
Strathcona Baptist Church
8318 – 104 Street
free (donations accepted)

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