The lawsuit is a testament to the ability of both the Palestinian resistance movement and the international solidarity movement to use international courts as a means to dismantle the legal structures of racial apartheid and settler colonialism that define the Israeli presence in the occupied West Bank.
The Great White Hope
Bil’in is located four kilometers east of the Green Line and is adjacent to Modi’in Illit, a large settlement bloc that sits on territory confiscated from Bil’in and the neighboring Palestinian villages of Ni’lin, Kharbata, Deir Qadis and Saffa. Since 2005, the residents of this agricultural community have led a struggle against the construction of Israel’s Wall on village land.
Ostensibly built to protect the existing residents of the settlement bloc, the route of the Wall was drawn to incorporate the future construction of the settlement neighborhood Matityahu East, located just east of Modi’in Illit. The Wall appropriates an additional 450 acres, which accounts for sixty percent of Bil’in’s land.
In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court deemed the route of the Wall illegal. Whereas the judicial authority ordered the Wall to be moved closer to the edge of the existing settlement boundary, it also approved plans for the construction of a part of Matityahu East, to be located just west of the reconstructed barrier. However, the military has yet to implement the Supreme Court’s decision and relocate the Wall. Green Park International and Green Mount International were, along with two Israeli developers, awarded the contract to construct condominiums in Matityahu East. The suit against the Green Park companies, filed by Canadian attorney Mark Arnold in 2008, accuses Israel of “severing” village land from Palestinian control, and transferring territorial control to Israeli planning councils. The rights to develop the territory, explains Emily Schaeffer, Israeli attorney for the village, were then sold to the Green Park companies.
Legally, the Bil’in case appears sound. The two Canadian corporations stand in violation of not only international law, but Canadian Federal Law and Quebec Provincial Law as well. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from relocating part of its civilian population to the territory it has occupied. A violation of this principle is defined as a crime of war under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Insofar as Green Park International and Green Mount International constructed the buildings meant to house Israelis within the occupied West Bank, the corporations are considered complicit in the commission of this war crime.
According to Ms. Schaeffer both the articles of the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute have been incorporated into Canadian Federal Law under the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of 2000. This means that not only did Canada ratify these two important international conventions, but also endowed its national courts with the ability to prosecute Canadian citizens and corporations for war crimes, as defined under international law. Canadian courts are thus able to not only comply in the letter of the law with its international obligations, but actively enforce international norms in its own courts.
The existence of this piece of Canadian legislation is noteworthy. Canada was the first nation to transform the dictums of the Rome Statute into national law. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, South Africa and the United Kingdom have followed suit. However, both the United States and Israel have suspended their signatures on the Statute. As a result, neither country is bound by an obligation to the convention. Green Park International and Green Mount International, however, are registered in Quebec. The two companies are thus directly subject to Quebec and Canadian law, including the War Crimes Act.
A Court of Last Resort?
The Bil’in case is one of a growing number of civil and criminal motions filed abroad that attempt to hold Israel and its corporate agents responsible for breaches of International Humanitarian Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In November 2008, the French solidarity group Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) brought suit against Veolia Transport in France, accusing the French company of signing on to build a tramway that would link West Jerusalem to illegal colonies in the West Bank. Earlier, in 2005, the family of American activist Rachel Corrie, killed using a Caterpillar bulldozer in 2003, filed suit against Caterpillar Inc., accusing the corporation of providing bulldozers to the Israeli military knowing that they would be used to commit war crimes. These cases thus indicate an interesting new channel by which Palestinian and solidarity groups alike can challenge offences committed by the Israeli state and indict its corporate partners.
According to Ms. Schaeffer, this increased tendency reveals the failure of the Israeli court system to protect Palestinian rights.
The question of the legality of the settlements has been brought to the Israeli Supreme Court on multiple occasions. However, the courts have repeatedly refused to rule on this issue. Instead, the courts deem this concern political in nature and thus outside the jurisdiction of the justice system. Palestine and its advocates have no choice, then, but to take their lawsuits abroad.
However, Green Park International and Green Mount International have motioned to dismiss the suit. They claim that Canada is not the appropriate forum in which to try the case. Instead, the defendants contend that the suit should be heard in Israel as it is the country where the activity in question has taken place. Attorneys for Bil’in are holding fast; producing documents and affidavits from experts on the Israeli legal system to show that the legality of the settlement project are not justiciable—cannot come to justice—in Israeli courts.
The Canadian Scene
In the run-up to the preliminary hearings, Mohammed Khatib of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Schaeffer toured 11 Canadian cities in order to mobilize support for the embattled village. Complementing the lawsuit, the speaking tour was the product of the efforts of various Canadian civil society groups, national unions and Palestinian solidarity activists. The tour indicates the ability of transnational activists to raise Bil’in’s profile on the international scene: to give voice and platform to actors marginalized half a world away. To do so, tour organizers attempted to reach mainstream and independent media outlets, educating the broader Canadian population about the lawsuit and living conditions in the occupied West Bank.
It is most important that conscientious citizens come out in support of the lawsuit. Ms. Schaeffer has emphasized the ability of civil society groups to put pressure on the courts to judge fairly and impartially. In a suit attacking issues so political and contentious in nature, it is crucial, Schaeffer has said, for actors to make the judge feel as though he will be supported if he makes a decision that might very well influence Canadian-Israeli relations. The outcome of the lawsuit might depend on the political will of the presiding judge.
Bil’in is seeking a permanent injunction against the Canadian corporations. If successful, the Green Park companies will be ordered to destroy the buildings they have already constructed and pay two million dollars each in punitive damages to the village.
However, it is doubtful that such orders will ever be implemented by Israeli authorities. In order for the ruling to be enforced, the defendants will have to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to accept the Canadian decision. Despite the final outcome, one thing is certain, the villagers of Bil’in will continue to resist the Israeli occupation with the determination, perseverance and intelligence that have characterized their people’s struggle for over sixty years.
*Deborah Guterman is a community organizer and activist based in Montreal, Quebec. To find out more about the court case and how to support it, visit:http://bilinmtl.blogspot.com/