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Palestinian Village Sues Over Settlement Construction
In what is sure to be a landmark case for both Canadian and international law, the Palestinian village of Bil'in, located approximately ten miles northwest of Ramallah and a scant two miles from the Green Line, is suing two Quebec-based companies for constructing condos in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
"I was approached a year ago about the Bil'in situation," said Mark Arnold, the lawyer representing the village of Bil'in in Quebec. While noting that cases such as this, in his experience, often turn out to be ill-conceived actions with no legal legs to stand on, he contends that the Bil'in case is different: "When I was convinced they [the people of Bil'in and their advocates in Israel and Palestine] were serious about this case, well, off we went to Israel and to Bil'in."
In Bil'in, Arnold saw first-hand the dire situation of the Palestinians and the inefficacy of even Israeli court rulings to halt the continually expanding construction—illegal under international law—of the expansive ultra-orthodox settlement of Modi'in Illit, now with a population of over 40,000—the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank. In contrast there are 1,700 villagers in Bil'in.
Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention from 1949 states that, with respect to territories acquired by war, "the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies." The Canadian Geneva Conventions Act of 1985 in principle makes the protocols of the Fourth Geneva Convention Canadian Law, meaning that Canada would hold its own citizens accountable for violations of international law.
Bil'in and various human rights groups in Israel and Palestine have been fighting the subtle expansion of Modi'in Illit since 1991, when the first 780 dunams (approximately 185 acres) of Bil'in land were requisitioned by the Land Redemption Fund—a project of billionaire diamond magnate Lev Leviev to buy or seize Palestinian land for Israeli settlements. Largely because of Israel's murky land registration laws, the Fund was able to seize the land and start construction without obtaining proper registry in Israel. The Israeli Housing Ministry has since approved all construction in the settlement without identifying illegally seized land.
At least as far back as 2004, Green Park International, Inc. and Green Mount International, Inc., two corporations registered to the same address in Montreal, have been under contract to build at least 3,000 housing units in Modi'in Illit. "When we knew about these companies," said Dr. Abdullah Aburahma, a representative from the Bil'in Popular Committee, "we followed things to the Israeli courts. We found no justice and so we decided to go even further to the Canadian court and [its] following of the [4th] Geneva Convention."
Arnold, having plainly drawn the lines connecting two Canadian companies involved in a business activity that violated Canadian law, filed the lawsuit in the Quebec Superior Court in July. "I didn't know if it would get anywhere," said Arnold, noting the shadowy existence of the two companies, which may have no assets and no employees in Canada. "Then I got a call from a lawyer in Montreal who said, 'I'm defending them [Green Park and Green Mount].' We had a friendly chat about it. That was the last friendly chat we had."
The sole name listed on the registries of these two companies is Annette Laroche, who apparently retained defense counsel, but has declined to speak to the media. On behalf of the village council of Bil'in, Arnold is also seeking $2 million in punitive damages from Green Park/Green Mount and a further $25,000 from Laroche—not recompense for lost land, he says, but punishment for illegal activity and a warning to others. The trial is set to begin in early 2009 and a lengthy court battle and appeals process is expected.
Arnold seems amply qualified for this ground-breaking case. In 2004 he co-represented Houshang Bouzari, the Iranian-born Canadian who sued the government of Iran for torture. Bouzari accused the Iranian regime of kidnapping and torturing him ten years earlier while he still lived in Tehran. The Ontario Superior Court and ultimately the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected the case on the basis of the 1982 State Immunity Act, which prevents a citizen of Canada from suing a sovereign state for alleged crimes committed outside of Canada.
While unsuccessful, the case of Bouzari v. Iran highlighted the fact that the Canadian State Immunity Act, in preventing prosecution of crimes against international law such as torture, clashed with other Canadian laws, including the 2000 Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, the 1985 Geneva Conventions Act, and even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—Canada's de facto constitution.
The Bil'in case may have a few similarities to Bouzari's. Arnold's motion to the Quebec court alleges that the two companies "on their own behalf and as de facto agents of Israel, are, and have been illegally constructing residential and other buildings and marketing and selling condominium units...thereby creating a new dense settlement on the lands of the village of Bil'in. In so doing, the defendants are aiding, abetting, assisting and conspiring with the State of Israel in carrying out an illegal purpose."
So, in essence, because Arnold and Bil'in are suing a contracted agent of a sovereign state, the defense is almost certain to invoke the immunity law and request the case be thrown out. Nevertheless Arnold is optimistic that the case will hold up. "The law is clear. The facts are clear. Why are we going to lose?"
Michael Mandel, a law professor at York University and expert in international criminal law and constitutional law, is pessimistic. "You can't get a fair trial in a political case in Canada," he said. "Canadian courts aren't democratic. The judges are appointed by Liberal or Conservative [political parties]. They are chicken-hearted. That's why we're going to lose this case."
Adam Hanieh, a Toronto-based academic and former head of the Defense for Children International (DCI) Palestine, approached the analysis of the case via the long view. "Court cases like this play an important educative role in our society," he said. "The impact of this case is the awareness of Canadian complicity in the occupation [of Palestine]. We need pressure from the streets...pressure on these institutions in the model of [resistance to] South African Apartheid."
Bouzari might agree with this approach. After he lost his case against Iran, he started a grassroots initiative, the International Campaign Against Torture (InCAT), specifically to lobby the Canadian government to repeal the parts of the State Immunity Act that exempt violators of international law from prosecution.
Arnold demurred at the suggestion that a court defeat is a fait accompli. While affirming the importance of educating the public, he preferred to trust that the laws of Canada will prevail over the delicate politics involved in a case such as this. International law considers the Israeli settlements to be a war crime. Section 6(1)(c) of Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, to name one example of a relevant law in the Bil'in case, states that "every person who...commits outside of Canada a war crime is guilty of an indictable offence and may be prosecuted for that offence."
His best-case scenario: "We'd get a Cease and Desist order [on Green Park and Green Mount]. Then we'd take it back to Israel and tell them, 'Enforce the judgment of the Canadian court against these two companies.' Nothing will give me greater pleasure than taking this to my Israeli counterparts. But that will be the bigger roadblock."
Indeed, stopping the construction of settlements on Bil'in and other Palestinian land may be too much to hope for in this case. Nevertheless, for Arnold and his clients, setting a firm precedent in Canada that collaboration with crimes against international law will not be tolerated would be no small victory after so many years of hopelessness in the battle against Israeli settlements.
Richard A. Johnson is a writer and editor who splits his time between Toronto, Texas, and the Middle East. His writing has appeared in the Walrus, This Magazine, the Globe and Mail, the San Antonio Express-News, and other places.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
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MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.