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June 29, 2009

Israeli Apartheid On Trial In Canada

Scott Stockdale

A couple of Canadian companies building in the West Bank village of Bil’in are in violation of both international and Canadian law, according to Israeli lawyer Emily Schaeffer.

Bil’in is next to Modin, Illit, a large settlement block on land that used to be part of Bil’in, and close to the Palestinian villages of Milin, Kharabata, Deir Qadis and Saffa.

On June 22, a Quebec Superior Court in Montreal, will decide whether or not to hear Bil’in’s case. Village representatives are accusing Green Park International and Green Mount International – two companies registered in Quebec – of illegally constructing residential and other buildings and infrastructure on the village’s land.

According to the lawsuit, the village land is subject to the rules and obligations of international law because the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation. If the Quebec court agrees to hear the suit it will be the first time a foreign court allowed a lawsuit against one of its companies for activities in an Israeli occupied Palestinian land.

About 100 people turned out to hear Ms. Schaeffer, Mohammad Khatib, a Bil’in Village secretary and member of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, and Mark Arnold, Canadian legal counsel to Bil’in speak at a presentation at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto, on June 13, the eighth stop in an 11-city Canadian tour.

Ms. Schaeffer said that although this will be the first time this type of issue will be heard in a Canadian court, there is a precedent for a foreign court deciding it has jurisdiction over a company from its country involved in territory disputed by Israel and the Palestinians.

“The French company Veolia was sued in a French court for constructing a tram line between west and east Jerusalem,” she said. However, she added that the case is being appealed.

Mr. Khatib said the Israeli security wall, built in 2005, cut right through Bil’in.

“Now, sixty percent of the land is separated from the village by the wall. It’s been given to the settlers to build on. There are 45,000 settlers now and they think there’ll be 150,000 by 2020. It’s now the biggest settlement in the West Bank,” Mr. Khatib said.

In response, Bil’in village residents have been staging non-violent protests against the separation wall and the settlements, every Friday, for the last four years. In a film shown by Mr. Khatib –in which he is one of the protesters – Israeli soldiers are seen beating the village protesters with batons and firing weapons into their midst. One Palestinian protester lifts his shirt to show several red welts on his back, a result of projectiles from Israeli soldier’s rifles. Villagers are heard on the film saying the ammunition being used isn’t rubber bullets, but salt. They also discuss new weapons such as bean bags and a scream weapon being used against them.

In a graphic demonstration of the scream weapon, the villagers are shown lying down and blocking their ears to protect their hearing from the piercing noise generated by the Israeli soldiers. Mr. Khatib told the audience that the village protesters are willing to endure the pain to get their message out to the world.

“We overcome our fear. We want to get hit so the world sees our non-violence against their violence…We use non-violence to take away Israeli excuses. It’s an occupation force versus civilians of an occupation.”

He stressed that the Bil’in villagers struggle is not against Jew; it’s against the occupation of village land.

“We’re against them because of the occupation. If Jews declare that they’re not part of the occupation, they are our friends. Together with these Israelis we will resist the occupation.”

Meanwhile, Bil’in has charged the two Green companies with illegally constructing residential buildings and infrastructure on village territory and then marketing it to Israeli citizens. Mr. Arnold said the 48^th article of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits an occupying power from moving its own citizens into an occupied territory. Moreover, the 1997 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that moving one’s citizens into an occupied territory is a war crime.

Ms. Schaeffer, a U.S. born Israeli lawyer, told the audience that in 2000 the Canadian government passed the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Statute, making aiding and abetting a country in committing those crimes, a crime in itself.

Despite being registered in Canada, at the same Montreal address, Mr. Arnold said a corporate search for Green Mount International and Green Park International turned up very little information.

“It was hard to find the warm bodies behind the company. The only one I could find was a woman from Quebec, who’s listed as the director of the company.”

Ms. Schaeffer said that the majority shareholder for the companies is a corporation in Panama, but that is the only other information she has been able to find.

Annette Laroche, of Deux-Montagnes, about 30 kilometres east of Montreal, is listed as the sole known company officer. In an interview after the meeting, Mr. Arnold said he thinks these two companies are shell companies set up for Israeli tax purposes. However, he added that because they’re registered in Canada, they’re governed by Canadian law.

The lawsuit asks for a declaration that the companies activities are illegal under Canadian law, the demolition of the buildings and restoration of the land the way it was, and $2 million in punitive damages, as well as a $25,000 fine for Ms. Laroche. Because they have 16 apartment buildings already built on the disputed land, the companies involved have a lot at stake.

However, the Israeli courts have repeatedly refused to rule on such issues because they say it’s a political, not a legal, issue. The plaintiffs would still be able to petition the Israeli high court with the Canadian decision. This case is one of an increasing number of civil and criminal motions that are being filed abroad, against corporations operating in Israel, for breach of international humanitarian laws.

Mr. Arnold expressed a great deal of faith in the Canadian jurisprudence system, which he described as one of the best in the world. “I know we’re going to win. I don’t know when, but I know we’ll win because we’re right,” Mr. Arnold said.

* Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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