On April 17 of this year the small and modest Palestinian village of Bi’lin (located 7 km West of the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank) lost one of its most loved and well-known members. Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah was 30 years old when he was shot in the chest with a tear gas canister by an Israeli soldier.
On the day of his death Baseem was non-violently protesting Israel’s occupation of his land, something which he had been actively doing for the past four years. Joined by Israelis and international peace activists, Bi’lin villagers participate in non-violent demonstrations against Israel’s illegal separation barrier and settlements weekly. Despite suffering continuing psychological damage and always facing the threat of physical harm, the villagers and their supporters remain committed to peacefully resisting the Israeli government’s colonization of their land through protest as well as through legal action.
Since the Israeli courts refuse to hear Bi’lin’s case in its entirety, the village has enlisted the help of Canada to hold two Canadian corporations that are complicit in the occupation accountable. American-Israeli lawyer Emily Schaeffer, who works with a small human rights law firm located in Tel Aviv, is currently collaborating with a Canadian firm in presenting the lawsuit (initially filed in 2008) as it enters a crucial phase.
The lawsuit asserts that Green Park International and Green Mount International (not to be confused with Greenpark in Ontario), both Quebec-registered construction companies, are in violation of international and Canadian law and should be held accountable for their actions.
Bi’lin has become a symbol of persistent non-violent resistance against the Israeli government’s policies of colonization and oppression and this lawsuit presents an opportunity for Canada to use its own legislation to uphold human rights over corporate interests. In a 2006 statement made on International Human Rights Day, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his party’s commitment to protecting human rights everywhere:
“Canada’s New Government is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights both at home and abroad. We will continue to stand up for human rights and take principled positions on important issues to ensure that freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law -- values that define our country -- are enjoyed around the world.”
Harper has also received two human rights awards, from the Canadian Jewish Congress as well as from B’nai Brith International. If his government is indeed committed to protecting human rights “everywhere” and the Canadian judicial system also believes in these values, then this is a prime opportunity to turn words into action and set a precedent domestically and internationally. This lawsuit also enables those Canadians who allege support for human rights to express solidarity with the Palestinians of Bi’lin and all other Palestinians who are being subjected to the Israeli government’s oppressive policies.
Immediately before Baseem was shot he was urging the Israeli soldiers to stop what they were doing because an Israeli protestor had been injured. This act of selflessness, in solidarity with a non-Palestinian, ultimately cost him his life. Will Canada express the same solidarity with non-Canadians that are needlessly being harmed due to the actions of complicit Canadian corporations? We will find out after today, when the Canadian court rules on the defence’s motions to dismiss.
The interview below was conducted earlier this month with Bil’in’s Israeli legal representation, Emily Schaeffer.
Jasmin Ramsey: Please tell me about your law firm and the work you do.
Emily Schaeffer: I work in a small private law firm, five lawyers, who mainly do Palestinian human rights work but in general we do human rights and civil rights and we tend to represent NGOs and a lot of our cases are focused on the wall, settlements and other general trademarks of the occupation.
JR: Why are you currently touring Canada?
ES: I’m on this tour both to raise awareness about the issues involved in the occupation and specifically within Bi’lin, but also to talk about this interesting, historical court case which is a good means of educating people about the issues and where international law comes into play and what opportunities we have to fight the occupation not just within Israel, but also abroad.
JR: Where is Bi’lin located and why is the land desirable?
ES: Bi’lin is located 7km west of the city of Ramallah in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, but it’s also located quite close to what’s known as the “Green Line” or the 1949 Armistice Line which is generally recognized as Israel’s border and so it’s desirable both because its rich agricultural land but it’s mainly important for its proximity to Israel and the way it can be used to expand the potential future border of Israel.
JR: What do you know about the two companies that you’re launching the lawsuit against?
ES: Green Park International and Green Mount International are two corporations registered in the province of Quebec but other than the construction that they do on Bi’lin’s land as part of the settlement neighborhood within Matityahu Settlement Block, we don’t know of any other activities they’re involved in. They’re sort of a mysterious entity but we do know that they’re registered in Quebec and therefore also subject to Canadian law.
JR: Do you believe that this project is solely profit motivated?
ES: Actually, I don’t. We have speculation to rely on only behind who is behind these corporations but it seems logical that the person or persons behind the corporation are ideologically motivated and therefore have chosen to build of all places on the West Bank, inside an Israeli settlement.
JR: What can you tell me about former village member Baseem, otherwise known as Pheel?
ES: Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah, or “Pheel,” which was his nickname, was killed on April 17 at one of the Friday weekly demonstrations against the wall and settlements. Pheel was always at the forefront of all the protests and was really one of the main activists from within the community and eventually lost his life to being part of this non-violent resistance. We are all mourning his loss and I think in some ways this lawsuit is dedicated to him.
JR: I know that you’ve seen footage of when Pheel was shot. Was he doing anything violent or resisting in a way that would cause the Israeli soldiers to react like that?
ES: For four and a half years Pheel has been at the front of every single demonstration and he’s never, to the knowledge of any witness or any video that I’ve seen, thrown a stone or done anything violent. Pheel was always carrying a flag and he was always speaking to the soldiers. In fact he would try to speak to them in Hebrew, he would try to speak their language both literally and in terms of treating them like human beings, treating them like people. At the moment that Pheel was shot, he was shot with a tear gas canister -- I just want to point that out because that’s illegal use of a crowd disbursement tactic. At the moment he was shot, he was telling the soldiers in Hebrew: ‘Stop, stop shooting, you’ve injured an Israeli protestor.’
JR: Bi’lin demonstrations are often joined by Israeli and international protestors. Why is the presence of Israelis at these demonstrations important?
ES: It’s important for a number of reasons. First, as the most basic reason, the presence of Israelis changes the military orders that the IDF (the Israeli military) is given in terms of how they’re allowed to respond to demonstrators. What that means is that they’re not allowed to fire live ammunition and that they’re supposed to restrain themselves as much as possible from shooting even rubber bullets so it actually makes the demonstrations safer for everyone involved. Also, the message that a joint struggle and a joint demonstration sends to the soldiers and the Israeli public is that Israelis too are opposed to settlements and the wall. Lastly, for Bi’lin I know it’s been very important for them as a community to show their children and the next generation Israeli faces that did not include soldiers and settlers.
JR: What happened with the lawsuit that Bi'lin launched in Israel?
ES: Bi'lin launched two related lawsuits, one against the settlements and one against the wall, but the settlements lawsuit was different than this lawsuit because it didn't claim that the settlement on Bil'in's land was illegal in and of itself, it claimed that the Israeli approved plans for the settlement were acquired unlawfully. That's a completely different claim than what we have over here in the Canadian courts. What we have here is a claim that it's illegal to create settlements on occupied land period and Israeli law is not involved in this case at all. The case that we've brought in Canada could not have been brought in Israel.
JR: Who is persuading the settlers to move into these areas?
ES: For the most part its various different interested organizations of which Green Park and Green Mount International are in fact involved in distributing marketing that is used to convince settlers who are not even necessarily ideologically connected but for economic interests to move to settlements because it is just cheaper to live there. Then there are the ideological settlers who make up approximately half of the settlers we see among the 460,000 that are now in the West Bank who don’t need to be recruited since they are part of a movement.
JR: Why is Bi’lin seeking punitive rather than compensatory damages?
ES: This is actually quite significant. Bi’lin was very deliberate in choosing not to ask for any money in exchange for its land. In other words, the village is not willing to put a price on its land or what it means to the village, on dignity, on its history, on their identity, but it is willing to force the corporations to pay a penalty and this is different because it is more like a criminal scenario. You do a wrong deed, you pay the price, but that price has nothing to do with the value of the land.
JR: This is really the only way of holding a corporation accountable, isn’t it? If citizens can’t and governments won’t, then a financial loss is the only way of making them suffer undesirable consequences which will act as a deterrent against future misdeeds.
ES: That’s the whole idea and the village was very aware of this when we discussed the possibility of going abroad. They knew that they would be helping to set a precedent for other corporations engaging in business that results in human rights violations – they should be held accountable and subject to deterring penalties.
JR: Why is it significant that the Israeli military is designated as the judicial, executive and judicial branch in that region?
ES: It’s significant because this means that there is an absence of checks and balances in the system. So the same authority that is shooting at non-violent protestors is also the one that approves construction of settlements on villagers’ land and the construction of the wall and they run the courts that villagers that are accused of stone-throwing go to be sentenced. This same authority that is judging matters related to Palestinians is also not interested in Palestinian matters as it is a foreign entity.
JR: What is the best case scenario for the current lawsuit launched in Canadian courts?
ES: We are currently facing motions to dismiss and we hope that the court will rule in our favor and not dismiss the case and from there we will move on to trial, which will take place in the Fall and then hopefully that will result in us getting the 3 things that we demanded in the lawsuit -- which are that the court will declare the settlements illegal under Canadian and international law, that corporations be required to remove the buildings from the land and that they pay the associated penalty. After that point the question will come down to how to enforce the decision on the corporations. Ideally the Israeli courts would then take that decision and implement it on the ground over there.
JR: As an Israeli citizen you are clearly part of the minority of the current makeup of Israeli society. Why do you choose to engage in this kind of work?
ES: This work is important to me because I am very concerned about what’s being done by Israel in the name of Jews. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Jews support what Israel is doing and I’m one of them. But the point is that the country is trying to speak for all of us and I, as a descendent of Holocaust survivors and as someone who grew up with this history of what it means to be a refugee and what it means to be oppressed, cannot tolerate the idea of an oppressed becoming the oppressors.
That is a common feeling among other activists and lawyers like me. It’s also important for Israelis that feel this way to take a stance on the occupation because our voices can unfortunately be heard better than the voices of the Palestinians and so we can maybe reach people that the Palestinians have no chance of reaching. So I take it as a responsibility, but it is really a welcomed responsibility too.
You can learn more about Bi’lin by going here. Please also note that the village of Bi’lin, unlike the corporations in question, are struggling when it comes to financing this case. Acts of solidarity also involve financial support, and donations towards the legal fees can be made here.
Jasmin Ramsey is a Canadian photographer and independent journalist. She is also a contributing editor at PULSE Media.