Bilin's legal struggle continues
by Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a student and freelance journalist based in Montreal.
More of her work can be found at jkdamours.wordpress.com
The Electronic Intifada
10 November 2009
In addition to its weekly confrontations with the Israeli army, the village of Bilin has taken its case to a Quebec court. (Silan Dallal/Activestills.org)
Abdullah Abu Rahme can no longer sleep in his own home. A member of the Bilin Popular Committee Against the Wall, Abu Rahme explained that since Bilin began its legal proceedings in Canada, Israeli soldiers have made life especially difficult for residents of the small West Bank village.
"[Israeli soldiers] came to my home and they tried to arrest me. They're destroying my home. It's not allowed to me to sleep in my home. I feel very bad about this. I'm suffering from this case until now," he said. "I took my family to another place. It's very difficult for me."
Still, Abu Rahme and the villagers of Bilin are pushing forward in their nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation by appealing a Quebec Superior Court ruling in their case against two Canadian companies. The residents of Bilin are suing Green Park International and Green Mount International, two companies that, they argue, should be held legally accountable for illegally building residential homes and settlement infrastructure on the village's land, and marketing these buildings for the purpose of transferring exclusively Israeli civilians therein.
Bilin is a small Palestinian village of approximately 1,800 residents located 12 kilometers west of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Since the early 1980s, about 56 percent of Bilin's agricultural land has been designated by Israel as "State Land." It has been used to build the Jewish-only settlement Modiin Illit, which holds the largest settler population in the occupied West Bank with more than 42,000 residents and plans to grow to up to 150,000.
Israel began building its wall in the occupied West Bank in 2003. The wall literally cuts the village of Bilin in half. Since 2005, the residents of Bilin have held weekly demonstrations every Friday against the wall, garnering international attention and support for their efforts. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the wall was illegal under international law in a 2004 advisory opinion. A year later, the Israeli high court also ruled that the wall's route through Bilin was illegal and should be moved closer to the boundary of Modiin Illit. However, neither the ICJ nor the Israeli high court rulings were implemented.
The case against the Canadian companies was heard in Montreal in June 2009. However, Judge Louis-Paul Cullen found that the Israeli high court, not the Quebec Superior Court, was the best venue to hear the case. This ruling was centered on the issue of forum non conveniens, the Latin term for "inappropriate forum." According to Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli attorney representing Bilin, the term states that "if there's a better forum for the case, for various reasons, then the case should not be held or heard in the court it's being brought to but rather in another court."
Schaeffer maintains that the Quebec court is the only legal forum that can possibly hear the case, since both companies are domiciled in the province. "Israeli courts have repeatedly refused to examine the issue of the legality of settlements. Because that's the issue for the case in Canada, there's no other forum than the home of the companies who are registered and domiciled in Montreal," she said.
"The decision to appeal is because we believe we're right. We believe that the judge made an error. Our position is that the Israeli courts cannot and will not hear this case. Legality of settlements is not an issue that can be brought to Israeli courts," Schaeffer added.
The Canadian federal legal system has adopted the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court under the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Statute. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 bars an occupying power from transferring part of its civilian population to the territory it is occupying. To do so is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute.
Setting a precedent
While the overall decision was disappointing, the judge's sub-rulings can be seen as minor victories, Schaeffer explained. "The village of Bilin prevailed in almost every single aspect, and in two of the three motions. Something that we took as a victory [was that] corporations do have liability under Canadian law for their actions and violations of international law abroad. That's precedence-setting," she added.
For Schaeffer, a positive ruling would mean setting a precedent to stop other international companies from abetting Israeli war crimes. "If Bilin succeeds in this appeal, it will make more waves [in Israel] and that's a good thing because what we also want is to discourage other companies from taking similar actions and taking part in war crimes in the occupied territories," she explained.
Schaeffer added that she was as of yet unsure whether the entire case will be open to appeal, or if only the issue of forum non conveniens would be examined, and that the appeal will likely take several months before being processed.
The struggle continues
According to Freda Guttman, a Montreal-based activist who recently spent three months in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), being involved with the Bilin campaign in Canada felt like something she needed to do. "It's a very important cause. If they win this, it will set a precedent not just in Canada but everywhere. It feels like something very important to be involved in," Guttman said.
Spending time in Bilin demonstrated to Guttman just how strenuous it is for residents to keep fighting the occupation, and the immense burden it places on their daily lives. "My excitement about [the appeal] is sort of tempered by the fact that I see the toll it's taking on peoples' lives there. They never know when the army is going to come. It's just constant," she said.
For his part, Abdullah Abu Rahme explained that the ruling by the Canadian court left the villagers of Bilin feeling disheartened and upset, but they haven't lost hope.
"We are very sad about the decision about refusing the case in Canada but we hope to have another decision. We hope to [be restored] our rights and to have justice in this court," he said. Abu Rahme added that the outpouring of support from international activists has been a huge motivator for residents of Bilin, who are organizing the village's biggest demonstration yet for the five-year anniversary of their weekly nonviolent demonstrations next February.
Guttman, describing the Canadian legal proceedings as "a roller coaster," said she too is prepared for the long haul. "I don't think it's going to be easy and I don't think it's going to be quick. [Bilin is] a very important movement at the forefront of the struggle," she said.
According to Abu Rahme, that struggle will continue until justice is achieved in Bilin, the West Bank and all of Palestine. "Every Friday we are there. We want to continue our struggle. Until now there is no justice, for the wall and the settlements. We will continue our nonviolent struggle with the support of the internationals and our faith to have justice and to remove the wall and the settlements and the occupation."