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Interview: Michael Sfard, the Israeli lawyer battling illegal settlements

Michael Sfard has won two key rulings in Israel's supreme court that are applying some pressure against Israeli expansion in the West Bank.

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The decisions this year were not the first time that Sfard, legal counsel for the Yesh Din (there is law) NGO, has scored successes on behalf of Palestinians. In 2007, he convinced the supreme court to reroute Israel's separation barrier so that farmers in the village of Bilin could be reunited with their land. It took four years and two contempt of court motions by Sfard for the decision to be implemented.

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Filling opposition vacuum

Sfard views Yesh Din's legal activity, along with the work of other NGOs, as filling the role of opposition to the occupation that was once played by left-wing parties in parliament that have in recent years declined in both numbers and influence.

''I don't have any illusions that through court proceedings you can end the occupation or abuse of Palestinian rights but court proceedings are a good vehicle to bring issues to the fore and in specific cases to bring justice,'' he says.

Sfard recalls that he has always been against the occupation though his understanding of it has deepened through his work in recent years. In 1998 he was jailed for three weeks for refusing a call up to serve as a reservist in the West Bank.

Although Israeli right-wingers often attack the supreme court for, in their view, upholding Palestinian rights, Sfard does not see it that way at all. The supreme court, he says is ''one of the cornerstones on which the occupation rests, it's not a rubber stamp but rather an active player that builds the foundation of the occupation.'' Sfard has ''misgivings'' that his court actions add to the legitimacy of the court, but he says the individual interests of his clients trump this concern.

''When I represent Palestinians it's a great priviledge,'' Sfard says. ''I always tell my clients I am very proud and humbled to be your lawyer because I am seen as being a member of the dominating group that is breaching their rights. Every time I get a power of attorney, for me, it's something to be proud of.''

Critics: Go through politics

However, Yesh Din's critics charge that its activity is far from benevolent.

''Michael Sfard has discovered that through the legal system he can advance his goal of two states for two peoples. But it isn't proper to do this through the legal system, it should be done through politics,'' says Itai Hemo, spokesman for Migron settlers.

Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a group often critical of NGOs, faults Yesh Din for ''supporting the Palestinian narrative. That Israel stole the land is the principle behind all this and that the occupation is the source of the conflict rather than the result. These positions make Palestinians feel they don't have to compromise,'' Steinberg says.

But Harbi Hasan,a Palestinian landowner on whose property the settler buildings in Ulpana – or Jebel Artis, as it is known in Arabic –  were constructed, praises his Israeli lawyer for doing ''an excellent job.'' Hasan, 71, who grew up in the village of Dura al-Qara and recalls his family growing grapes on the land on which the settlers built, says: "From Dura, I can see the buildings of the settlers on my land. Just imagine the feeling. Getting it back will mean everything.''

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