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.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File
This April 22 file photo shows the Ulpana neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El near Ramallah.

Young lawyer Michael Sfard has achieved something that the White House and left-leaning Israeli political leaders could not. His legal work on behalf of Palestinian clients is compelling Israel in at least two instances to roll back back Jewish settlements. 

Mr. Sfard won two significant supreme court decisions that, if implemented, will bring about the demolition of the unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts of Ulpana and Migron by July 1 and August 1 respectively. The outposts are to be torn down for being built on private Palestinian property, though at least in the case of Ulpana, the Israeli government is still seeking an alternate outcome.

The settlements contravene Israeli as well as international law. By turning to the supreme court, Israeli opponents of the occupation that began with Israel's capture of the West Bank during the 1967 war are enjoying a modest but noteworthy degree of success. Critics of the approach, however, argue that Sfard's actions go against the will of the elected majority in parliament, where support for the settlers is strong.

Interviewed in his Tel Aviv office, which is adorned with a map of Israel from 1958 when the country did not occupy the West Bank, Sfard, 40, says he is concerned by the Israeli government's efforts to find a way around the legal rulings.

''Our society's underlying values are at risk, real risk,'' asserts Sfard, defining these as encompassing respect for human rights and the right to property.

''I am talking about Thou Shalt Not steal. What is more basic than that?'' adds Sfard, who attributes his work on behalf of Palestinians partly to his knowledge of what Jews suffered historically as a persecuted minority. ''I have an allergy to situations where the strong, the majority is exploiting and maltreating the weak, the minority,'' he explains.

Court holding firm

The hearing on Ulpana was held after attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein backed away from a state commitment a year ago, that was enshrined as a supreme court ruling, to demolish 30 settler apartments for being built on private Palestinian property. With the clock ticking on the May 1 demolition deadline, the state last month asked the court for time to formulate a new position and to reopen the case so that the homes would not have to be demolished. The court rebuffed the request, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently still does not see that as the final word on the matter.

His spokesman, Mark Regev, told the Monitor Wednesday that the premier is still ''searching to see if there is a way legally to not dislocate all those people who bought apartments there.''

While the international community views all of the settlements housing half a million Israelis as illegal for violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, the 96 smaller outpost communities violate Israeli law too because they were never formally authorized by the government.

Sfard says the government's conduct is alarming.

''When the attorney general is ready to ask the court to reopen a case already ruled just because the government doesn't like it and I have to protect the respect for court decisions, than we are at risk. I have to convince the court that court orders should be kept? This is crazy,'' Sfard says.

Retroactive legalization of outposts

Sfard is now worried that to assuage the settlers the government will throw its weight behind proposals by right-wing legislators for a law that would retroactively legalize outposts, including Migron and Ulpana. ''This contains the seeds of destruction of our legal environment,'' he warns.

Regev says it is ''just not true" that the government is disregarding core legal values.

''The prime minister has always said Israel is a country of the rule of law, that the rule of law will prevail and that supreme court decisions will be implemented,'' he says.

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.

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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