The National Council on Canada-Arab Relations is sponsoring a Canadian tour by two lawyers with Al Haq, a Ramallah-based human rights organization that monitors and defends human rights in the Occupied Territories.
On Oct. 22, they spoke at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Their appearance, publicized by a co-sponsoring campus group under the title “Israel’s Crimes, Canada’s Complicity,” was an occasion of considerable controversy.
At the beginning of the program, John Osborne, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said that he had been bombarded by e-mails demanding that the speaking engagement be cancelled.
He rejected such suggestions as contrary to the role and purpose of a university and to the principle of freedom of speech.
Yes, he said, the title of the program is provocative, but it is perfectly legal. Students, he said, need to be provoked. He said that universities have a role to play as a forum in which issues can be debated. His remarks were met with resounding applause.
The two speakers were Dylan Smith and John Reynolds, both lawyers in the field of international law. A third panelist, a Palestinian, was refused an exit permit by the Israeli government.
Smith began with some remarks about Al Haq. Established in 1979, It relies on law as a tool to promote and protect human rights. It has representatives located in both Gaza and the West Bank. Al Haq consults and advises the Palestinian authorities on human rights matters and it has gotten under the skin of Israel, Fatah and Hamas.
Al Haq and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem work collaboratively, and they have been joint recipients of awards for their human rights work. Smith pointed out a dilemma both groups face in using the Israeli legal system.
Under international law, much of Israel’s activities relating to the Palestinians are illegal. The occupation itself is illegal, as are all of the settlements in the West Bank. The confiscation and destruction of Palestinian property is equally illegal, as is the separation wall.
But the High Court of justice, which is the Israeli Supreme Court, does not recognize the applicability of international law in such matters.
Only rarely, Smith said, does the High Court give decisions favorable to the Palestinians, and those decisions are not always implemented. Al Haq focuses on international law as a tool to try to cut through the political issues.
But at the international level, not all governments are prepared to apply the law, even if they are signatories to applicable treaties and conventions.
Reynolds displayed a series of maps of the West Bank. He pointed out that Israeli land policies have a major impact on Palestinian rights and create conflict, serving as an obstacle to peace. According to international law, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are Palestinian, but they and Gaza have been under occupation for 40 years.
Gazans needing to leave the strip for urgent medical treatment are, he said, sometimes coerced to become informants.
Currently, 60 percent of the West Bank is under Israeli military control. There are 149 settlements authorized by Israel and around 100 unauthorized. All are illegal under international law. Since 1991, the number of settlers has tripled, amounting now to close to half a million.
In discussing the Canadian role in violation of Palestinian rights, two situations were described.
One example is the construction work on settlement housing on Palestinian land in Bil’in. Work is being done on the construction by two Canadian firms, which are being sued by the town in Canadian courts.
In another example, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada collected funds to create Canada Park in the West Bank on land that had been three Palestinian villages. The villages were levelled by the Israeli military in 1967, though there was no military activity there at the time. The JNF-Canada has charitable status in Canada, meaning that Canada financially supports this confiscation and the continued maintenance of the park, open only to Jews.
Al Haq is now looking at pressing charges under international law against Israeli officials and retired generals when they are out of the country.
When a member of the audience asked about the prospects for a peace agreement with Tzipi Livni heading the Israeli government, Reynolds was pessimistic. He noted a continuous succession of weak, fragile coalition governments.
He said the real stability in Israel is not found in the governments, whose coalitions are transient, but in the military, which is stable. It is the military, he said, which calls the tune on the Palestinian question.