On September 18, the Superior Court of Quebec dismissed a lawsuit brought against two Quebec-registered companies by the West Bank village of Bil’in. This lawsuit claimed that the two companies were complicit in Israeli war crimes.
In this first ever application of Canada’s War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act to a civil case, Justice Louis-Paul Cullen’s judgment stated that it “would clearly be more practical to try the action in Israel rather than in Quebec.”
He also stated that the plaintiffs, the Bil’in Village Council, had not presented sufficient evidence to suggest that the case could not be heard in Israel in a fair and impartial manner.
The two Montreal-based companies, Green Park International Inc. and Green Mount International Inc., are both based in Montreal, and have been contracted to construct high-rise apartment buildings and houses in the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit, which is adjacent to the village of Bil’in.
The Bil’in Village Council disputes the companies’ claim to the land and insists that the construction of the settlement, as well as the surrounding security barrier, have cut them off from the bulk of their farmlands and olive groves.
Mark Arnold, the attorney who represented the Bil’in Village Council at the proceedings in mid-June, stated that Cullen’s ruling – a forum non conveniens in legal jargon – was “an error of law.”
“The Quebec Superior Court has jurisdiction over Quebec companies and directors who are residing in Quebec. To suggest that it goes to the Israeli High Court of Justice is simply an error,” said Arnold.
The plaintiffs moreover claimed that the two companies are complicit in Israel’s violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, and which states that in cases of military occupation, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
“What that means in the Israel-Palestine context,” Arnold said, “is that Israel, the occupier of the West Bank, cannot be removing West Bank population and replacing it with Israeli population. To do so is a war crime.”
He added that Israeli courts have never heard a case based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, and that Cullen’s decision indicated a skewed perception of the Israeli legal system.
“The problem is that [Cullen] is fundamentally wrong. The Israeli High Court of Justice will not hear this case, so he has sent this case into oblivion.”
But despite the Judge’s dismissal of the suit, Arnold said that the Superior Court’s decision to hear a civil cause of action for the commission of a war crime has set an important precedent.
“[The Judge] said in theory you could have a civil claim brought in Quebec for the commission of a war crime. But in this case, he said, the Israeli court is better suited to hear the case,” said Arnold.
Ronald Levy, the attorney representing the two corporations, said that his clients had legitimately acquired the rights to develop the land when they purchased it from another company, which in turn, he said, bought it from its Palestinian proprietor.
Levy added that the two corporations had refused to register their title to the land for fear that the proprietor would be subject to violent attacks from other Palestinians.
“They stopped registration to save the lives of Arabs from whom they purchased land,” Levy said.
Levy refused to comment on the judgment due to the possibility of an appeal, but did state that any future land claims cases brought by the Village Council to the High Court of Justice of Israel “would be, as they have in the past, properly and impartially dealt with.”
Arnold, however, was skeptical of the judgment’s faith that the case would ever be fairly litigated in Israeli court, and added that the Quebec Superior Court was the appropriate venue for such a proceeding.
“The Green Park company has no presence in Israel, it’s not incorporated in Israel, it carries on no business in Israel. And the village of Bil’in has no presence in Israel; it’s located in the West Bank. And the director of the Green Park company, who lives in Quebec, has no connection to Israel,” Arnold said.
The Bil’in Village Council remains in discussion with Arnold on whether to pursue further legal action in Quebec’s Court of Appeals.
Bil’in has garnered increasing attention in the international media since its residents began staging weekly protests against the Israeli military occupation over four years ago. The demonstrations are regularly broken up when the Israeli military fires upon them with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Mohammed Khatib, a member of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, visited Canada during the summer to participate in a speaking tour with Arnold. Upon returning to his home in the West Bank, he was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for over a week.
“[The speaking tour] was aiming to mobilize support for the struggle of this village and also in general for the Palestinian popular resistance movement,” local activist and Tadamon! member Stefan Christoff said.
Christoff asserted that the Israeli army has stepped up its nighttime raids on the village in response to the Council’s legal actions.
“It was only after they visited Canada and spoke publicly in Canada across the country to major media – during [which] CBC and the Toronto Star published interviews with Mohammed [Khatib] – that Israeli military forces started [increased] nighttime raids on the village,” Christoff said.