Talking Palestine-Israel


A Conversation With Michael Sfard

Pursuing Justice in the Abuser’s Court

By David Kattenburg

Is justice served by defending someone’s right to a tiny slice of judicial relief, if victory means a vastly larger act of injustice is sustained, perhaps even consolidated, or should a principled attorney walk away from such a mug’s game?

Israel’s largest checkpoint, Qalandia, checkpoint during Ramadan

For Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, the answer is clear. Sfard has been defending ordinary Palestinians and their communities against the arbitrary and injurious acts of Israel’s half-century military occupation — many of them flagrantly illegal under international humanitarian and human rights law — for over twenty years.

Among the best known cases the 47-year-old Sfard has successfully litigated: opposing the Israeli Defense Force’s decision to reduce the size of its ‘safety zone’ during its assaults on Gaza; opposing the permit system restricting movement in the ‘seam zone’ between the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border) and Israel’s Separation Barrier, that dives deep into the West Bank, effectively stealing Palestinian land. Also in support of the demolishing of settler outposts built unlawfully on private Palestinian land (the controversial “Amona” and “Migron” cases), and on behalf of the Palestinian village of Bi’lin, obligating Israel to re-direct the path of its wall.

Israel’s Separation Wall at Bi’lin.

Sfard’s hard won victories haven’t deflected Israel’s relentless pursuit of its settlement enterprise, though.

In some cases — the re-routing of the Separation Wall around Bi’lin, for example — small victories have been accompanied by arguably larger losses. Sfard acknowledges this, telling people, half jokingly, that he’s been one of the Wall’s architects.

Sfard sums up his moral conundrum in the title of his new book, The Wall and the Gate.

Some of Israel’s human rights defenders have opted to no longer deal with the Israeli government, or with the civil (military) administration that governs Israel’s occupied/colonized territories. “There is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working within a system whose real function is measured by its ability to successfully cover up,” preeminent Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem argued in a 2016 media release, announcing that it would no longer refer cases to Israel’s “Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories” (COGAT).

Sfard, who has worked with B’Tselem as a lawyer, understands their decision. But he’s an attorney. His job is to provide legal services to clients whose lives and livelihoods depend on court victories, however small or Pyrrhic.

Listen to my conversation with Michael Sfard here:

Images by David Kattenburg.