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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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This April 22 file photo shows the Ulpana neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El near Ramallah.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File

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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.

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