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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Michael Sfard

Born into a politically engaged family with very clear positions on human rights and democracy, today, Michael Sfard is a dedicated international human rights lawyer and activist. He represents Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, communities, committees and individuals. Sfard's cases deal directly with the Occupation, and range from those dealing with the route of the Separation Barrier to defending conscientious objectors and Palestinian prisoners.

  • Tell me a little about the home you grew up in.

    My parents immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1968, three years before I was born, under circumstances of forced emigration.1 My mother's family was forced to leave because her father was a sociology professor at the University of Warsaw, and my father's family because my father was active in the university's student committee and was a central activist in the 1968 students' struggle. Both families were driven out - sacked from their jobs, thrown out of university, became outcasts, enemies of the nation - because of the pro-democratic activity they engaged in. In the home I grew up in there was a very present allergy to the persecution of opponents of the regime, of those who had different opinions. There was an allergy to the limitation of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Unlike in many homes of people who had come from the Eastern bloc2 - who, as a result of the years they spent living in the Eastern bloc were afraid to express their opinion, afraid to speak against the opinion of the authorities - in my home it was exactly the opposite. It was present throughout my childhood and has undoubtedly had an influence on me. Many journalists lived in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I lived, near the famous Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, from the age of five. In fact, I think we were the only ones who weren't journalists. Life in the shadow of these journalists turned my parents' house into a kind of United Nations. Journalists constantly quarrel and make up, and there are jealousies and squabbles, and everyone used to come to our place to argue and make peace. They trusted my parents and told them all their secrets. The house was very involved in matters of current affairs. Since as far back as I can remember, there were always discussions at home about political issues and subjects on the public agenda. At an early age I was part of all that. It was a very politically, engaged home, with very clear positions about democracy and human rights.

    • 1In 1968, opposition to the Polish Party, the leading party in the Polish government at the time, grew exponentially after the government shut down a University of Warsaw play that the government claimed to be anti-Soviet (Poland was allied with the Soviet Union at the time). Protests began in March 1968 against the government's opposition to intellectual discourse and spread to other universities, with both teachers and students participating. The government's harsh response to these protestors and their sympathizers included forced emigration. See Ost, David. Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990, pp. 49-54.
    • 2Also known as the Communist Bloc, Soviet Bloc or Eastern Europe. Refers to states in central and eastern Europe allied with the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. See "Soviet Bloc." 2005. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. 7 December 2011. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/soviet bloc.

  • You are active in a legal struggle to preserve human rights and you are politically active in the Israeli struggle in the West Bank and Gaza. Tell me how you became involved in this activity.

    I've always been an activist. I was an activist as a high school student, continued to be an activist as a university student, and am an activist today. Today, I have another tool for my activism, the legal tool, and that's wonderful. I feel that I can contribute, that I have a relative advantage that goes beyond participating in demonstrations. I also demonstrate if necessary. I am lucky to be earning a living doing what I would have liked to do after work hours if I had a different job.

  • Who were your teachers?

    First and foremost, my parents, of course. Shulamit Aloni is also a major influence. Today, I know how much of the world of human rights exists in Israel because of her. I was introduced to this world through her and through her activity. In a more professional sense, Avigdor Feldman,3 who I did my apprenticeship with and later spent several years working for as an attorney. I learned a lot from him, beyond law. Working alongside him mainly developed my critical thinking. He is a person who is highly aware of power structures, and with his help I learned how to analyze things. Today he is a personal friend.

    • 3Avigdor Feldman is a well-known and active Jewish Israeli civil and human rights lawyer. While studying law at American University in Washington, DC, he worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on various civil rights issues. After his return to Israel, Feldman established the Association of Civil Rights in Israel's Legal Defense Center. Feldman is currently a board member of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. See Yoaz, Yuval. "The quiet revolution." Haaretz. 25 May 2004. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/business/the-quiet-revolution-1.123451.

  • Was there a specific experience that drove you to your activities today?

    The army was a crisis. The feeling I had after [serving in] the army was that we had been deceived all along. I served in the Nachal.4 I was a military paramedic. I spent some time in the Territories, but that was marginal. The majority of my service was spent in south Lebanon, which was under a much crueler and harsher occupation,5 in my view, than the Territories. I started peeling off layers of education - school, television, what they tell us, the Day of Remembrance - and I started realizing that things are a bit more complicated than the simplistic way in which they are presented in the trajectory that a Jewish-Israeli child follows from birth until he completes service in the army. There is a kind of trajectory, a well-oiled machine that burns into our consciousness a certain narrative. A lot of the things are difficult to look at as an absolute truth. I started being introduced to that under all kinds of circumstances while in the army. After the army, when I did a course in Neve Shalom on Jewish-Arab encounters, I went through some processes. In the army, I didn't feel like we were the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the victims against the bad guys. I felt the opposite. You are in uniform, against a civilian population, whether it is in Lebanon or in the Territories, and it doesn't sit well with the whole image for which you went to a combat unit in the first place. It didn't sit well together and it caused a real identity crisis. The identity crisis was increasingly exacerbated through the 1990s. I was released from the army in '94 and in '98 I started my apprenticeship. I worked as a lawyer with Avigdor for a year and in 2000 I ran away to London with my wife, feeling as though I was a refugee. I come from a family of immigrants and I know that emigration is actually a tragedy. I went away to do a master's degree. That was the pretext. The truth is that I went away feeling exiled in my own country and feeling as though I didn't really have a community to relate to. It was an amazing year, a year of perspective, a year of meeting people from all kinds of different countries. I remember arriving in London and buying a copy of the Guardian6 and reading, and turning on the television and seeing that all the main headlines were about Congo - main headlines about foreign news, about a country in Africa. You realize that there is life in other places as well. Professionally speaking, although studying was the pretext, the experience nevertheless changed my life. I studied international human rights law and discovered the subject I wanted to work in. When I came back [to Israel] - and when I left I wouldn't have put money on me coming back, nor on the reverse - the group Courage to Refuse was just being founded. Several weeks after I got back I went to the first conference. I entered the room and I saw 200 people who thought and felt like I did. From that moment on it was clear to me that I needed to be an activist.

    • 4Founded in 1982, the Nachal Brigade is one of the Infantry Corps brigades in the Israeli army. See "Nachal Brigade." Israel Defense Forces. 7 December 2011. http://dover.idf.il/IDF/English/units/forces/ground/infantry/nachal/Headquarters/default.htm.
    • 5After entering Lebanon in 1982, Israeli military forces occupied southern Lebanon until 2000. See War of 1982.
    • 6The Guardian is a British newspaper. See the newspaper's website at http://www.guardiannews.com/.

  • In the legal activity that you are involved with, what is most important for you to achieve and how do you go about doing that?

    It's important for me to win. A lawyer who doesn't think about victory and doesn't want to win, shouldn't be a lawyer. But I'm aware that victory comes in all shapes and sizes. There is one kind of victory in which you receive a ruling that gives you the remedy you sought; there is another in which one follows a procedure that provides the remedy without a ruling; then there are cases in which a loss is a victory. I say this [last scenario] in the clearest way possible, a loss in the formal sense - the court denies you - but in reality the case stirred up a public debate and conveyed a message. I know of several formal victories that were losses in the long run. Lawyers have a very narrow outlook. They look through the lens of the legal argument and the end result in court. I try to understand and be aware of more than that. I think, and this is reflected in the list of things that I have been involved with, that in many of the matters I am active in, it is wrong to only have a legal procedure. A legal procedure supports public action and vice versa, public action supports the legal procedure. To put all the stakes on only the legal procedure is a gamble that is often irresponsible. I know of struggles that have resulted in nothing because ultimately they only concentrated on the legal procedure. I think law is one part of a whole array of instruments for social change, sometimes an important part, sometimes less so. In the area of social change, law never stands on its own.

  • What are some of your most significant cases? How did they end?

    I have had many important cases. I'm thinking of Bil'in, which ended successfully. It's true that the village didn't get all its land back, but Bil'in has become a symbol, and ultimately the court did not only order the route of the fence to be changed, but actually said what we - myself, the Bil'in village council and the Palestinian public - had been claiming all along: "You are lying. The fence is not a security fence, its route is determined by considerations relating to the expansion of settlements." In addition to the physical return of hundreds of dunams of land, I see this [statement] as a great success, It was a very important case and also a successful one.7 In the fence case of five villages in the Alfei Menashe enclave, which was brought before a panel of nine judges following the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the court also ruled that the fence was illegal and had to be moved.8 Three villages that had been inside the enclave were taken out of the enclave. That's also an important case. I represented the Aramin family,9 whose daughter, Abir Aramin, was shot dead by a border policeman in Anata while she was in the street during school recess. Soldiers in a border police Jeep simply shot in all directions without any justification. I began handling the case from the day she was killed. Bassam,10 who is an amazing man, was surrounded by the support of Israelis, also impressive people, who never left him, especially after his daughter's death. I became very emotional about this story. It's a case that has touched me. I had just become a father myself when it happened and it severely affected me. I'm proud to say that over the years, Bassam and I have become close friends. In my opinion there were many successes on the way and there was a failure in the end.11 But, even when the result at the end of such a case is not the remedy I sought, there is something [significant] in the process. In the procedures I am involved with, when I represent Palestinians, there is something healing in the process itself. The overriding philosophy of the period is separation - a separation fence, all the different kinds of separation - and displays of solidarity between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians - these are small triumphs over this separation.

    • 7See the first Israeli High Court ruling on route of the Separation Barrier near Bil'in at "HCJ 8414/05." 18 February 2007. Israeli High Court of Justice. 9 December 2011. http://elyon1.court.gov.il/files_eng/05/140/084/n25/05084140.n25.pdf. For information about how subsequent petitions filed by Bil'in villagers and the response of the Israeli state and army, see Lazaroff, Tovah and Dan Izenberg. "IDF rerouting barrier near Bil'in." Jerusalem Post. 11 February 2010. http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=168424.
    • 8See a summary of and the full Israeli High Court ruling on the Alfei Menashe enclave case at "Israeli High Court of Justice rulings." Diakonia. 9 December 2011. http://www.diakonia.se/sa/node.asp?node=861.
    • 9For more information about the Aramin family in general and the court cases surrounding the 2007 murder of their 10 year old daughter Abir, see Macintyre, Donald. "Bassam Aramin's search for justice." The Independent. 18 August 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bassam-aramins-search-for-justice-2055355.html; and Sherwood, Harriet. "Israel to pay family compensation over killing of Palestinian girl." The Guardian. 26 September 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/26/israel-pay-family-compensation-palestinian-girl.
    • 10Bassam Aramin (1969- ) A Palestinian nonviolent resistance figure. Arrested at the age of 17 for throwing a hand grenade at Israeli soldiers, Aramin spent 7 years in jail. In 2005, Aramin helped found Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants that believe in and are working toward a nonviolent end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. After his 10-year-old daughter Abir's death by an Israeli soldier in 2007, he joined the Bereaved Families Forum, an organization comprised of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See "Bassam Aramin's search for justice." The Independent. 18 August 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bassam-aramins-search-for-justice-2055355.html; and "Bassam Aramin (East Jerusalem)." Combatants for Peace. 21 December 2011. http://cfpeace.org/?cat=6&story_id=667.
    • 11In July 2011, the Israeli High Court closed the case of the murder of Abir Aramin without indicting specific policemen that were suspected of her murder. For more information, see "The Killing of Abir Aramin." 17 January 2007. Yesh Din. 9 December 2011. http://www.yesh-din.org/infoitem.asp?infocatid=18; and "HCJ rejects petition to indict policemen suspected of killing Abir Aramin." 11 July 2011. Yesh Din. 9 December 2011. http://www.yesh-din.org/infoitem.asp?infocatid=138.

  • What other small victories have you had?

    The case of Jonathan Ben-Artzi12 which went from being a case in which the military judges a guy who refuses to enlist under the claim that he is an egotist who is not willing to enlist, into a case in which the military is judged for failing to understand what pacifism is. I questioned the person who headed the Conscientious Objectors Committee13 at the time, and the questioning showed that he was completely ignorant about pacifism. According to him he would not have exempted Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. These were small successes but there was also a big success. In the end, Jonathan was released, albeit, not as a conscientious objector, but because the army had, had enough of the struggle and his sentence was struck off. I felt I did well in the case and it was important to me. It was one of my first cases after starting my own practice and the conscientious objector aspect is close to my heart, since I was an objector myself. When you help people fight for their rights they start saying, "I'm entitled to that and I'm going to fight for it." It's empowerment. The small successes are there in the souls of people whom I've met and have gotten to know over the years. I feel that being able to help people have such an experience is one of my immense privileges.

    • 12For more information about Jonathan Ben-Artzi's case, see Urquhart, Conal. "Netanyahu nephew faces jail as army refusenik." 8 March 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/09/israel; and Galili, Lily. "High Court refuses to call IDF refusenik a 'conscientious objector'." Haaretz. 1 June 2005. http://www.haaretz.com/news/high-court-refuses-to-call-idf-refusenik-a-conscientious-objector-1.160122; and "Jonathan Ben Artzi: Israeli Supreme COurt Grants Victory to Draft Resister." 19 October 2007. Richardsilverstein.com. 9 December 2011.
    • 13For more information about Jonathan Ben-Artzi’s case, see Urquhart, Conal. "Netanyahu nephew faces jail as army refusenik." 8 March 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/09/israel; and Galili, Lily. "High Court refuses to call IDF refusenik a ‘conscientious objector’." Haaretz. 1 June 2005. http://www.haaretz.com/news/high-court-refuses-to-call-idf-refusenik-a-conscientious-objector-1.160122; and "Jonathan Ben Artzi: Israeli Supreme COurt Grants Victory to Draft Resister." 19 October 2007. Richardsilverstein.com. 9 December 2011.

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a legal approach against human rights violations in general, and the construction of the Separation Barrier in particular?

    This is a big question and there's endless research related to it. Is it possible to change social conventions and is it possible to implement social change through the legal system? When there's a groundbreaking ruling in the area of the freedom of speech, in the area of gays and lesbians, in the area of animal rights, is it the legal system that's leading the public or is the public already there and the legal system is only now recognizing it? It's a very difficult question, especially in the State of Israel where there is no such thing as a public - there's the conservative public and the liberal public, there's the public in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. We sent a woman who had been a man14 to the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 and at the same time we threaten not to allow a photographer who wants to photograph people in the nude15 in the Dead Sea into the country. This is our society. It's very hard to say what the public's position is. On the subject of the fence and the legal struggle, there is a difference between the legal struggle in Israel and the one abroad. I wrote an article that dealt with the question: "What is the price you pay for internal resistance to a massive violation of human rights?" There's a difference between internal and external resistance. Internal resistance takes place within the structures of the authorities that are performing the human rights violations. To appeal to the court in The Hague, to try and obtain international pressure, is external resistance. There is a price to pay for internal resistance. We come to the [Israeli] Supreme Court of Justice and need to get a security-led justification for the construction of a barrier. The question is what is the correct route that the barrier should take? Is accepting the language, accepting its use, and legitimizing the basic idea a worthy price to pay? I think that the court's behavior over time on the subject of the fence has really intensified our dilemma because there's been some success in relation to the fence. The legal procedures in Israel led to a situation in which, thanks to the Supreme Court rulings and their resulting changes,16 we have gone from a fence that was supposed to eat into 20-25% of the area of the West Bank to a fence that eats into 8.5% of it. [The rulings were] made by the State out of an understanding that the reality would not stand the test of the Supreme Court. There are people whose livelihoods have been saved, and there are entire families whose lands have been saved. But there is also another side - the legitimacy that has been granted and the lands that have been confiscated [through those court rulings]. Now, there's that public in Israel who can tell themselves that they can sleep in peace because the court checks when things are going too far, and because of this they don't take to the streets. On the other hand, let's say the Supreme Court was banned, the Palestinians said, "We are no longer appealing to the Supreme Court," and [Israel] built a system in which the Seam Zone was 20% of the West Bank. Then 100 villages would not have suffered, but 300 villages, and 10,000 Palestinian residents would not have found themselves on the wrong side of the fence, but 100,000, and the bureaucratic apparatus of the permits would have become monstrous. Would it have even been possible to manage this thing? Have we not, with our appeals, made this thing turn into something manageable? Alongside the security forces that are responsible for the fence, there are parts of the fence for which I am also responsible because I influenced its route. It's become a joint project of human rights organizations and the security forces. These are terribly difficult questions and it's a dilemma that exists beyond the context of the fence. For me this dilemma has been reconciled. As a human rights lawyer, as a human rights activist, I can't sacrifice the individual for the sake of some collective good. A client comes to me and says, "They're going to take away my grove." Will I tell him: "Listen, but the Palestinian people need, it's better that..."? No! I have to act on his behalf. You need to leave these questions to the academy and mainly be conscious of them. It's true that there are red lines here, too. The villages of Azzoun and Nabi Eliascame to me. The fence seized 1,200 dunams of their densely planted olive groves for no reason. It turned out that in this case17 the State deceived the Supreme Court and didn't tell the truth about its rationale for the route. [The State] claimed that it was for security reasons, when, in fact, they planned on building an industrial area for the settlement of Tzufim there. The leaders of the [Palestinian] council met with me and I started telling them: "Listen, it seems illogical to me, we can try and demand that they change the..." They looked at me with total mistrust and said: "Listen, all we need is a gate which we can go through to reach our land." In my mind, I immediately said that the day I ask for a gate, I get a gate. That's exactly what the army wants. For them this is my role, to enable the management of this system. I must say that if [the council leaders] had insisted on not wanting to appeal against the fence itself, but only to demand a gate, I would have found it very difficult to represent them in the case, because for me that is virtually collaborating with and aiding the system in building the best fence. Fortunately for me, as well as for them, they agreed to file a petition against the fence. We won this petition and the route of the fence was changed.

    • 14Sfard refers to Jewish Israeli singer Dana International. See Adams, William Lee. "Israel Chooses Transsexual Dana International for Eurovision 2011." TIME. 9 March 2011. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/03/09/israel-chooses-transsexual-dana-international-for-eurovision-2011/.
    • 15Though American-Jewish photographer Spencer Tunick faced political opposition to his nude photo shoot from within Israel, the shoot was eventually allowed to take place. See Levin, Roni. "1,200 Israelis model in the nude for Spencer Tunick's Dead Sea photo." Haaretz. 17 September 2011. http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/1-200-israelis-model-in-the-nude-for-spencer-tunick-s-dead-sea-photo-1.384990.
    • 16For a comparison of maps of the Separation Barrier approved by Israel, see "Five Years After the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion." July 2009. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 8 December 2011, pp. 9-11. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/D6EEB06B63FC83078525760E007280E0-Full_Report.pdf. For information on some of the Israeli High Court rulings that have affected the route of the Separation Barrier, see "Separation Wall." Hamoked Center for the Defence of the Individual. 8 December 2011. http://www.hamoked.org/TopicSearch.aspx?tid=main_15; and Blank, Yishai. "Legalizing the Barrier: the Legality and Materiality of the Israel/Palestine Separation Barrier." Texas International Law Journal. Vol. 46, No. 2 (2011), pp. 326-329. http://www.tilj.org/journal/46/Blank/Blank46TexIntlLJ310.pdf.
    • 17See more information about this case at "HCJ 2732/05 Head of the ‚ÄòAzzun City Council et al. v. Government of Israel et al. decision." Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. 8 December 2011. http://www.hamoked.org/Document.aspx?dID=6657.

  • You mentioned that the Bil'in ruling was a partial success. Is there a relationship between the legal activity in this case and the nonviolent demonstrations?

    I have no doubt whatsoever that without Bil'in's public struggle we wouldn't have gotten to the Supreme Court. And I have no doubt that without the Supreme Court the popular activity wouldn't have moved the fence by one millimeter. These are two activities that fully complimented each other. The activity of the people of Bil'in, like earlier of the people of Budrus and later of the people of Ni'lin, Nabi Saleh and other places, is innovative and unique. Its power stems from a number of factors: the first and most important one is nonviolence. The second is the fact that they don't only agree, but are happy to have Israelis participate in the struggle. The power created from the combination of these two factors is enormous, and in the first years it certainly caught the IDF, the Shabak and the border police by surprise. Having to deal with a Palestinian who is not armed with a dynamite vest created an unfamiliar situation for the authorities. They did all they could to push [Palestinians] back to the place of terrorists in an armed struggle and for six years they haven't succeeded. It's amazing. And truth be told, in the history of the Palestinians this is also a new phenomenon.17 In the past, there were attempts at civil struggles but their scope was very narrow - boycotting taxes and things like that. But as far as I remember, there hadn't been any joint nonviolent struggles18 with Israelis before Budrus and Bil'in.19 Without Molotov cocktails, without weapons, nonviolence is an immense power. The Israeli reaction to it was very helpful. The excessive use of force the State of Israel instituted against the organizers of demonstrations, as if they were organizing suicide bombings, presented the State in a very bad light.20 Bil'in's visibility made it a symbol. It's very healthy to get to a court hearing when the judges think that there is something special about the case. In the end, the ruling is the strongest ever given against the security forces. Chief Justice Beinish wrote that not only was the route that went along the bottom of the valley not there for security reasons, it actually sacrificed security interests in order to promote the additional neighborhood. The public struggle was crucial, and the creativity and nonviolence - all these things created empathy and also [effectively] conveyed the Palestinian story for the first time.

    • 17For a history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance, see First Intifada, particularly King, Mary Elizabeth. A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance. New York: Nation Books, 2007.
    • 18Sfard later briefly refers to joint action between Israelis and Palestinians that he remembers from his childhood.
    • 19During the time of the Second Intifada and afterwards, the first instances of ongoing, joint nonviolent resistance between Palestinians and Israelis took place. For more information about previous Palestinian nonviolent actions, see First Intifada.
    • 20For more information regarding Israel's response to Palestinian nonviolent organizers and others involved in nonviolent protests, see "Joint NGO Submission on Israeli Suppression of Palestinian Human Rights Activism against the Wall." 4 February 2010. Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association, The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, and the National Lawyers Guild. 6 July 2011. http://addameer.info/wp-content/images/joint-submission-israeli-suppression-of-palestinian-human-rights-activists.pdf; and "Prohibit live ammunition in circumstances that are not life-threatening in the West Bank." 18 June 2009. B'Tselem. 9 July 2011. http://www.btselem.org/firearms/20091126_use_of_live_fire_against_demonstrators_continues.

  • Do the legal struggles reinforce or weaken the occupation?

    This is the hundred million dollar question. I think there are a great many good legal struggles that reinforce human rights, that abolish harmful practices, and that lengthen the shelf-life of the occupation. I have my answer. I've made my decision. Is it the right one? I don't know.

  • What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered and how have you dealt with them?

    Cases that have to do with Palestinian prisoners are borderline lost cases. The State of Israel does not release Palestinian prisoners. 21 Not by a third, not by a half, not for good behavior and not for bad behavior. These are very draining cases, because these are people who are sometimes imprisoned for decades, who are sometimes completely different people from the ones who had been initially jailed. I had a client who got 27 years in prison for setting fire to cars in East Jerusalem. I found out, after I began representing him, that one of the cars he set fire to was my parents' car. Representing these people is very, very difficult mentally because they don't exist, they are beyond time and beyond space. It's true not only for Palestinian security prisoners. In general, it's not easy to represent prisoners. Contact with their families is very difficult because they want to see their loved ones and the chances [of success] in these cases are very slim. It's been many years since I represented prisoners in their court cases. The people I do represent [in these types of cases] tend to be much older people who committed their offenses during the First Intifada.

    • 21Israel has released Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of captured Israeli soldiers or the return of the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers. Sfard's interview was conducted before the last major prisoner exchange for the release of Jewish Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011. This interview was conducted prior to this exchange. See Gilad Shalit.

  • How do you overcome the difficulty?

    I tell people the truth. I don't build up their expectations and that's important for their mental health in managing the struggle to be released. There are people today who believe in nonviolence, people who have changed, who have a record of change, whether that's because of articles they have written or because they have taken courses. There are all kinds of reasons for change. I have clients who I think it is in the interest of the State of Israel to release. These are people we need on the outside so they can promote dialogue. So what can I tell them? I can tell them that I think they should be released, I can tell them that it's stupid for the State of Israel not to release them after they have served more than two thirds of their sentence, but I tell them that they must keep up the struggle all the time. The way to deal with it is to understand that the struggle itself is a success.

  • You said that for you the moral issue is very strong. How do you reconcile that with the fact that these individuals have performed acts that you don't necessarily morally agree with?

    I don't like the things they did, but they have been judged and they have been punished, and they have the right to be represented and to be released. All these people whom I represent were jailed before Oslo. To say that the person standing in front of me is the same person who did it? Even physically, the cells in his body have peeled off three times since then. We are talking about people who, when they were 17 or 21-22, committed offenses, and today they are people over 40 years old. These are not the same people. It depends on what they did, but I think that in some cases the State of Israel punishes them very severely, and that if a Jew had committed [the same crime], he would have been released long ago. Ami Popper was released on furlough and has already killed someone in a road accident.22 There is inequality.

    • 22Ami Popper was convicted of killing 7 Palestinians in 1990 and released on furlough in 2007, during which time he caused a fatal car accident. For more information, see Levy-Stein, Revital. "Convicted killer on furlough hurt in Arava crash; wife, son killed." Haaretz. 18 January 2007. http://www.haaretz.com/news/convicted-killer-on-furlough-hurt-in-arava-crash-wife-son-killed-1.210381.

  • What have you learned from your activity?

    The most important thing is consistency in terms of values - not to cut corners and not to take short cuts with regards to the principles you believe in. Secondly, people can make a difference if they understand the power of the nonviolent and joint way. It is a very difficult undertaking and I don't know if this is wishful thinking or a real conclusion I have reached, but the greatest successes are those that have come from this undertaking, not legal ones. I've learned that it is terribly important to define, in a very broad way, what success is. When you struggle against something big and you are very small, if you measure success in a binary way, then the frustration will be very big and very quickly there will be those who will leave the struggle because it seems hopeless. You need to know how to think strategically about successes that are not measured by the total overthrowing of the monster. Another insight is that you have to enjoy the struggle. If you don't enjoy it, you don't persevere. I try to implement that in the office. The idea is not only to sink into despair because of the situation but that we enjoy fighting it, enjoy this process. Sometimes it's hard and sometimes you do things that aren't fun, but along with them there has to be some enjoyment.

  • Have you ever made a professional decision that, in hindsight, you would have done differently?

    The question of how legitimate and right it is to involve foreign elements is always there. It is both a tactical question and a question that is beyond tactics. Over the years, I've realized more and more that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only an internal Israeli matter. The involvement of the international community is not a favor but a duty. In the first years after I started the practice, I refrained from dealing with legal procedures abroad. In recent years, I've been more involved with civil procedures abroad. I think, in general, the involvement of foreign citizens, of foreign bodies, is appropriate. I think it has also taken me time to realize that when I attack or criticize a government policy or the State of Israel, sometimes I'm doing the State a service. In meetings with diplomats, with foreign journalists or even in discussion events abroad, it has taken me time to say that I am a product of the State of Israel, my friends are also a product of the State of Israel and the State of Israel is not just Lieberman. I think that the refuseniks, for example, at the time of Courage to Refuse,23 provided the State with an excellent public relations service. I am not seeking some kind of stamp of approval as a patriot, not at all, but I'm uncomfortable with the feeling that I'm only causing damage to the State. I'm not causing damage; I do what I think is right, and if everyone does what they think is right, things will be better.

    • 23Courage to Refuse is the official name of the refusenik organization founded in 2002. See Refusenik.

  • What common mistakes do you see on the ground?

    The central mistake in this field is a lack of strategic understanding - making legal moves without understanding what happens around you. You are part of a struggle, you are not alone. Lack of coordination and lack of sharing are sometimes widespread ailments. Defeatism - I see it everywhere, in the best people - and defeatism is a fatal illness, because you come to the struggle thinking, "Well, what's the use, there's no chance, and this State! And this army! And this court!" and every loss in every battle is only proof that they are so terrible. I have no words to describe how harmful that is, how wrong. There's a vast difference between two lawyers who arrive in court with the same qualifications, and one of them comes with the belief that he can win and presents that to the judges, and the other comes with an attitude of "I'm going to lose anyway," and the only thing he wants is to show that "See, the occupier's court did this thing." So don't go to court! Go write an article!

  • You spoke earlier about an international community and about how you started to realize its importance and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is the role of the international community?

    The international community has to ensure that states do not violate international law. The State of Israel brutally violates international law all the time. It's true that the State of Israel is not the only one that violates international law, and maybe it also doesn't violate it in the most serious way, maybe that's China or the United States, but it doesn't exempt the international community from acting to stop the violation of international law [by Israel]. Here, we have a people who have been under occupation and without rights for 44 years.24 The international community has to do what has to be done to stop this violation and force the State of Israel to reach a solution that will give these people their rights. Should that be done by putting officers on trial for committing war crimes or through diplomacy? That's already a different question. When history judges this occupation, it won't only judge the State of Israel, but also the international community.

    • 24Sfard refers to Israel's military occupation of the Palestinian Territories captured during the War of 1967.

  • Tell me about The Human Rights Defenders Fund. What does the organization try to achieve and what is your involvement?

    About a year ago a few friends got together and defined for ourselves a lacuna that we saw in the existing activity of human rights organizations in Israel. This lacuna is in the protection of human rights defenders. Our feeling is that the community of human rights defenders in Israel, which is very active, has created the infrastructure to protect the victims of human rights violations, but it wasn't ready and was caught unprepared when it started to come under attack. People in Yesh Din, in B'Tselem, in the Association for Civil Rights - it is in their DNA to protect others and not to protect themselves. Something has changed drastically in the last two years in Israel, since Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone report. This community has become a community under attack. The numbers are astonishing: 170 arrests in Sheikh Jarrah in the past year, 70 indictments for nonviolence for taking part in demonstrations,25 arrests27 at Ben Gurion University, arrests near the President's house. Not to mention what has been happening for many years now on the dark side of the moon, there in Bil'in, in Ni'lin, where people are being arrested every Friday.26 Everything falls on the shoulders of a few lawyers who are doing work that is mostly pro-bono or partially paid, and payments don't arrive. These people will collapse, because it's unsustainable. We decided to try and build a mechanism that will help fund the protection of human rights defenders, a fund that raises and allocates resources. We established an advisory board of people who have experience on the ground - activists, human rights specialists and law practitioners - and together we drafted a document outlining aid criteria and a document outlining aid strategy. We determine the priorities every once in a while, because until we have resources for everyone we have to act according to preferences. We've started the work of fundraising. In the meantime, we've been funding legal protection only for arrests in the West Bank - in Popular Committees' struggles - in East Jerusalem and also in Al-Araqib in the Negev because they don't have enough resources to fund the trials themselves.

    • 25For more information about the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement and arrests/indictments from 2010-2011, see "We're coming in Solidarity." 17 September 2011. Women's Voices. 9 December 2011. http://womens-voices.net/2011/09/17/"we're-coming-in-solidarity-"/.
    • 27Ben Gurion University has had an anti-political demonstrations policy, has disciplined students for breaking that policy, and has brought in police to deal with violations. For more information, see Kashti, Or. "At Ben-Gurion University, student protests can lead to disciplinary action." Haaretz. 15 September 2010. http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/at-ben-gurion-university-student-protests-can-lead-to-disciplinary-action-1.313848; and "Today in Court: Freedom of Protest in Times of War." 5 June 2011. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel. 9 December 2011. http://www.acri.org.il/en/?p=2446.
    • 26Protests against Israel's Separation Barrier take place every Friday in the Palestinian villages of Bil'in and Ni'lin. See the villages' solidarity website's at http://www.nilin-village.org/media and http://www.bilin-village.org/english/.

  • How do the media influence your work?

    The media are an important part of the work. They are a tool. The State of Israel, for all its defects, is a state in which public opinion counts and the media have a great influence on public opinion. Moreover, the media influences decision-makers, sometimes disproportionally. Also the media oversees. There are media bodies that have an almost magical influence. They create a debate. They turn a certain subject into an issue overnight. The media are very important. However, I, as any lawyer, have a fear of cameras entering the sanctified zone between the lawyer and the client. I'm aware of the importance of the media, and the fact that part of my job and of the client's expectations of me is to also be involved in the media campaign.

  • Can you give me an example in which you felt that the media influenced a case?

    I am handling a whole legal struggle for Physicians for Human Rights on the use of soldiers in medical experiments by the IDF.27 We discovered that according to the legal situation at the start of the struggle, it was easier to experiment on a soldier than on a dog. The rules pertaining to the use of humans in medical experiments do not apply in the case of the IDF. The publication of the Anthrax story and the public interest in it had an extraordinary impact and were a great help. In the legal procedure we followed we actually achieved everything without a ruling. The army, which was so sensitive about its image and about our accusations, pulled itself together very quickly, and in fact, accepted all our demands and implemented 90% of the changes under those demands. I deal with many cases that have to do with settlers invading Palestinian land. As part and parcel of dealing with the cases, I file petitions to the Supreme Court on behalf of Peace Now and Yesh Din. They demand that the remedy I ask the State for be protection for the Palestinian residents, an eviction of the settlers and demolition of what [the settlers] have built. The media revealed that on the one hand the State says: "Yes, the right to property is important and we do not deny that we are duty-bound to protect," yet on the other hand, the State does not evict the outposts built on private [Palestinian] land. The best example of that is Migron, which has become a symbol, and has also attracted the interest of foreign elements - the American embassy, the European Union. They are demanding answers. There are residents in the villages around Migron who own the land - it's registered in their name in the land registry office. It's been ten years and the State of Israel hasn't dismantled the place.28 The involvement of diplomatic elements as well as the understanding among many people in the Israeli political system that something needs to be done in the matter is a product of exposure. They haven't evicted Migron yet, but when you say Migron, now people know that you mean the area in which they stole Palestinian land, and the State of Israel hasn't evicted it because they are scared of the settlers. Everyone is asking themselves why. This thing has power, and it's important, and you have to be conscious of that and act accordingly.

    • 27In the early 1990s, the Israeli army conducted anthrax vaccine experiments on 716 soldiers. For information on the legal case, see "Following PHR-Israel Advocacy: Army limiting the use of soldiers in medical experiments." Physicians For Human Rights - Israel. 9 December 2011. http://www.phr.org.il/default.asp?PageID=123&ItemID=1299.
    • 28Migron was established in 2002 and the Israeli High Court first ordered the State of Israel to remove the outpost in 2006, which has yet to be done. For more information surrounding the Migron case, see"The Migron Petition." October 2006. Peace Now. 9 December 2011. http://www.peacenow.org.il/eng/content/migron-petition.

  • Do you have moments of doubt about what you do?

    I have many moments in which I think that it's actually white noise. Many times I ask myself what is the impact? Where can you see a change? Where can you sense all the work of so many people, not just mine? What have we actually accomplished? In our office we have a rule - when someone is ‘down' they need to check first that the others are not ‘down', because we each have our turn.

  • Which litigation was the most challenging?

    I filed a petition against the targeted assassinations policy, a huge petition that went on for six years29 against a policy that was presented as central to the State of Israel's War on Terror. I filed the petition at a time when every few days there was a suicide bombing. I think there was no bigger challenge. Morally and legally I had no doubts about it. Morally, I was clear that this [policy] is wrong, that we are performing an execution without a trial in a state where there is no death penalty and you suddenly do a thing like that - let a secret body be the judge, the prosecutor and the executioner. This is an example of a case in which I lost on paper, but won in practice. In principle, the Supreme Court said the targeted assassinations policy was allowed, but practically, the Supreme Court posed limitations on it, and since, there have been almost no targeted assassinations.30 On the day the ruling was given, both parties claimed they had lost. In hindsight, I had a big debate with myself about whether it was right to file the petition. Am I not giving some kind of stamp of approval again? Let them do it without the Supreme Court's stamp! The ruling was given in 2006 and in the first years I really regretted filing the petition. I even felt guilty about handling the case. Later, when the numbers started coming through - it's true it wasn't just because of the petition, starting in 2007 the security situation was completely different - you suddenly realize that there is a balance of terror that curbs, that has an influence and cools down the decision-making about pressing the button. Today, I'm not sure it was a mistake. Recently, I was at a conference in the USA about the American policy of targeted assassinations in Pakistan31 and they looked at me as if I was crazy when I said I had lost that case. The case is seen as a success!

    • 29The petition was originally submitted in 2002. See the final 2008 ruling "HCJ Decision 8794/03." 23 December 2008. Israeli High Court of Justice. 9 December 2011. http://www.adh-geneva.ch/RULAC/pdf_state/HCJ-decision-8794-03-1-.pdf.
    • 30The most well-known targeted killing by Israel since this 2008 ruling was the assassination of Palestinian Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander, in Dubai in 2010. See "Hamas military commander ‚Äòassassinated in Dubai'." BBC News. 29 January 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8486531.stm.
    • 31For more information on the United States' policy on and use of targeted assassinations, see Master, Jonathan. "Targeted Killings." 7 November 2011. Council on Foreign Relations. 9 December 2011. http://www.cfr.org/intelligence/targeted-killings/p9627.

  • What is your position regarding the human rights situation of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, in Silwan, and the current struggle in Sheikh Jarrah?

    Today, you have to look at the Palestinians between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the Jordan River as Palestinians for whom Israel has created several classes. Since boyhood, I've been used to the division: there are the Arabs in Israel and there are the Arabs in the Territories. But it's not like that. There are the Palestinians of the Jordan Valley, there are those who are in the West Bank up to the fence, there are those who live in the Seam Zone, there's East Jerusalem and after them there are the Israeli Arabs. Each class has completely different responsibilities and rights. In Jerusalem, Israel conducts a system of policy and operational methods that aims to decrease the Palestinian population in the eastern part of the city. When we took over the city in '67, we gave the Arabs in East Jerusalem the status of permanent residents. Citizenship is a status that is not dependent on physical presence, a status that creates an affinity between a person and a state with a territory. I can be a citizen of Israel and live in the United States and come back to Israel because I'm an Israeli citizen. But, we gave them a status that is dependent on presence - you have rights here as long as you are here. We revoke the residence status of Arabs from East Jerusalem whose center of life for a few years is not in East Jerusalem and force them to move to the West Bank. We don't build housing units for them in a way that will allow them to live in East Jerusalem, and we create countless obstacles for those who wish to build legally because we don't plan areas for building, and we demolish houses that they build illegally. We create a situation in which a young couple in East Jerusalem has to choose between living in Jerusalem, building illegally and risking demolition and fines, or moving to a place with more housing options while risking losing their resident status. The situation in East Jerusalem is a ticking bomb and all for a motive which is almost official - to preserve some kind of proportion between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. We have an ethnic motive and all the future plans of the Israeli government and of the Jerusalem Municipality are aimed at preserving a numeric proportion between the ethnic groups that comprise the city. In my view, this is illegitimate and illegal according to international law, and also very dangerous for the city.

  • What is the next burning issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

    In the long run, the question facing anyone who lives here and one that concerns our neighbors from all over this region, pertains to the concept of citizenship and civic affiliation, because it's a springboard to transcending the ethnic issue. In a very exciting and moving way, our region is dealing with the subject of citizenship. I think that the question of civic affiliation will penetrate through to us as well. We see that the Palestinians are talking about citizenship - what do they want a state for? They want citizenship and civil rights. In those circles, where people think and write manifestos, everyone is dealing with this issue.

  • Has this activity changed you?

    One of the things that always frustrates me is that I feel that I speak in two languages. Today, I understand the complexity of the conflict with all its aspects, and it has many aspects and many dimensions, and that of course has changed me. I have also moved a lot ideologically. Five years ago I became a father, I started a law practice, I have employees, I'm almost 40, I have changed for a thousand and one reasons, but this activity is certainly one of the factors and it's hard for me to isolate it. On the personal level, I think that I make more of an effort to act according to my beliefs. It's not simple. Sometimes there are a lot of gaps between what you believe in and what you do. It's a constant struggle to reexamine all the time.

  • What would you do if you weren't a lawyer?

    A writer. If I had the talent I would be a writer or a photographer.

  • What seems hopeful to you?

    Seeing my son playing with Muhammad Khatib's32 children. It's a cliché, but what can you do. They don't understand a word of Hebrew, he doesn't understand a word of Arabic, and they play together for hours. They don't even speak the same language and within seconds they become best friends, and later I hear: "When are we going to Bil'in again? When are we going to Bil'in again?"

    • 32Muhammad Khatib (1976- ). A Palestinian resident of the village of Bil'in and Coordinator for the Popular Struggle Committee. Khatib is also a leader in Bil'in's weekly, unarmed protests against the Israeli Separation Barrier that cuts through the village. In August 2009, after his return from a speaking tour in Canada, Khatib was arrested on the charge of throwing stones. He was released soon afterwards as his lawyer proved that Khatib was in Canada when the alleged stone throwing took place. However, the court ordered him to not attend the weekly Friday protests in Bil'in. Arrested again in January 2010, Khatib was released on bail in February 2010 and ordered to report to the Israeli police station every Friday, during the times of the weekly Bil'in protests. See "Joint NGO Submission on Israeli Suppression of Palestinian Human Rights Activism against the Wall." 4 February 2010. Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association, The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, and the National Lawyers Guild. 6 July 2011. http://addameer.info/wp-content/images/joint-submission-israeli-suppression-of-palestinian-human-rights-activists.pdf.