Lawyers for a Palestinian village have begun a rare legal case against two Canadian construction companies working in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, accusing them of breaching war crimes laws and demanding an injunction to halt their work as well as damages worth around £1m.
Although there have been court cases in Israel against settlement construction, it is unusual for lawyers to take cases abroad against individual foreign construction firms, particularly under war crimes legislation.
The case, brought to the Quebec superior court in Montreal, alleges that the two Canadian firms are breaching international law by building and selling homes in part of the settlement of Modi'in Illit on land originally belonging to the Palestinian village of Bil'in.
"In so doing, the defendants are aiding, abetting, assisting and conspiring with the state of Israel in carrying out an illegal purpose," according to the writ of claim filed to the court. It said their conduct amounted to a "fundamental violation of the human rights of the villagers" and "denies them freedom of movement".
The village accuses the firms of breaching international law, including the fourth Geneva convention, as well as Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. All settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law, although Israel has for years defended its right to build there.
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The writ names the two firms as Green Park International and Green Mount International, both registered in Montreal. The lawyers said the case did not involve the similar sounding firm Greenpark International, which is based in Vaughan, Ontario, and which advertises itself as "Canada's largest homebuilder".
The two firms named in the writ are expected to strongly contest the case. In the past, lawyers representing them have argued that construction in the settlement is covered by approved planning schemes or does not substantially violate Israeli planning law. Renato Jarach, an Israeli lawyer based in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, and who represents the companies, declined to comment yesterday.
Modi'in Illit won a temporary injunction for more than a year stopping construction in one neighbourhood of the settlement, Matityahu East. However, construction has since restarted.
Then last September Bil'in won a rare victory when Israel's supreme court ordered the Israeli government to re-route the West Bank barrier away from Bil'in, returning some of the land. The barrier has not yet been moved.
It is not clear whether the Quebec superior court will decide to hear the case.
© 2008 The Guardian