Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Tough Love: Israeli civil rights lawyer Emily Schaeffer

25 May 2010

By Coby Ben Simhon, Haaretz – 20 May 2010

Emily Schaeffer

Israeli civil rights lawyer Emily Schaeffer

Emily Schaeffer can easily point to the happiest time of her life. “It started at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem,” she says, sitting on the tiny balcony off the bedroom of her apartment in downtown Tel Aviv. “I met for half an hour with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife in a room that looked like a palace. It was August, the day before a tour I conducted of Bil’in for a delegation from The Elders, an organization of global leaders whose aim is to get involved in world crises. Carter couldn’t come on the tour because of the security arrangements, so I was asked to speak with him at the hotel. But the next day, Desmond Tutu, the Peace Nobelist and a leader of the blacks’ struggle against apartheid, did come. It was amazing to escort him to Bil’in. Those were definitely the happiest moments of my life.”

She says she couldn’t have asked for more than meeting with Tutu and Carter, elder statesmen who came here to support the cause that she, too, is passionate about: the need for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Schaeffer, a 31-year-old lawyer, is one of the most prominent Israeli activists in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, whose ongoing struggle against the separation fence that divides its lands has become a symbol of the nonviolent struggle against the occupation. As an employee of the firm of attorney Michael Sfard, she was part of the legal team that represented the Bil’in council in a petition against the route of the fence, which ended with a victory for the residents. In September 2007, the High Court made a precedent-setting ruling that there was no security justification for the fence’s selected route, and ordered that it be moved.

But Schaeffer’s legal activity is only one aspect of her efforts on behalf of the people of Bil’in. Every Friday, she takes part in the demonstrations against the fence, and she comes to the village often on other days. Recently, as part of a lawsuit against Canadian construction companies involved in building the Matityahu East neighborhood in Modi’in Ilit, which is being built in part on village lands, she traveled with several of the residents on a three-week speaking tour in Canada.

It was because of such activity that the Dutch magazine Ode selected Emily Schaeffer for its list of the “25 Intelligent Optimists of 2009.” Ode, which defines itself as a journal of the “intelligent optimist community,” is a print and on-line magazine with a leftist bent that deals with “good news” and “people and ideas that improve our lives.” It was founded in 1995 in Rotterdam by two journalists and since 2004 has also published an English edition.

One of the 100,000 copies of the magazine is delivered regularly to a loyal reader, the Dutch princess Mabel van Oranje, who serves as director-general of The Elders. She was also the one who recommended that Schaeffer be included on the prestigious list, which was published in February. “I have met many remarkable people who astound me with their courage and commitment to causes that seem impossible or too idealistic to achieve,” she wrote. “One of the most impressive is a young Israeli lawyer, Emily Schaeffer. I met Emily in the Palestinian village of Bil’in [in] the West Bank, where she works with local leaders … I admire Emily deeply. Her work is smart and creative, and it embodies equality, passion and the right of all people to live in peace and dignity.”


Schaeffer says she still feels overwhelmed at all the praise. A slight American accent is detectable when she speaks; she was born in Boston, the only child of Jewish parents, second-generation immigrants from Europe. Her mother worked for an insurance company, her father is a radiologist. Her parents divorced when she was four. “I grew up with my mother,” she says. “Mom is a strong person. I learned from her that women can do whatever they want. She came to our class to convince the girls that they didn’t have to be either teachers or dancers. She told us we could aspire to anything, and that stayed with me. She wasn’t radical, but critical. I learned from her that you needn’t accept what you’re told as self-evident, that one can resist the authorities.”

Schaeffer attended public school, but always felt at home when she took part in activities of the Reform movement. “My parents sent me there when I was five. I went once a week after school, and later twice a week. In the movement we had lessons about Judaism and about Israel, in a very lighthearted way. Once we made a map of Israel out of ice cream and marked the cities with colorful M&M candies. It was Zionism-lite. At that time I also went to synagogue.”

In high school she got more involved in the Reform youth movement North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY ), and during her last summer in school she was appointed group president. “I planned activities for 200 members and also organized prayers,” says Schaeffer. “I think that at the time I was searching for an identity, for a sense of belonging, and the movement gave me that.” The Reform movement altered the course of her life. “After it didn’t work out for me to go on a summer vacation to France, I decided to go with some friends from the movement to Israel,” she says. “I was 15 and I convinced my parents that it was worth it for them to spend the money. I told them: ‘I feel like there’s a magnet pulling me to Israel.’ I don’t know where I came up with that.”

She spent six weeks traveling all over the country. “It was an intensive encounter,” she recalls. “We drove all night and got up early in the mornings. We went to Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv. We didn’t go to Bil’in, of course. We didn’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and weren’t even conscious of it. At the end of that visit I promised myself that I would return to Israel the first chance I got. I felt like I’d been through a big change, so big that it worried me. I wrote in my diary then: ‘I’m afraid to go back home, I’m afraid that people won’t understand the change that has happened to me. I fell in love.’”

Today she wears a blue T-shirt with an illustration of Israel within the 1967 borders drawn in black. “Today I’m completely at home in Bil’in, kids there run after me in the street,” she says with a smile as she adroitly rolls a cigarette and lights up. “It does me good, I need this closeness. I can’t just take part in demonstrations on Fridays, and otherwise sit in an office or a cafe in Tel Aviv. When I come to Bil’in I have to talk with people, feel them, visit them at home. We have a strong connection. They invite me to dinner and I come.”

It wasn’t always this way. Schaeffer has come a long way in becoming an Israeli devoid of nationalistic sentiment and full of human compassion. She began studying in Baltimore for a bachelor’s degree in political science, but found herself returning to Israel every summer. In 1998, she had the chance to do a year of study abroad. She chose the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It was very exciting to come back,” she recalls. “I wanted to get into Israeli culture as much as possible and understand the Israeli situation. I had a lot of Israeli friends at the university, and also an adoptive family from Ramle. I’m hardly in touch with them anymore, though. They’re total Likudniks and aren’t pleased with what I do now. But at the time we were really close.”

Broken heart

In Jerusalem she discovered the hidden world, for her at least, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In those days, before the second intifada, she found a common language with Meretz activists on the Mount Scopus campus. “I met my first Palestinian friend then, Sari Abu-Ziad, the oldest son of Ziad Abu-Ziad, who was a minister in the Palestinian government then. He told me about his childhood, what a checkpoint was, what it meant to feel like you’re living in a prison, what it’s like to be an Arabic-speaker in Israel, how frightened he was. He studied at the Hebrew University. This was before the 1999 election. We gave out stickers that said ‘With Barak There’s Hope.’ We believed that things could change. That year I plunged deep into the conflict, and it broke my heart.”

She really wanted to love Israel, but it wasn’t easy for her. “I grew up with the belief that Jews are moral people, that our job is to help the weak. It might sound naive now, but the contradiction between the essence of the Jewish state and what I saw really upset me. It was hard for my mother to accept the questions and doubts I felt. She said: ‘We were refugees, we suffered, we finally got a state, and Israel has to be a good country.’ I told her it was hard for me to see that my people were capable of doing such terrible things, that the country I dreamed about was occupying another people. That’s still something that’s very hard for me to deal with.”

In the summer of 2000 Schaeffer returned to Jerusalem. She was working odd jobs as a bartender, clerk and singer in a band when the second intifada erupted. “The intifada caused me a profound crisis. I was very disappointed with both sides. I lived on Mahaneh Yehuda street then. Within a day, all the Arab workers, Palestinians from the territories, some of whom I was really friendly with, disappeared. They just disappeared. It was the first time I experienced a war situation. I knew there had been terror attacks in the market and I was tense all the time. I was afraid to be outside too long, I wanted to listen to the news all the time. I was going crazy.”

Schaeffer felt lost and lonely amid the chaos that swirled around her. “I didn’t find my community,” she says. “Sari Abu-Ziad didn’t want to talk to me. He told me: ‘Now you’re on the other side.’ It was very hard. And I no longer found a common language with my leftist friends. Suddenly they weren’t able to talk about how problematic our military responses, like going into Ramallah, were. They, who used to talk about coexistence and peace and two states for two peoples, turned into Israelis against Palestinians. Because a war started. I couldn’t find anyone to talk to. I was left in the middle, and I became physically ill. Three weeks after I got here, I went back to America. It was a nightmare coming home, but on the way I had a meaningful experience. Just sitting there on the plane, I felt the most at home. After that, I didn’t return to Israel for four and a half years. I just couldn’t.”

She moved to New York to get out of her personal crisis, but then, at a bar in Brooklyn, it all came back to her. “I met a journalist there from The New York Times who worked on the Middle East desk. I told him that I’d lived in Israel, and about the crisis I went through. He said he thought I had some unfinished business. He told me he was part of a dialogue group between Jews and Muslims, and invited me to a film festival on the subject of human rights. There I saw the film ‘Promises’ by B.Z. Goldberg, which depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through children’s eyes. I came out of the movie in tears. It opened everything up again, and I realized I couldn’t keep running away from it.”

She joined the dialogue group and the Jews Against the Occupation organization in New York. And she once again immersed herself in the bloody conflict that she had abandoned. During law school at UC Berkeley, she decided to do a brief internship in Jerusalem, for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

“I thought that returning to Israel would be a long and difficult process, but within two days I felt at home,” she says. “Just because I came to the Committee Against House Demolitions. I felt that suddenly there was a place for all my thoughts. This was in 2004, there were activists around, Anarchists Against the Wall, and the Ta’ayush organization. I got involved with Ta’ayush. I went with them often to southern Mount Hebron. These people became my new friends.”

Rare combination

Before returning to America, Schaeffer called attorney Michael Sfard, whose work on behalf of Palestinians and leftist organizations had attracted her attention. “In our first conversation, I was impressed by the special blend of qualities in Emily,” says Sfard. “I found someone who is a lawyer, an idealist and an activist all in one. It’s a rare combination for lawyers, and it allows her, on the one hand, to understand the emotions in the field, and on the other, the limitations of the activists. Her immigration to Israel fascinated me, too. When I thought of American immigrants, I thought of the type who go straight from the airport to hilltops in the territories. In that conversation, I felt I’d come across someone extraordinary.”

Subsequently, those feelings only grew. “She has tremendous knowledge of international law and human rights, and so she’s a very unique addition to my firm, where [we have] Israelis who studied Israeli law,” adds Sfard. “I think that aside from writing and poetry, law is the profession most connected to language and place. So the transition Emily made is quite dramatic. Legal language is not the same as spoken language, it’s a different, much more complex layer. In this sense, her decision to move to Israel and work in her field in order to fulfill her ideals was a brave and amazing step. And it also was extremely successful. At the start, Emily concentrated on international law and now she handles the firm’s contacts with the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers, the criminal investigation division, and the military prosecutor.”

The first assignment Sfard gave Schaeffer after she returned to her studies at Berkeley was to examine how international law relates to the duty of a country in a state of war to investigate the wounding or killing of a foreign civilian. The premise for the research was the American peace activist Brian Avery’s wounding by IDF fire in Jenin in 2003. Sfard attached the opinion she wrote to the petition he filed with the High Court, requesting a criminal investigation of the incident. Sfard emerged victorious: The High Court ordered the chief military prosecutor to launch an investigation (which took place, although no decision has yet been made on whether to file any indictments ). “Right after the victory, Michael called me,” says Schaeffer. “He told me: ‘We won. When can you come work for my firm?’”

She arrived during her summer vacation in 2005 and the firm already had some serious cases waiting for her. The first concerned opposition to the construction of the separation fence in the Alfei Menashe area, in which an expanded panel of nine judges decided that the route, around five Palestinian villages, harmed the residents and had to be changed. The second was to give legal assistance to the Yesh Din organization, dedicated to protecting the human rights of Palestinians in the territories.

“It was the early days of the organization,” Schaeffer recounts. “We started working with Palestinians who had been hurt by settlers; we helped them lodge complaints with the police. Every two weeks there was a new case. By now we have hundreds. This work changed my life, it redefined everything. I started to get to know Palestinian clients, I visited Mahaneh Ofer for the first time, the prison facility for security prisoners. I met with Yesh Din people. I started working with Dr. Yousef Jabareen who runs Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth. I felt like I was meeting my heroes.”

After passing the bar exam in the U.S., she decided to make aliya. This happened in late 2006, when she came to Tel Aviv and was given the Bil’in file. The firm was concerned with two petitions at the time: one against the construction of the Matityahu East neighborhood in Modi’in Ilit, and another against the route of the separation fence that was being built on Bil’in lands, trapping about 1,600 dunams of village land, more than a third of its total area, between the fence and the Green Line.

“We didn’t believe we would succeed,” she admits. “There were no good precedents. There was the Alfei Menashe petition, which had already ordered that the route of the fence be altered, but there was no enforcement in the field. On the other hand, we knew that Bil’in was becoming a symbol of nonviolent struggle. We thought maybe this would help and play into our hands. The work wasn’t easy; we pored over maps from the Mandate period that defined the area of the village. Together with village residents, we thought about a suitable strategy, we talked about the practical realities of our struggle. But we knew that, given the Israeli climate, we couldn’t move the fence all the way to the Green Line and that we wouldn’t be able to get rid of the settlement, Matityahu East.”

The petition against the construction of the Matityahu East neighborhood was rejected, but in the case of the separation fence route, Sfard’s firm won an impressive victory that had major repercussions. On September 3, 2007, the High Court ruled that the route of the fence near Bil’in had to be changed, and tasked the defense establishment with examining an alternate route.

“The present route raises grave questions also with regard to the security advantages it was said to provide … and the selected route cannot be explained other than by an intention to include the eastern section of “Matityahu East” on the west side of the separation barrier,” the ruling said.

After this success, Schaeffer did not let up. A year later, she was spearheading a civil suit in Canada against two Canadian companies, Green Park International and Green Mount International, which had built in Matityahu East. “The Israeli court ruled that the question of whether the settlements are legal is a political question, and cannot be brought before it. We said we have to find another way to get justice,” she said. “When we turned to Canada, we discovered that a new law there assimilates the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute into the legal system. On the basis of those conventions, which view the settlements as a war crime, and which also address those who assist in that crime, we realized that we could sue the Canadian companies that built on Bil’in land.”

Kind of embarrassing

The petition against the construction companies was filed two years ago, and is now at the stage of preliminary arguments, whose purpose is to clarify whether the Canadian court has the authority to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In order to stimulate public debate on the matter, last June Schaeffer embarked on a speaking tour in Canada together with some Bil’in residents.

“The trip to Canada was the idea of people from Bil’in. They wanted to be there when the hearings in the case were coming up,” she says. “In three and a half weeks, we hit 11 cities. The trip gave me the power to speak about Bil’in as an allegory that depicts the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. The occupation, freedom of movement, checkpoints, closure, settlements, lands, settler violence – all these are given expression in Bil’in and tell the entire story. It was a very powerful and strengthening experience for me when I talked about Bil’in at rallies, press conferences and meetings with different groups. I needed to find something to reignite me, to see other people who cared. And it happened to me there.” She is not worried about Israelis’ reactions to her joint activity with Palestinians in Canada. “I guess most Israelis would view me as a traitor,” she remarks dryly. “They would ask what right does someone who wasn’t born in Israel and who didn’t serve in the army have to criticize the state? But I came here out of great love, and I don’t intend to keep quiet just because I came from afar. I believe that there is no choice, that Israelis and Palestinians will live together. When I try to build connections between the two sides, I’m working for Israel’s good. The Bil’in people are very special. They don’t believe in violence, and they are proud that no terrorists have come from their village. They struggle alongside Israelis. But they are not a rare species. There are many Palestinians like them, only unlike the people in Bil’in, they haven’t found the framework and the courage to create the same kind of protest.”

The Elders delegation came here in August for the express purpose of identifying and assisting this type of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. They met Schaeffer by chance. They hadn’t planned to go to Bil’in, but when the idea was raised that Desmond Tutu, who supports nonviolent struggle, would go to the village alone, they asked to meet with her.

“After a preliminary meeting at which Princess Mabel was also present, we left for a tour of the village. Thanks in part to the charm of the Bil’in residents, I managed to persuade them to change their plans and bring the whole delegation to Bil’in,” she says.

Schaeffer managed to impress the members of the delegation. Tutu, who was interviewed by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz during the visit, said he had met some “wonderful Israeli and Palestinian young people who lifted his spirits.” Eldar wrote that Tutu was most impressed with an Israeli lawyer by the name of Emily Schaeffer, “who helps Palestinians demand their rights and regularly takes part in the demonstrations against the separation fence. He says that people like her bolster his faith that, as in South Africa, here too, the two people can change the situation and live in peace, side by side.”

Half a year after that tour, an envelope was delivered to her firm containing an unfamiliar magazine. “Before I knew it, I found a letter from Princess Mabel,” she says somewhat bashfully. “She wrote that as soon as Ode Magazine asked her who should be on its list of 25 intelligent optimists, she thought of me. I was in shock. There was a picture of me with Carter there. Michael stood next to me and said: ‘You deserve it.’ It gave me a lot of strength. Although I don’t need the credit, which kind of embarrasses me, it is encouraging. It shows me that there is hope.”

There’s a very strong dissonance in this title. In the face of the bitter and violent conflict whose end is hardly in sight, you were crowned an “optimist.” Where does your optimism come from?

“For many years I’ve been telling everybody that I’m an incorrigible optimist. That it’s part of who I am. But there are moments of despair. It happens when there are losses in legal cases. It happened when my friend, a Bil’in resident, Bassem Abu Rahma, was killed by a direct hit with a tear gas canister in April of last year. We were about the same age. It still feels weird to me that he’s not at the demonstrations. But when I have moments like that, I go to Bil’in. There you don’t have the privilege of saying ‘there’s no hope’ or ‘I’m pessimistic.’ In Bil’in, the people always have hope, because without it they would simply die of despair. Hope is a matter of life and death for them.”

Does Israel give you hope?

“Our situation is worrisome, but I believe in Israel. In people. I believe that we are all good people who at the end of the day want things to be good for us and also for others. I think that what happened in the last war in Gaza woke people up. People think of themselves as moral, and what happened there, the number of children that were killed, the strikes on population centers, raised tough questions. It was hard for Israelis to accept the unnecessary death there. On the other hand, most of the country shifted in the other direction and wholeheartedly supported violence against civilians, and even more have become convinced that there will never be peace, and that the Palestinians, even if they are children, are the enemy. I draw hope from the shift in the views of many Israelis who’ve started to be activists against the occupation and for democracy, who’ve come to understand that the kinds of things that were done in Gaza are what other people do, not us. I feel that there was a moment when people here woke up to the fact that Israel needs to change.”

Wise counsel
The Elders was founded in 2007 by former South African president Nelson Mandela and British business tycoon Richard Branson, in honor of Mandela’s 89th birthday. The two collected a number of veterans of world diplomacy, with the aim of trying to solve world crises, support humanitarian aid organizations, and address the injustices and human suffering in crisis regions. Besides Branson and Mandela, the group includes former U.S. president and Peace Nobelist Jimmy Carter, South African Bishop and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland, former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Princess Mabel van Oranje of Holland, who serves as chair. The organization is involved in projects in Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Cyprus, among other places, and in general issues, such as women’s rights, around the world.

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