Tel Aviv — He can do what the might of world leaders cannot.
After more than a decade of heavy pressure by the international community on Israel to demolish unauthorized Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank, the state finally looks set to start the bulldozers rolling in at least one case, Migron. The man who forced Israel’s hand does not sit in Washington, Ramallah or at the United Nations, but in a shabby building in Tel Aviv.
Look at almost any case alleging that Jewish settlements in the West Bank infringe on Palestinian rights and you will find that Michael Sfard initiated the litigation. It is, he says, an addiction. “I cannot manage one day without doing this,” he told the Forward. “It has become a drug, and I am an addict.”
Unlike some other members of the Israel’s left, Sfard, 40, cannot bring himself to move abroad. He tried living in London but could not hack life as a “spectator.” He is a deep thinker on the subject of identity. Sfard calls himself “a sucker for the need to belong and for identity” and said he’s committed to raising his children in Israel. As a sort of penance, he decided to take on the settlements.
These days Sfard’s cases are always making headlines. On April 29 Israel’s cabinet approved a plan to build temporary housing elsewhere in the West Bank for the residents of Migron, built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land. Following a six-year legal battle, initiated by Sfard, Israel has now agreed to evacuate the religious Zionist settlement by August 1.
Earlier this year, Sfard secured a government promise to demolish 30 Beit El homes, also situated on privately owned Palestinian land near Ramallah. The demolition deadline was set for May 1, but as of press time the marked homes remained standing. “This is a disease — the government says one thing and does another. It is prepared to humiliate the court,” he said.
Sfard sees himself, together with the human rights and political groups with which he works, including Yesh Din and Peace Now, as taking on a role formerly filled by opposition parties. “[I]n the last eight years, we became in a way the dissenting voice in Israeli society — there is no real opposition, parliamentary opposition,” he said. “In the ’80s and ’90s, the leading figures in criticizing government policy were opposition members, but today opposition like Kadima has no moral weight.”
Sfard’s critics agree that he is fighting for a cause that isn’t well represented in the Knesset. But while Sfard sees his role as a duty, critics see it as “trying to bypass democracy,” said Likud lawmaker Danny Danon, a staunch defender of some of the targets of Sfard’s petitions. “He’s using the legal system because his ideas are not welcome in Israeli society,” Danon told the Forward.
Naftali Balanson, head of research at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organization that reviews, often critically, the work of human rights organizations, commented: “Michael Sfard is at the center of the NGO industry that exploits the rhetoric of human rights in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”