Pinochet judge visits to see if officials culpable for house demolitions

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The judge who indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is in Israel this week to study the feasibility of international legal action against Israeli decision-makers responsible for the demolition of Palestinian homes. In Chile, Juan Guzman is famous for his efforts to bring Pinochet to justice for the dictator's involvement in the kidnapping, torture and killing of those who opposed his regime. He similarly ordered the arrest of military officials who had been involved in such killings. Guzman retired from his seat on the Santiago Court of Appeals in 2005 and is now the dean of the Central University Law School in Santiago. He arrived in Israel on Thursday for a weeklong visit at the invitation of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which has solicited his legal opinion, and that of others as it works to build an international legal case against Israelis involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes. According to ICAHD coordinator Jeff Halper, Israel has destroyed some 18,000 Palestinian homes in the territories, including Gaza, since 1967. According to the human rights group B'tselem, the number of home demolitions has fluctuated in the last few years. In 2006, 292 Palestinian homes were destroyed for military purposes; in 2005, only 17 were taken down, but in 2004, 1,404 homes were demolished. In 2004, 139 illegally built homes were destroyed in the West Bank and 104 in east Jerusalem. Recent government numbers on home demolitions were not available. As a jurist committed to human rights, Guzman said, he was interested in the issue of house demolitions and had come to study the issue. "I came to see with my own eyes what I have read and heard about," Guzman told The Jerusalem Post as he sat in a coffee shop bundled against the cold in a coat and hat. Guzman cautioned that he had not formally agreed to work for ICAHD nor was it clear to him that there was a basis for such a case. To date, according to ICAHD, his work with them has been voluntary. Nor did ICAHD pay for him to come, even though they did organize his trip. "I told them I would study the possibility of a legal case, and then let them know what I thought," said Guzman. Still, Guzman said, irrespective of the feasibility of an international case, it was clear to him that Israel's practice of demolishing Palestinian homes was a "violation of human rights." Such practice was against a number of international laws and agreements including the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, he said. It is always preferable to settle the matter in a local court, Guzman said. "But if you cannot find justice in the country where the human rights are violated, then you would have to go [seek justice] in a country with universal criminal laws," said Guzman. Since arriving, he has meet with Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed, looked at case files and met with individuals who deal with the matter. So far, he said, he has not been persuaded that Israel has a right to demolish Palestinian homes either for military and security reasons or for zoning law violations. It was the manner in which the security-related demolitions were carried out that was problematic, he said. It was true a state had the right to take security measures, but if it needed to destroy a home in pursuit of safety, it should also adequately compensate the inhabitants for their loss, Guzman said. It was the failure to compensate them, which helped make it a human rights violation, said Guzman. With respect to the homes destroyed because they were constructed without permits in the territories, he said, Israel did not have a right to take down the homes over the pre-1967 border, because under international law the area was occupied. Even with respect to Palestinian homes demolished within the pre-1967 borders, Guzman said, he was worried that procedures were not correctly followed. He was particularly vehement in his opposition to Israel's past practice of demolishing homes as collective punishment, particularly with respect to relatives of suicide bombers. It's a move that Israel stopped in February 2005. "You cannot punish a dead person or the family of the person that committed the crime," Guzman said. He was moved, he said, by those now homeless that he had met who were now living in tents because they had no place else to live. There was one man who was so angry, Guzman said, that "the fury flew from his heart." "He said that he and his family were not dogs or animals to be thrown into the street, but human beings with a body and soul," said Guzman. Israeli international legal expert, Natan Lerner, who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said that, like Guzman, he considered Israel's practice of home demolitions problematic. But, he cautioned, pursuit of justice in the international arena was very difficult. Of the three routes available, only one was open to an Israeli non-governmental organization. It cannot go before the International Court of Justice, such as occurred with the issue of the security fence, or the International Criminal Court, because only one state can charge another in that arena, Lerner said. So it could only consider charging Israeli individuals in courts in other countries that deal with international criminal acts, Lerner said. There are few countries that do that, according to Lerner. Even then, it "is very difficult," he added. But Halper said that his organization had chosen that route, in part because it believed that legal options in Israel with respect to preventing home demolitions had been exhausted. He added that ICAHD had trouble recognizing the court's jurisdiction within the West Bank and east Jerusalem. ICAHD, he said, was still in the initial stages of the process. It is currently seeking legal assistance from Guzman and others and is examining the list of Israeli decision makers involved in the home demolition to decide whom to seek charges against in an international court. "One of the major ways of forcing Israel to respect human rights is by forcing it to be accountable to human rights. The only way to do that is to target the people who are responsible," he said.