John Baird, Canada's Minister of External Affairs, allows for no nuance in his declaration of unconditional support for Israel in the current tragedy where more than 639 Palestinians, nearly 80 per cent of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli bombs. "We believe Israel has the right to defend itself by itself."
This statement, of course merely echoes statements by Israeli officials. On the face of it, such declarations seem to make sense. Article 51 of the UN Charter recognizes the right of self-defence against foreign attack. However, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian American legal scholar, points out, "A state cannot simultaneously exercise control over territory it occupies and militarily attack that territory on the claim that it is 'foreign' and poses an exogenous national security threat."1 In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an Advisory Opinion that Article 51 had no relevance to Israel's relation to Palestine.
On the contrary, as an occupying power, Israel has responsibility to protect the basic rights of the Palestinian people, including rights to adequate food, water, housing, education and health. UN and NGO reports have consistently shown how Israel's blockade has denied these rights to the people of Gaza.
People who claim, as Netanyahu and Baird do, that Israel's blockade and the present bombing campaign are only because of Gaza's Hamas government should read Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who lived and worked in Gaza for several years. Published in 1996, it documents the Israeli-imposed violence, wanton destruction of property, bureaucratic restrictions on business, curtailed freedom of the press, arrests, interrogation and imprisonment that Gazans faced a decade before Hamas came to power.
The attack on Gaza cannot be justified in the name of security; it makes Israel less secure by sowing seeds of hopelessness, hatred and the desire for revenge in the hearts of many who have had friends or family members brutally killed or wounded. It will make Hamas stronger not weaker. What then lies behind the attack?
One obvious answer is the cycle of revenge for senseless killings on both sides. Others point to a cultivated hatred of Arabs, the demographic threat to a Jewish State of a growing Arab population. Still others claim that Israel wants more Palestinian land while some Israeli officials have themselves stressed the need to control Gaza's off-shore gas reserves.2
Unfortunately, there is no alternate viewpoint to Baird's among Canada's political leaders. Perhaps because of vocal NDP supporters opposing the Israeli bombing, Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, issued a statement, along with a letter to John Baird, on July 14 that pretends to address the situation. Dewar urges "all parties to exercise restraint" as though there is any comparison to bombing attacks by one of the most powerful military forces in the world and the ineffective rocket attacks by Hamas.
The letter to Baird states that 754 rockets have hit Israel, but does not mention that, apart from seriously injuring three Israelis, they have done little damage; in comparison he notes that the Israelis have struck 1,474 targets in Gaza killing, as of July 14, an "estimated 175 people… with over a thousand reported injured." I think we can all agree with Dewar that "Hamas' continued rocket attacks from Gaza, which are aimed at civilian centres in Israel, and the use of civilians as human shields are entirely unacceptable." But where? where? where? is there even a whisper about the unacceptability of the barbaric Israeli air attacks on civilians?
Finally, Dewar makes several references to "international humanitarian law" but apart from "the protection of civilians," he does not spell out the implications of such law for Israel as an occupying power.
Along with the Conservatives, on July 15 Liberal leader Justin Trudeau commended Israel for accepting a ceasefire agreement and condemned Hamas for rejecting it. He ignored the fact that the ceasefire did not propose any easing of the Israeli blockade, which in itself is an extreme form of violence against the Palestinian people. Trudeau condemned Hamas rocket attacks on civilians without any mention of Israel bombing attacks. He summarized his position by saying, "Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately."
Elizabeth May has publicly supported a Green Party motion condemning "all illegal Israeli settlement expansion" as an obstacle to the peace process. This deserves commendation, but it does not face up to the urgent issue of Israel's attack upon Gaza and the continuing blockade.
The sad truth is that as the Conservatives have become more and more unbalanced in their support for extremist Israeli actions, opposition parties, fearing a Zionist reaction, have also been thrown off balance. On this key issue they have become nothing more than parrots, sitting in a cage of their own making, chanting, "Israel has a right to defend itself."
As Yves Engler points out, there has been unquestioning support from all quarters for Israel ever since Lester Pearson, then Canada's Foreign Affairs minister, chaired the UN Committee that devised the 1947 partition plan3; this granted the new state of Israel 56 per cent of Palestinian land even though Jews, many of them new arrivals, comprised only 33 per cent of the population. This support resulted from a combination of broadly based Christian Zionism and Holocaust guilt with a lethal dose of the realpolitik desire to have Israel as a linchpin of Western values and a bulwark against Russian communism.
Tragically, the reverse side of this support for Israel has been indifference to what this did and continues to do to Palestinians.
In recent years support for Israel has become so extreme that any criticism of Israeli policies is targeted as anti-Semitism. When Omar Alghabra, a Liberal candidate for the 2015 election, said on Facebook, "Tragic! My thoughts and prayers are with the innocent civilians caught in blind and cruel bombing," Conservatives seized on this in a tweet that accused Liberals of not standing with Israel.4
Conservative government actions such as cutting aid to Gaza following the democratic election of Hamas, cutting UNRWA funding and the arbitrary closing of all diplomatic relations with Iran, show that Harper Conservatives do not believe in diplomacy as a way of solving difficult problems.
In contrast I think of Charlie, a thoughtful, friendly and hard-working Swedish crew member on the Estelle. Over the past year he worked with trades people from Gaza, who were rebuilding an old boat, renamed Gaza's Ark, so that it could carry goods from Gaza to the outside world, thus challenging the blockade from inside.
A few weeks ago Gaza's Ark was sunk by an explosion. But it was raised and the work continued until this past week when it was targeted and destroyed by an Israeli bomb. For the past few days, Charlie has been with other International Solidarity Movement volunteers who, in spite of threats, remained in a geriatric hospital, hoping to protect it from bombing. Finally, they and the patients were forced to evacuate and the hospital was destroyed.
Instead of endorsing Israel's phony "right to protect" as an excuse for bombing innocent civilians, these volunteers have accepted the "responsibility to protect" those more vulnerable than themselves. We should stand with them in whatever ways we find possible.
Jim Manly is a former NDP MP for Cowichan—Malahat—The Islands and former NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic.
1 Noura Erakat, "No Israel Does Not Have the Right to Self-Defense in International Law Against Occupied Palestinian Territory." Jadaliyya, July 11, 2014 (reposted from 2012).
2 For example see: Ilan Pappe, "Israel's incremental genocide in the Gaza ghetto," Electronic Intifada, July 13, 2014; Gideon Levy, "Our Wretched Jewish State, Haaretz, July 6, 2014; Gideon Levy, "Israel's Real Purpose in Gaza Attack? To Kill Arabs," Haaretz, July 13, 2014 ; Nafeez Ahmed, "IDFl's Gaza assault is to control gas, avert Israel energy crisis," theguardian.com, July 9, 2014. Robert Fisk, "The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren't telling this week," The Independent, July 9, 2014; Uri Avnery, "The Atrocity," counterpunch, July 11, 2014.
3 Yves Engler, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, (Vancouver: Red Publising, 2010,) pp. 84-85.
4 Max Paris, "Baird condemns Hamas for rejecting ceasefire," CBC News, July 15, 2014.