Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long been hawkish on Israel ‘s security; even rivalling President Bush in his unconditional support, i.e. ” Israel , right or wrong.” A staunch proponent of Israel ‘s right to use lethal force to defend its perceived interests, even preemptively, Harper justified the wars of aggression Israel waged mostly against civilians and their infrastructure in both Lebanon and Gaza . This stand supports exclusive entitlement to security for Israelis, denying the same level of security to others in the region. It also buys into victimhood as a shield to victimize others. This is immoral and unsustainable.
Canada’s long-standing policy is that the Israeli settlements are illegal, as Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has confirmed. However, the Canadian government has failed to condemn explicitly Israel ‘s occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Syrian Golan Heights.
According to Israeli media, the decision to attack the Free Gaza flotilla was made a few days before Benjamin Netanyahu left for Europe and Canada by the “forum of seven,” which comprises some of the most extremist cabinet ministers. So while being wined and dined at Harrington Lake on Sunday, May 30, 2010, Netanyahu knew that Israeli commandos were attacking the flotilla in international waters. Was this dinner conversation with Harper?
On the Monday morning, as Netanyahu expressed support for his elite commandos, Canada’s prime minister stood uneasy. The UN, U.S., Europe, Australia and many others strongly criticized Israel. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff regretted the loss of lives, but avoided direct criticism of Israel’s act of aggression.
Along with criticism, most states called for a credible inquiry. Both Harper and Ignatieff wanted more information, but avoided calling for the means to get it — i.e. an independent inquiry. However, on June 2nd, during question period in the House of Commons and in reply to Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, Minister of State Peter Kent said that “Canada does support a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation into this tragic incident.”
It’s no surprise that when asked if “the Conservative government [will] pressure Israel to comply with the two UN Security Council resolutions [1850 and 1860, which require that humanitarian aid and food flow regularly to Gaza ],” Kent repeated what has now become a Conservative mantra: “Of course, Canada is concerned about the humanitarian situation facing the people of Gaza , notwithstanding the fact that Gaza is governed by a terrorist entity. We strongly encourage all parties to work together to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered to the people of Gaza, but at the same time, Canada understands fully and sympathizes with Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”
Either our government has bought into Israel’s disinformation, or this represents a knee-jerk reflex dictated by ideology and the promotion of Israeli exclusivity.
Even before the flotilla started its journey, an Israeli disinformation campaign had focused on tarnishing the mission, trying to link it to al Qaeda and terrorism in general. This ridiculous smear didn’t stick as the participants were of 40 different nationalities and came from all walks of life, members of various world parliaments, UN staff, human rights and trade union activists, journalists, etc., all driven by the desire to shine some light on the neglected humanitarian crisis imposed on the besieged Palestinian population in Gaza, what former President Jimmy Carter called an “atrocity..[and].. a crime.”
The flotilla was carrying goods that any reasonable person would consider humanitarian but which Israel doesn’t allow into Gaza, including school supplies, wheelchairs, crutches and walkers, neonatal incubators, toys, jam, chocolate, canned fruit and badly needed supplies for the rebuilding of the sewage system and thousands of homes destroyed by Israel’s bombs. Israeli NGO Gisha has gone to court to challenge the current lack of consistency and transparency in what is and is not allowed.
Israel has controlled the flow of information ever since it attacked the flotilla. The Israeli Forces ensured that only their version was presented: they imprisoned the activists, confiscated their videos and tapes, and released only the portions of the videos from the Mavi Marmara that served the Israeli narrative. Therefore, we were told only what Israel wanted us to know.
Now that the survivors have been released and/or deported, we are finally getting the other side of the story, and therefore a better understanding of the events that led to nine deaths and scores of injured. Some said that soldiers opened fire before they even boarded the ship. Only an internationally led investigation can really shed light on the events on the Mavi Marmara.
Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has launched an intensive “three-pronged campaign” attempting to justify its blockade of Gaza and the attack on a civilian flotilla, claiming that Israel has no effective control of Gaza since its withdrawal and that “[W]hat currently exists is a state of armed conflict.”
At the behest of Israel, Canada and the U.S. have put Hamas on their terrorist lists, though most Palestinians view it as a nationalist resistance movement fighting against Israeli occupation. Whatever one thinks of Hamas, it is one important component of the Palestinian political landscape. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s face-to-face meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal confirms that at least one member of the Quartet understands that all parties to this conflict must be heard if peace is to be given a chance.
And hear, we did. Meshaal told American interviewer and broadcast journalist Charlie Rose that “we [Hamas] do consider this as an acceptable solution to have a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967….”. Meshaal accepted the idea of a referendum of all Palestinians on this issue. “And the Palestinian people will decide. We in Hamas will respect the decision of the Palestinian majority. This is a democracy.”
In 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative offered peace on similar terms in return for normalization of relations with all Arab states, but Israel rejected the offer refusing even to discuss it.
Israel’s imposed blockade and its 2008/2009 winter attack on Gaza have turned a disastrous situation into a humanitarian crisis. Justice Goldstone called the blockade “collective punishment.” In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it is “unsustainable and unacceptable.”
There is increased international pressure on Israel to end its blockade. Although a Canadian delegation, including NDP and Bloc Québécois Members of parliament, visited Gaza in Summer 2009 and reported on the dire consequences of the blockade, calling for its lifting, neither the Conservative government nor the Liberal opposition has supported such an outcome.
The Free Gaza movement is about more than delivering supplies that are banned by Israel . It is attempting to break the segregation of Gazans using techniques like those of the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. After all, the blockade of Gaza denies Palestinians their rights to life, freedom, food, health care, education and self-determination — all rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights that Canadians take for granted. The movement is also promoting the values that Canadians and western democracies in general consider important, such as freedom and the simple free movement of goods so that people can have a normal, productive economy.
The economy of Gaza has been destroyed; the unemployment rate is estimated at 50 per cent. Palestinians are prevented from conducting legitimate business. Currently, farmers are prevented from working their land, fishermen face death at the hand of the Israeli navy when they go to sea, exports are blocked, clean water is scarce and, of course, investors are reluctant to commit due to the blockade.
Gazans insist they do not want to rely on aid. They want to be able to earn a living, freely and in dignity. They want to get rid of Israel ‘s declared no-man’s land within Gaza, be free of the watch towers that Israeli forces use to shoot at them, free of Israel’s control of their land, sea and air. Palestinians say that they want to live a normal life.
The Israeli government, led by extremists, has adopted a policy of military force instead of diplomacy. Not only has Israel attacked the Free Gaza civilian flotilla, but it continues to agitate for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and has decided to station nuclear submarines off the coast of Iran.
What about the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza to Israel? First, these ineffective projectiles must be understood in the context of the violence inherent in the brutal Israeli military occupation, the blockade and frequent bombardments, never-ending takeovers of Palestinian homes and land in the West Bank and the impossibility of having a normal economy in either Gaza or the West Bank – to all of which many political leaders and the corporate media remain wilfully blind. Secondly, the rockets and mortars are in the words of ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party member, Defense Minister Director-General Yaakov Toran “more a psychological than physical threat.” He added that “[s]tatistically they cause the fewest losses, and therefore we must develop prevention systems but not invest all the money in this aspect.” Israeli Human Rights NGO B’Tselem states that “Palestinian organizations that fire rockets and mortar shells into Israel openly declare that they intend to strike Israeli civilians, among other targets.”
According to Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, 3,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza alone, 635 of them children between September 27, 2000 and December 26, 2008. These conservative numbers do not include the deaths during the Cast Lead attack on Gaza (December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009). According to the Israel Project, since 2001 when Qassams were first used, 23 Israelis were killed, 15 of them in Israel and eight in Gaza.
Indeed, many consider that the use of Qassam rockets has clouded the fact that the majority of the Palestinian resistance is non-violent, thus impeding building a non-violent resistance movement with international ties. The international community has now awakened to the fact that Israel ‘s blatant violations of the rule of law belie its claims of victimhood. However, political leaders are slow to follow.
Canada’s current government seems beholden to Israel and apparently buys into Israeli exceptionalism. The many and varied protest demonstrations indicate that Canadians believe that Israel should be subject to and respect international law. Israel has a choice: either it becomes a state as all others, respectful of the rule of law and of acceptable norms of behaviour, or it chooses to be a pariah state.
Anthony Cordesman, a respected foreign policy analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published a commentary titled “Israel as a Strategic Liability?” in which he writes: “… At the same time, the depth of America ‘s moral commitment does not justify or excuse actions by an Israeli government that unnecessarily make Israel a strategic liability when it should remain an asset. It does not mean that the United States should extend support to an Israeli government when that government fails to credibly pursue peace with its neighbors… It does not mean that the United States should be passive when Israel makes a series of major strategic blunders.” Neither should Canada.
It would be unwise for the Canadian government and its Official Opposition to continue identifying with Israel’s current values — denial of rights and freedoms, suppression of criticism, violence against civilians, violation of international and humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, military moral misconduct. These are oppressive “values” that Canadians reject.
Still, in his speech to the UJA 2010 Walk with Israel which was attended by Netanyahu (See: “Minister Peter Kent always walks with Israel”), Kent not only was “honoured to bring greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada and a man who always walks with Israel, Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” but he claimed that “[a]s vibrant democratic states in which the rule of law and human rights are revered, Canada and Israel are the likeliest — the most natural — of allies!” Using fear mongering words such as “state-sponsored hate” he pandered to the crowd: “When faced with those who seek to wipe both it and the Jewish people from the face of the Earth, Israel can always count on our unequivocal support.” The settler news website Arutz Sheva mentions that “[s]everal high-ranking Canadian officials also spoke.”
In “Unlikely Allies, Israel’s new North American Friend” — an article that Kent criticised in his speech — The Economist quotes Israel’s extreme right-wing foreign minister, West Bank settler Avigdor Lieberman: “It is hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days… No other country in the world has demonstrated such a full understanding of us.”
Part of this “full understanding” includes the acceptance at face value of the statement made by Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon on June 1, 2010: “We [Israelis] are the victims here and we are the ones who were compelled to take these actions to defend ourselves.” In the same Forward article, Gal Beckerman notes that the “American Jewish leadership seemed willing to go along with this message.” And so do the Armageddonists who await the “end of days” and think Israel can do no wrong.
The members of our government appear to associate with and listen to the voices of these fanatically pro-Israel supporters. Voices that do not conform to the views of the current extreme right-wing Israeli government and its propagandists have been shut down, dismissed or ignored by our government. This is no way to formulate informed and well rounded policy — in a country about to play host to G8 and G20.
Journalist Paul Wells highlights in Maclean’s the discrepancies between what is said in Canada and what is said to Israelis and the Israel lobbies, and concludes that “[w]e [Canadians] are being given the runaround. The Harper government is advertising a much harder line on Israel to allies there and at home than it is willing to admit to the broader public. This is not quite what a principled foreign policy looks like.”
Nor is it a foreign policy that reflects Canada ‘s own values and national interests.
Bahija Réghaï is a human rights activist and former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR).