A people’s right to pursue the most basic of human rights and the simplicity with which applying international law could award them these rights was the main focus of this year’s commemoration of the UN Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people at an event held at the University of Toronto on Thursday, November 29.

The event, organized by the Canadian Palestinian Educational Exchange organization (CEPAL) saw a packed auditorium at the central Toronto campus.

The event highlighted the continued plight of Palestinians 59 years after Al-Nakba, or The Catastrophe âe” which refers to the formation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent exile of Palestinians from their homeland.

Last Thursday’s lecture was CEPAL’s 11th annual commemoration of the UN Day of Solidarity. The Ottawa-based NGO was founded in 1996 by a group of Canadians who, after a chance meeting in Lebanon and after exposure to the plight of Palestinian refugees there, decided something had to be done.

They dedicated CEPAL to the pursuit of basic human rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by increasing access to education and by raising awareness in Canada about the plight of refugees, such as appeals for the right of return according to UN Security Council Resolution 194.

CEPAL sends volunteers each summer to three Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon âe” Bourj al-Barajneh, Shatila and Waval âe” to teach English and French language skills.

Kicking off the evening, CEPAL President Shannon Dow said the UN Day of Solidarity “symbolizes both the continued remembrance of a history that, until now, affects the lives of all Palestinians âe¦ it is also a steadfast commitment to a just solution to the 59-year conflict that has proved to be so intractable and irreconcilable.”

The UN states that this day has “traditionally provided an opportunity for the international community to focus its attention on the fact that the question of Palestine is still unresolved and that the Palestinian people is yet to attain their inalienable rights as defined by the General Assembly; namely, the right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced.”

The first speaker of the evening, Olfat Mahmoud, the founder of the Women’s Humanitarian Organization in Bourj al-Barajneh and a Palestinian refugee herself, detailed the daily hardships of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

“The conditions we live under are against all logic,” she said. “I came all the way here to tell you about our daily suffering and our miserable existence. Every day is a painful experience for us, and this has been going on for 60 years. We have been forgotten. The world should be ashamed for leaving the Palestinians for so long.”

Mahmoud asked why international law “does not apply” to Palestinian refugees.

“You have the most basic of human rights. You have a right to an education, health and space. So why don’t we?” she asked the audience. “The Palestinian people want peace just as much as anyone else. But we want peace with justice.”

Refugee camps were established for Palestinians in the late 1940s in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt as a temporary measure to house the mass exodus of Palestinians from their homeland. 60 years later, refugees in Lebanon have no running water, electricity, telephone lines, civil or basic human rights.

Mahmoud concluded by thanking CEPAL, which she called the “voice of the children outside, when their voices have been neglected,” and urged attendees to continue their work.

“I am so happy to see this place so full. But this is one day. There are 364 and a quarter days left to show solidarity. Let us walk together to achieve a just peace.”

The evening’s main speaker was Professor Norman Finkelstein, a prominent and controversial critic of the state of Israel.

A former professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Finkelstein recently settled a legal battle with the institution out of court over his being denied tenure because of his views.

During his lecture on the “coming break-up and collapse of American Zionism,” Finkelstein was forced to pause twice as angry protesters screamed personal insults at the speaker before being escorted out of the university to the street, where a handful of members of the Jewish Defense League staged their own protest.

Dismissing often voiced arguments on the complicated nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Finkelstein repeatedly stressed the clarity and simplicity of international law on the subject.

“It is not complicated,” he said.

The fall-out of 60 years of conflict has resulted in many complications, he clarified, but again repeated that applying international law and UN resolutions would in fact deal with the core problems.

“All fundamental legal-political questions on the Israel-Palestine conflict have been definitively settled, and on each of them the position defending Israel and its supporters have been resoundingly repudiated,” he said.

Finkelstein mocked the recent Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland hosted by US President George W. Bush, during which the conflict was described as a “very difficult, complex problem which is very hard to figure out how to solve.”

“The UN General Assembly annually votes on the resolution [the] ‘Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine,'” he noted. “The resolution has uniformly included these tenets for achieving a peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine: Affirming the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war; Affirming also the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the territory occupied since 1967 and of Israeli actions aimed at changing the status of Jerusalem; Stresses the need for: (a) The realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination; (b) The withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967; Also stresses the need for resolving the problem of the Palestine refugees in conformity with its Resolution 194 (III) [The right of return or compensation] of 11 December 1948.”

Highlighting the fact that the annual resolution is routinely endorsed by 160 members of the General Assembly, Finkelstein laughed, “The vote on this resolution for the past decade has been rejected by Israel, the United States, Nauru, N-A-U-R-U, Palau, P-A-L-A-U, Tuvalu, T-U-V-A-L-U, the Federate States of Micronesia and The Marshall Islands.”