In mid-July the Harper government quietly released a campaign-style video called Through Fire and Water. In it, Canada’s Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister strongly reassert our support for Israel amid the violence in Gaza. The video proclaims that “Canada and Israel are the Greatest of Friends, and the most natural of allies” and that it is the “Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just regardless of whether it is convenient or popular.”
To understand what this means for Canada as Canadians, we need to look at some of the tragic events taking place in Israel-Palestine.
Disparity of arms
The current round of conflict in Gaza appears to be overtly linked to the nationalistic policy aims of the Netanyahu government of Israel. Netanyahu openly opposes a Palestinian sovereign state and was likely trying to sabotage a unity government formed June 2 between Hamas (ruling Gaza) and Fatah (ruling the West Bank). Thus Netanyahu’s government seized on the tragic murder-abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank to whip-up anti-Palestinian sentiment in Israel, linking the killings to the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Paul Weinberg describes this process, while evidence has since come out undermining the claim that Hamas’ political leadership was connected to the murders. As one seasoned Israeli political analyst noted in the Financial Times, Netanyahu “favours keeping Gaza and the West Bank isolated while tweaking the status quo in ways that reinforce Israeli control.”
The subsequent assault on Gaza is a grossly unequal match between one of the most deprived and overcrowded territories on Earth with the world’s fourth military power. That assault is being carried out with indiscriminate and devastating effect. I
In a little over three weeks the death toll in Gaza had already reached an astonishing 1,360 Palestinians at the time of writing. Of these casualties, over 75 per cent are civilian and 25 per cent children at the time of writing. Israel, meanwhile, has suffered casualties of 53 soldiers and two civilians, as well as a Thai foreign worker.
A further 7,100 Palestinians have been injured in the assault and 200,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents internally displaced. They have nowhere to flee to as all borders are closed to the besieged territory where people are running out of food and water.
The assault includes targeting hospitals, family homes, schools and mosques. It also includes the use of imprecise weapons like flechette shells that spray out thousands of tiny and potentially lethal darts that have a devastating effect on civilians. The UN says no place is safe in Gaza and even U.S. Secretary of State Kerry was caught off-mic slamming Israel for its indiscriminate methods.
A prominent scholar explains that this is collective punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto. Conditions are so horrendous that a senior official at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) describes their work as akin to being, “in an open-air prison to patch up prisoners in between their torture sessions.”
Nonetheless, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States recently claimed that his military is conducting itself in such a humane way that it deserves a Nobel Prize. He also said that, “Israeli soldiers are dying so that innocent Palestinians can live.”
Gaza was already the miserable political creation of a failed peace process entangled with occupation. Now it is unliveable. It has been so devastated by a decade-long siege restricting all movement out of the territory, that its residents feel they are stuck between a choice of deadly war or a suffocating embargo they refer to as “living death.” Cornered, they for now seem fairly united in enduring the deadly conflict in search of an elusive peace agreement and lifting the siege — just as the White House Middle East coordinator warned Israel in a rare rebuke at the start of July.
Extremism in Israel
During the bombardment, many Israeli civilians have taken to sitting in the hills over-looking Gaza cheering as it gets bombed. Others have been cheering on the onslaught through social media, with statements like, “The bombing of Gaza children gives me orgasms.”
Israeli extremists have been filmed chanting, “There’s no school tomorrow, there are no children left there [in Gaza]” and “Gaza is a cemetery,” while gangs have roamed the streets of Israel chanting “death to Arabs.” Two Palestinians were assaulted and seriously wounded by one of these mobs on Friday, while a monument dedicated to the Palestinian teen burned alive by Israeli extremists July 2 has been vandalised multiple times.
Israeli teens have been Tweeting terrifying calls such as “Death sentence for leftists and Arabs” and “From the bottom of my heart, I wish for Arabs to be torched.”
Elsewhere, the Rabbi for one of Israel’s most militant settlements issued a religious ruling permitting the total destruction of Gaza if Israel’s military leaders deem it necessary. Another Rabbi, and global leader of the largest religious Jewish youth group in the world (Bnei Akiva), authored a Facebook post calling for the mass-murder of Palestinians and taking their foreskins as trophies.
Those Rabbis are not fringe lunatics. Unfortunately, calls for genocide have hit the mainstream of Israeli politics. Recently a senior member of the governing Likud party called for the indiscriminate shelling of Gaza while stating that Palestinians who do not want to be harmed should flee to the inhospitable Sinai desert.
Israel’s minister of Industry, Trade and Labour, and Jewish Home Party leader, had no problem declaring last year, “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life — and there’s no problem with that.” Another popular young lawmaker in his political party wrote on Facebook that, “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy,” “including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” She further called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.” Meanwhile a renowned Israeli academic of Arabic literature has called for the rape of some of those mothers as a weapon of deterrence.
These views are not isolated. Just two years earlier an Israeli TV personality quit as Chair of the Israeli Fund for UNICEF over Facebook posts that included expressing a desire for Palestinian children to “suffer” and claiming that Palestinians “have it as part of their DNA to hate” Israelis. (Her husband Silvan Shalom has long been a prominent Likud government minister.) Indeed alarmed by current trends in Israel, its progressive Ha’aretz newspaper warned about the dire consequences of racism in an editorial, “Israel’s Assault on Gaza Obscures Core Issues: Racism, Occupation, Colonisation.”
Voices of dissent
Echoing the Ha’aretz sentiments, last week 51 Israeli reservists published an open letter stating that they refuse to serve any longer as reservists, because that contributes to the infrastructure of occupation. They claim that the Israeli military uses methods of oppressive rule against the occupied Palestinian population and that it perpetuates disparities in Israeli society itself:
We rue the militarisation of Israel and the army’s discriminatory policies. One example is the way women are often relegated to low-ranking secretarial positions. Another is the screening system that discriminates against Mizrahi (Jews whose families originate in Arab countries) by keeping them from being fairly represented inside the army’s most prestigious units. In Israeli society, one’s unit and position determines much of one’s professional path in the civilian afterlife.
To us, the current military operation and the way militarisation affects Israeli society are inseparable. In Israel, war is not merely politics by other means — it replaces politics. Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict except in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never-ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire, no criticism may be heard.
Unfortunately, progressive Israelis are themselves under siege by the same forces as the Palestinians. Over the weekend 5,000 bravely turned out to protest the Gaza war, in spite of the presence of extremist thugs. Recently other ‘leftists’ have been attacked in the streets of Israel as the police looked on. One Israeli scholar recounted a demonstration in Haifa July 20:
Last night one could see how Israel officially has given up the charade of democracy. I saw it in the city of Haifa. Two thousand hooligans came well armed with stones and bottles that were hurled at the demonstrators from the very beginning. They were invited there by local politicians. The police did not only standby, but helped the mob by cordoning the demonstrators so that they could not move out of the firing zone. The media covering the event saluted the thugs for finally standing for the nation in its hour of need. The scenes were reminiscent from the last days of the Weimar republic.
He has received death threats. A prominent Israeli journalist opposed to the occupation has been told to move to Gaza — while it is being bombed heavily. Facebook messages have been sent to left-wing activists promising to send them to the gas chambers. Jewish Israeli women who support Palestine have been “slut shamed” by Israeli men with threats of gang rape or other forms of sexual violence.
This is all part of a rabid patriotism that rejects political compromise with the Palestinians and insists that the Palestinian question can be solved militarily. By that logic those ‘leftists’ are ‘defeatists’ and ‘saboteurs’ who are the only thing now separating the Israeli military from a perfect victory.
Are Canada and Israel the most natural of allies?
The leaders of our main political parties seem to think so. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Canada is unequivocally behind Israel.” Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau seemed to echo the Israeli ambassador to the United States by saying that, “Israel should be commended for having accepted the ceasefire proposal, and demonstrating its commitment to peace.” (He was referring to a disingenuous ceasefire brokered between Israel and Egypt’s dictator without Palestinian involvement, which would not have resolved any of Gaza’s long-standing problems.) NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has focused on Hamas’s responsibility for the latest round of violence in Gaza, which matches exactly Israeli public relations talking points.
As with all conflicts, it is difficult to say who started what and each side will claim to fire in self-defence. Hamas has fired rockets that are meant to cause harm to Israeli civilians, though with limited effect due to the gross disparity in arms. However, the recent round of fighting has been made worse by the cynical manipulation of tragedy by Israeli politicians pursuing nationalistic aims.
Hamas holds extreme views, but it does not universally represent Palestinians, just as the extremists do not represent all Israelis. Yet, Canada’s current policy is to stand unequivocally behind the extremist vision for Israel, which includes justifying the ownership of land based on biblical claims.
This is not an accurate representation of Canadian values, including many Jewish Canadians. Exclusionary ethnic nationalism has no place in the modern world — especially Canada. Rather than take an approach that claims one group is more right or better than the other, and as a result supporting nationalist extremists, Canada should emphasize the rights of all people, regardless of race or religion, to live together with equality. Only then, and by taking a more nuanced account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can Canada finally start to contribute to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Jeremy Wildeman is a PhD candidate and political analyst with 12 years of experience delivering and conducting research on humanitarian programs for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Photo: flickr/Israel Defense Forces