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A Canadian in Occupied Palestine

Walking through the old city of Nablus in the West Bank last week, I encountered a Palestinian man who worked as a tailor in the small store situated in his family’s home. We struck up a conversation. “Where are you from?” he asked me. “Canada,” I replied. Shaking his head from side to side, he stated, “Oh, Canada no good!”

The next day I was riding in a taxi in the city of Ramallah, which is the Palestinian capital of the West Bank and seat of the Palestinian Authority government. The driver asked me where I was from. Again I replied, “Canada.” He raised his index finger in the air and while moving it side to side declared, “Canada no good!”

These were not isolated examples of Palestinian anger towards Canada; that disenchantment was publicly expressed by Palestinians this past January when Foreign Minister John Baird visited Ramallah. A group of protesters took to the street and pelted Baird’s motorcade with eggs and shoes while holding up placards declaring, “Baird is not welcome in Palestine” and “Shame on you, John Baird.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded to Baird’s visit by stating, “We regret the Canadian government’s decision to stand on the wrong side of history by blindly supporting the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies.” He went on to note, “Canadian FM John Baird has contributed to Israeli violations of Palestinian inalienable rights, including our right to self-determination, by systematically lobbying against all Palestinian diplomatic initiatives. This includes his attempts to legitimize the illegal Israeli annexation of Occupied East Jerusalem.”

Baird had travelled to Ramallah from East Jerusalem and Erekat argued that the Canadian foreign minister’s meetings with Israeli government officials there violated UN Security Council resolutions 476 and 478, which prohibit “the Occupying Power” from altering “the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem” and condemn the 1980 law passed by the Israeli government making Jerusalem the official capital of the Jewish state. Erekat claimed that Baird’s meeting with Israeli officials in East Jerusalem was an attempt to legitimize Israel’s illegal annexation of that part of the city.

Tariq Dana, a professor in the Ibrahim Abu-Loghoud Institute for International Studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah, further explained Palestinian anger towards Ottawa by claiming that “Canada has surpassed the United States to become the number one supporter of Israel.” By this, Dana is not referring to military and economic aid, but rather to Canada’s unconditional political support for Israel on the international stage.

Before the election of Harper, Canada professed a position of neutrality and support for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But since 2006, in addition to having Baird meet with Israeli officials in East Jerusalem, Harper has supported Israel unconditionally by backing the Jewish state’s three military assaults on Gaza (2008, 2012 and 2014) and refusing to publicly criticize Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories even though the foreign affairs department’s website acknowledges that the settlements violate international law.

Harper has repeatedly stated that Israel has a right to defend itself from Palestinian attacks, including declaring last year that “Canada is unequivocally behind Israel. We support its right to defend itself” against rockets fired by Hamas. At best, Harper’s position ignores the historical reality of the conflict. At worst, it distorts it.

In 1948, Jewish residents of Palestine who had recently migrated to the region from Europe unilaterally announced the creation of a Jewish state when a UN partition plan to create Israel without the Palestinians having any voice in the process was not implemented. The Palestinians and surrounding Arab states opposed the plan because it violated the principles of national self-determination in the UN charter under which Palestinians should have the right to decide their own destiny. Within a year of unilaterally establishing Israel, the new Jewish state consisted of 77 percent of Palestine and almost a million Palestinians were forced to flee and have since lived in refugee camps in the West Bank and surrounding countries.

Following the 1967 war with several Arab states (Syria, Jordan and Egypt), Israel militarily occupied the remaining 23 percent of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza). The UN Security Council responded by passing Resolution 242 demanding the “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The United States has used its veto power in the Security Council on 41 occasions to ensure that the numerous UN resolutions condemning Israel have never been enforced.

It wasn’t until after the Palestinians were forced to exist under Israel’s illegal military occupation in 1967 that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) decided to make armed struggle the centerpiece of its campaign to achieve a Palestinian state. And it wasn’t until after 20 years of enduring an oppressive military occupation and the unwillingness of the international community to enforce UN resolutions that sectors of Palestinian society became increasingly radicalized and formed Hamas. In desperation, Hamas began using suicide bombing as a tactic in the early 1990s because it could not combat the vastly superior US-backed Israeli military through conventional warfare. Beginning in 2001, Hamas also began launching primitive and inaccurate rockets into Israel from its Gaza strongholds.

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Israel is building a wall in the Occupied West Bank to separate illegal Jewish settlements from Palestinian communities. The wall also makes it difficult for many Palestinians to move around. Photo: Garry Leech.

Even though Israel withdrew its military from Gaza in 2005, it implemented a military blockade of the tiny territory the following year through which it strictly controls all access of people, food, medicines and other materials. Some analysts claim that Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza has created the world’s largest prison camp.

Meanwhile, Israel has not only continued its illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it has further violated international law by displacing Palestinian communities and encouraging Jews to move into the Occupied Territories. It is now estimated that some half a million Jews live in illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories despite UN resolutions demanding that they be dismantled. Israel is currently building a giant wall known as the separation barrier in various parts of the West Bank in order to segregate the illegal settlements from the Palestinians and to eventually annex them and make them part of Israel in yet another unilateral move.

In 1947, the year before Israel declared itself a sovereign state, Palestinians lived in 94 percent of Palestine. Today, they inhabit a mere 15 percent with some five million living in refugee camps in the West Bank and surrounding countries. As one refugee in the al-Amari refugee camp in the West Bank told me, “We have a dream to return to our lands. How long it will take and what generation it will be, we don’t know.”

Given this history, Harper’s claim that Israel has the right to defend itself contradicts the reality on the ground. Surely it is the violence carried out by people forced to live under an illegal military occupation that should be considered an act of self defense. After all, the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two is viewed as a heroic struggle for national liberation. But instead of backing the Palestinian struggle for liberation, Harper has instead provided Israel with unconditional political support, including during its three military assaults on Gaza over the past seven years.

According to the United Nations, the Israeli military’s seven-week invasion of Gaza last year resulted in the deaths of 2,025 Palestinians, including 1,483 civilians, of whom 521 were children. Meanwhile, 71 Israelis died, of which 66 were soldiers. Additionally, more than half a million Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes by the assault.

The disproportionate number of Palestinian deaths has been a long-running theme in the conflict. In the past 15 years, 8,701 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis compared to 1,138 Israelis killed by Palestinians. The disparity in the number of Palestinian children killed is even greater with a total of 1,772 killed during that period compared to 93 Israeli children.

Despite the best efforts of the Harper government and the mainstream media to portray Israel as the victim in this conflict, the numbers make evident who is doing most of the killing and who is doing most of the dying. In short, how can a people forced to live under an illegal foreign military occupation be the aggressors?

While Baird was on Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem in January to emphasize Canada’s support for Israel, he further infuriated the Palestinian people by arrogantly stating publicly that the Palestinian Authority “made a huge mistake” by applying for membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in an effort to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

Fully aware of the pro-Israeli role being played by Canada, another Palestinian man I met in Ramallah also voiced his dissatisfaction upon discovering my nationality. “Canada is not nice to Palestinians,” he declared. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Clearly, he was right. And, as a Canadian, I could only agree with him and feel ashamed.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). ). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University in Canada.

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Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Ghosts Within: Journeying Through PTSD (Forthcoming, Spring 2019, Roseway Publishing), How I Became an American Socialist (Misfit Books, 2016), Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011,  Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006).  He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada.  

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