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March 31, 2011

Israel: It is time to renounce "Canada Park"

Corey Levine

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March 30 is Palestinian Land Day, an annual commemoration to mark the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from their lands, in which Canada has a small but significant role.

A beautiful 80,000 acre of lush greenery known as Canada Park, sits just off the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This oasis of rest and recreation amidst the rocky outcrop and archaeological backdrop of the region has been funded and supported at Canadian taxpayer expense.

It also happens to be located in the Occupied Territories sitting atop of what were once three thriving Palestinian villages, Imwas, Beit Nuba and Yalo.

During the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, nearly 10,000 Arab residents were driven out of their homes and forced to march for days over rocky hillsides to safety. Some died along the way. Israeli soldiers then set about destroying the villages and plowing under their orchards. The villages ceased to be as if they never existed and the former residents now live as refugees.

The international laws governing armed conflict are clear on the illegality of this type of conduct.

Yet, Canada Park, which was officially opened by former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1975, is seen as a symbol of the close relationship between Canada and Israel. A charitable organization, the Jewish National Fund of Canada, raised $15 million to establish the park and since that time more than 5 million trees have been planted in the park, all paid for with Canadian tax-deductible dollars.

As a Canadian who is deeply appreciative of what this country has to offer, I am appalled that its citizens are entitled to write-off donations to what amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.

Glossy brochures of Canada Park depicting Israeli families enjoying picnics or hiking along its landscaped hillsides reminds me of the time I encountered the famous 16th century Ferhadija Mosque in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka – or rather what was left of it, which was precisely - nothing.

When I was working there shortly after the Bosnian war ended, a local friend took me to the spot where the mosque had been built and all I could see was a parking lot.

My friend explained that the mosque was intentionally razed in one night during the war (requiring large quantities of explosives given that the minaret alone was 43 metres high). By the time the city residents woke the next morning, they found a completely flat earthen field where previously a UNESCO declared world heritage site had stood for over 500 years. 

While Israel officially claims the purposeful destruction of the three villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants was necessary for “strategic reasons”, to paraphrase the author Gertrude Stein, ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing, as witnessed by one Israeli soldier.

He was so horrified by what he saw he sent a copy of his diary detailing the account to every member of the Israeli Parliament, prophesizing that “the children straggling along the roads wailing and crying bitter tears will be the fedayeen (warriors) in another 19 years.” Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, has referred to this erasure of Palestinian history as state-organized "memoricide."

As a child I watched as my parents donated money to have trees planted in Israel, often in the names of their parents, who had fled the horrors of the pogroms against the Jews of Eastern Europe. They also instilled in me a strong sense of social justice and a moral obligation to help those who are suffering wherever they may be found in the world.

What message are Canadians giving when our nation’s name is linked to the expulsion of a people from their land and paid for with Canadian tax-deductible dollars that has been used - in contravention of international law – to effectively annex a section of the West Bank to Israel?

Many of you reading this are probably asking why should we care about something that happened almost 50 years ago - because displacing people from their land is continuing to happen at Canadian taxpayer expense.

On March 8 the Beduoin village of Al-Araqib was razed by Israeli authorities for the 21st time since June 2010. Under the guise of “environmentalism” the JNF is planning on planting a forest on the site of the village with tax-free money donated by its branches around the world, including Canada. 

Each time the village, which is more than 100 years old, has been destroyed, residents have rebuilt their homes. Morality may be on their side, but they have an uphill battle to save their homes. And while the remnants of the three Palestinian villages that lie under the verdant, lushness of Canada Park may be gone, they are not forgotten.

Last month protest vigils were held outside Canadian Representative Offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. A memorandum was sent asking that “the Government of Canada revoke the legal status of JNF Canada” given its complicity in war crimes.

As we Canadians prepare for our annual spring ritual of filing our taxes, it is time to renounce our namesake park.

Corey Levine is a peacebuilding and human rights consultant who has worked in the region.

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