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September 8, 2009

Canadian MPs visit Palestine

The Canadian Charger

"What comes to my mind when I think of our Parliamentary mission to Gaza and the West Bank is one word-apartheid."  That was how Bloc Québécois MP Richard Nadeau summed up his August visit to the region. 

He went with NDP MP Libby Davies and Liberal Boris Wrzesnewskj on behalf of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Association.  Because the Association does not have 50 members of Parliament, it gets no budget, and so the three had to do it on their own dime.  They went with three people from the Code Pink peace group, two of whom speak Arabic.

The Canadian government did not want them to go to Gaza but offered help in going to the West Bank.  The Egyptian ambassador in Canada was equally unhelpful.  They had to make their way to Egypt to manage their way through bureaucratic red tape, making arrangements with the occasional sympathetic diplomatic or administrative staffer.

At the last minute they got permission to enter Gaza from Egypt, but they still had to spend hours re-negotiating their way with Egyptian officials at the Rafah crossing into Gaza.  But before Gaza they first went to Jordan.

“In Jordan,” said Nadeau “Muhammed Ali Siraj, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke of how Israel promotes extremism.”  According to him, on leaving South Lebanon and Gaza the Israel Defence Force engaged in a scorched earth program.  Siraj sees that tactic as providing the impetus for Hamas and Hezbollah and for giving Iran influence in the region.

After meeting with various officials, they made their way to the West Bank.  There they spoke with officials of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization.  They also visited Bil’in, where the local population is engaged in demonstrations to prevent the separation wall from cutting the town off from their fields. They were informed that at night Israeli forces enter Bil’in to seize and arrest activists.  They also set off noise bombs, which terrify the children.  Legal action is being taken in Canada by the town against two Canadian companies involved in settlement construction on their land, as such construction is a violation of international law. 

PLO operatives told the MP’s of the impact of Israeli actions in the West Bank.  Only a bit over half is left to them.  9% has been taken by settlers, 8% has been turned into security zones, mainly around settlements, and 28.5% is a military buffer along the Jordan River.  Israeli expansion of settlements and the separation wall along with Jewish expansion in Jerusalem virtually cut the West Bank in two.  With 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, there are now 485,000 settlers.

The delegation also visited Hebron, deep in the West Bank, where they met with UN officials and the mayor.  It is a city of 170,000, with perhaps 800 Jewish settlers.  The settlers are extremists who engage in frequent incidents against the Palestinians.  UN officials recorded 291 such incidents in the first ten months of 2008.  In 1994, Israel shut down the main market area to provide a buffer to protect the settlers.  While the Hebron settlers do not recognize Israel and rely on financial support from sympathizers in New York, the Israeli army supplies them with military protection.  When Israel has attempted to dismantle some of their facilities, they have responded by attacking and firing on Palestinians.  The settlers, unlike the Palestinians, are allowed to carry fire arms. 

Jerusalem was another stop on their trip.  According to the PLO representatives, Palestinians living there pay the same taxes as Jews, but they receive much poorer services.  They are apt to encounter poor water pressure and frequent unexpected loss of electricity.  They also do not have garbage collection.  Then, as a final indignity, they run the risk of expulsion from their homes without warning or compensation, to make way for Jewish families.  The MP’s ran into this phenomenon first hand. 

They encountered a scene in East Jerusalem where a Palestinian family was ensconced in a tent across the street from a house from which they had been evicted a few days before.  They were replaced by a Hasidic family.  Then Nadeau and his fellow members were led by reporters to another situation a few streets away.  There they met the Hamoun family, who were thrown out of their home.  This is an extended family, living together in the house which was built in 1954.  Yet, Israel claimed that it had been owned by Jews in 1948!  The army took their belongings from the house and carted them off to a dump, but the UN employees retrieved their things and gave them assistance.  One soldier took the laptop belonging to a university student and deliberately broke it. 

When the delegation arrived in Gaza, they encountered devastation and abject poverty.  They were escorted around by Stephanie Fox, from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).  They also met business people and Palestinians from the health system. While the war lasted 22 days, there was virtually no resistance during the last four days.  That is when Israel completely destroyed the industrial park, where furniture and textiles were manufactured, according to Fox.  Israel also destroyed the water filtration system.  As a result, raw sewage flows directly into the Mediterranean.  “The sea smells terrible, and the water is murky,” said Nadeau in commenting on his visit to the shore.

70% of the government buildings were destroyed, including the parliament building, the Ministry of Education, and the fishing authority.  The MP’s spoke to the head of a fishermen’s organization, who told them that Israel severely limited how far out they could go, resulting in an 80% reduction in their catch and in their landing only very small fish.  As they will never grow to size, the future of the fishing is in danger.

14,000 houses were destroyed, including dwellings in the refugee camp which had been established in 1948.  “I saw people in the camp living in tents,” he said.  There were 225 of them in the camp.  These were ordinary camping tents, and they were deteriorating because of the long exposure to sun and wind.  The tents are very hot inside and must remain closed to keep out the blowing sand. Some people had attached sheds to their tents with sleeves of aluminum sheeting.  Sheds were made from salvaged two-by-fours, and the connection to the sheds made it possible to get some indirect breeze into the tents to relieve the miserable heat.

The embargo on goods going into Gaza, enforced by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, has resulted in a resort to tunnels into Egypt to bring in all kinds of goods, from gasoline to cows.  Gasoline is sold in bottles.  Goods cost ten times what they ordinarily would, and only people in public employment can afford them.  Their salaries continued to be paid by the European Union, even if, for example, some teachers are unable to teach because their schools are no longer there. Almost a third of the tunnels were eliminated by Israeli action during the war.

There is a rather sinister side to the tunnel traffic.  Some of the smugglers bring in illicit drugs, and an underworld is growing in Gaza, “a kind of mafia,” Nadeau called it.  Israel limits normal kinds of delivery severely.  Construction materials were forbidden.  Disposable diapers and hair conditioner were also on the prohibited list.  Seed and fertilizer are banned, eliminating greenhouse production.

Nadeau noted that the European Union funded the construction of government buildings in Gaza.  Canada built the airport.  These things were wiped out, along with 50 UN buildings.  200 schools were destroyed or damaged.

“How can the donor nations stand for Israel’s destruction of these things that they paid for?”  he asked.  UNRWA’s Christer Nordahl responded, “I’ve been here for the last nine years, and I ask the same question every day, and I have gotten no answer.”

Gazans want the blockade lifted.  They also want people to come to see what things are like.  “They treated us like kings,” said Nadeau. “They were so glad that someone wanted to see what they have to put up with.”

According to Nadeau, the Palestinians want a renewal of the negotiations on the road map to peace and a two-state solution.  As to the settlers, Palestinians want a halt to all construction, to all planning and authorizations, and all subventions.  They want as well an end to land seizures and a halt to arrival of any more settlers. 

They want Canada to refuse to recognize the settlements and to forbid financial support from Canada in any form, charitable or otherwise.  They call for a total ban on all business and investment arrangements with settlers.  Canadians should not, they urge, be involved in buying or renting land for settlers in the Territories.  Goods from the Occupied Territories should be barred, or at least they should be clearly labelled as to place of origin.

Additionally, Canada has been paying $16 million a year for UNWRA.  “UNRWA is a godsend in Gaza,” said Nadeau.  They carry out a variety of relief functions, including running a summer youth camp.  Canada has not paid this year.  UNWRA and the Gazans are waiting. 

A final thought on what is at stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict.  A Palestinian psychiatrist from Gaza told Nadeau that there is general paranoia on both sides.  The Jews have endured horrendous persecution, culminating in the Holocaust.  They now find themselves a small country in a Muslim sea.  The Palestinians see themselves as victims of the Nakba and its aftermath, facing a militarily powerful Israel with important support from the United States.  They are seriously frightened of each other. Nadeau observed that Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank think that the treatment that they receive from Israel reflects an Israeli desire that they should leave.

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M. Elmasry

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