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MONTREAL—Just months after the Israeli Defense Forces raided a humanitarian flotilla headed to Gaza and killed nine international activists on the Mavi Marmara, a team of Canadians is gathering funds and passengers for their own Gaza-bound boat, departing from the Mediterranean as soon as December.
Composed of 40 activists from across the country, this would be the first Canadian group to participate in the international effort.
“Over the past two years, many boats tried to break the Israeli siege over Gaza,” said Ehab Lotayef, part of the Canadian boat organizing group. “The Canadian presence in these efforts was nearly non-existent. Canada at the same time is, as a government, one of the strongest supporters of Israel. It stays silent when Israel violates international law or commits atrocities against the Palestinian people, and in most cases, even supports Israel in doing that.”
Sending a boat of humanitarian aid to Gaza requires a minimum of $300,000, mainly for the purchase of a boat and medicines. Organizers say they have reached a third of this goal and have received the endorsement of approximately 100 organizations.
The Canadian boat is a partner of the Free Gaza Movement, which has sailed ten humanitarian flotillas to Gaza since 2008. Two of their ships successfully reached Gaza that year, but all others since have been interrupted by Israel.
Lotayef insists the team is not perturbed by this reality.
“We are there to challenge the Israeli blockade in a passive-resistance manner,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to get harmed, we are not an army to go stand against the Israeli army, but we refuse in principle to get towed to Ashdod or redirected to Egypt.”
The boat project is virtually unprecedented in Canadian history, says Yves Engler, author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid and The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy.
“There aren’t many examples in the history of Canadian international solidarity that are being taken on the same scale as Canadian boat to Gaza...as mass opposition to a policy that the Canadian government is supporting abroad,” he said.
He cited the 1981 campaign “Tools for Peace,” which brought “people-to-people” aid to Nicaragua, as another example of Canadians providing concrete aid while broadly critiquing their government's actions.
“I think the boat to Gaza is similar to that,” he said.
While the mission aims to deliver humanitarian aid, it doubles as an attempt to attract international attention in order to pressure Israel into lifting the blockade.
“I would be surprised if they managed to reach Gaza, that’s one thing for sure,” said Michel Lambert, executive director and co-founder of Alternatives, the key sponsor and financial manager of the Canadian boat.
“But I think that politically speaking, the fact that there will be Canadian citizens on that boat will of course put the state of Israel in a difficult position.”
The Harper government has made the Canadian government one of Israel’s strongest allies in the international community. Canada was the first country to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority in 2006 and the only country to vote against the 2008 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution to call for an end to the siege of Gaza. In addition, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon defended Israel’s 22-day campaign “Operation Cast Lead,” which left over 1,200 Palestinians dead in January 2009, taking the position that Israel acted in self-defense.
Pierre Florea, spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), refused to comment on the specifics of a governmental response to the launch of the Canadian boat or any potential attacks by Israel.
“We will not speculate on hypothetical scenarios,” he said. He added that DFAIT calls on all parties to deliver aid by official channels and that “Canada recognizes Israel's legitimate security concerns and its right to protect itself and its residents from Hamas and other terrorist attacks.”
Despite holding back on public comments to the media, the government is closely monitoring Canada Boat to Gaza organizers. Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents visited Lotayef’s home twice in August in
an attempt to talk about the project and his “safety,” but have not contacted him since.
“I told them that if I feel that the work I’m doing is being infiltrated or that I’m in danger from any group, I will contact the police,” said Lotayef, who knows each of the 40 working group members individually.
Lambert is not surprised at the reaction of the government.
“We’ve seen attempts last year to criminalize even informal informational activities in Canada, like the Israeli Apartheid Week,” he said. “We’ve seen people in parliament discussing the possibility of making this a crime...to say 'Israel' and 'apartheid' in the same sentence.”
The fatal attack on the Mavi Marmara in May proved to be successful in forcing Israel to weaken the embargo it has been imposing on Gaza since June 2007. After international condemnation of the raid, Israel announced on June 17 that it would “liberalize” the blockade for civilian goods.
According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, food, medicine and other aid cannot be restricted as a result of a blockade, nor can civilians be prevented from leaving the war zone. The United Nations fact-finding mission led by Richard Goldstone concluded that Israel's blockade violated international law, calling it “collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.”
Israel's announcement of a “loosened” blockade has caused some, like Rabbi Reuben Poupko of the Quebec-Israel Committee, to see future flotillas aimed at breaking the siege as “misguided.”
“It’s a little after the fact,” said Poupko. “I don’t really understand why anyone feels it’s necessary. The crisis according to all objective observers is pretty much over, if there was a crisis beforehand. The border crossing is now letting in a lot more stuff and the alleged siege—the inspection protocol which Egypt and Israel had imposed upon Gaza—has been loosened dramatically. I’m not sure why it would be necessary.”
But recent news reports say that Israel’s continued restriction on allowing construction materials into the Gaza strip is barely making a dent in alleviating the housing shortage caused by Operation Cast Lead almost two
years ago. According to Israeli human rights group Gisha, only about 60 trucks of cement, steel and gravel have come in each month for the past three months, compared to 5,000 a month before the blockade.
Access to medicine and outside medical treatment has also remained a serious problem, with 70 per cent of medicines donated to Gaza expiring before they make it across the border, according to the Gaza health ministry.
The United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—an agency responsible for helping 4.7 million Palestinian refugees access health care and education—is experiencing a $90-million shortfall this year.
Canada had been supplying aid to UNRWA since 1950, but announced this January that it would stop giving core monetary support to the agency because of concerns about its “values.”
A CIDA report in 2009 stated that UNRWA represented a “low risk” for funding terrorist groups.
According to Engler, loosening the blockade has not changed daily life for those in Gaza.
“Israel still controls the waterways, the airspace, and just the fact that they can decide to lessen or strengthen their blockade is indicative that they have overwhelming control over Palestinian lives in Gaza,” he said.
The Canadian boat project has also been criticized by Montreal Muslim Council president Salam Elmenyawi, who said the money should be used for aid rather than “controversy.”
Lotayef has a difference of opinion.
“Breaking of the siege is more important in the long run than just giving people food,” he said. “The long-term interest should be above short term need.”
Both Lotayef and Lambert agree that the flotilla is not the only way to help Palestinians in Gaza and influence Israeli policy, citing it as one tactic among others—like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and the World Education Forum in Palestine—to effectively oppose the Israeli occupation.
“I think that all together—this and other initiatives—is the best way to confront the state of Israel and its policies,” said Lambert. “It needs to be as diversified as they are because the state of Israel is quite diversified in its own ways of implementing the occupation. So you need to be in every sphere to eventually be capable to have an impact on their policies.”
Just as combating South African apartheid took a variety of social and political movements, so too will the Palestinian liberation movement, said Lotayef.
“The important thing is at the end of the day we have to voice our objection to the siege of Gaza, the blockade, and we also have to challenge our own government [and say] that this compliance and this silence is not acceptable.”
Meagan Wohlberg is a journalism student and community organizer living in Montreal. For more information about the Canadian boat: http://canadaboatgaza.org.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.