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Peter MacKay in Israel and Palestine

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January 25, 2007

Peter MacKay in Israel and Palestine

What the Foreign Minister did not see or discuss during his visit

by Jon Elmer

BEIT HANUN, GAZA -- A mother tutors her daughter in the rubble of their village in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo: Jon Elmer

GAZA CITY, GAZA -- Despite the impression cast by corporate news coverage, there is never anything like "calm" here in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The casualty count for 2006 released by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem reports that Israeli forces killed 660 Palestinians, while 17 Israeli civilians were killed, 13 of them in the West Bank [pdf]. The violence is often spectacular, as during the summer and fall siege operations in Gaza that killed more than 450 Palestinians under withering aerial bombardment, artillery barrages and two major ground invasions. But, as an unusually frank headline in the current edition of the Economist rightly stated, "It's the little things that make an occupation."

When Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay visited Israel this week, it was these "little things" that he missed--like the more than 530 fixed checkpoints and roadblocks identified in a joint UN-IDF count in the occupied West Bank. These obstacles make simple travel between neighbouring Palestinian villages often impossible, particularly when added to the more than 7,000 "flying checkpoints" that spring up at the whim of the Israeli army, anywhere and at anytime. As the Economist pointed out, "arbitrariness is one of the most crippling features of these rules."

The checkpoints and closure regime enforced by Israel is more than inconvenient; all too often, it is deadly. On Friday, as MacKay met with President Abbas in Amman, Israeli soldiers at the Hawara checkpoint outside of the West Bank city of Nablus refused the Israeli-issued permits of a patient returning from liver surgery in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The soldiers forced Tayseer Al Qaisi out of the car and ordered him to walk across the checkpoint. Al Qaisi, a father of eight, was weakened critically by the surgery and collapsed only a few hundred feet into the checkpoint. As reported by David Chater of Al Jazeera International, a Palestinian ambulance was prevented from entering the area for two hours. Mr Al Qaisi died while waiting for help.

In meetings with top Israeli cabinet ministers, Peter MacKay did not mention the more than 2,200 hours of strict curfew enforced by tanks and gunfire over the last two years, or the more than 5,400 Palestinians who were arrested or detained on Palestinian land last year [pdf]--including more than half of the elected Palestinian cabinet, the Speaker of Parliament and scores of local and municipal officials. He did not ask about the Palestinian prisoner who died in Israeli custody this week, or about the hunger strike being waged by political prisoners at Ansar III in the Negev desert in response to an attack by guards with police dogs and tear gas. While MacKay gave ample notice that he would be discussing the Israeli soldier captured on the Gaza border in June, he almost surely did not bring up the 11,000 political prisoners being held by Israel, some 400 of them children.

GAZA CITY, GAZA -- Fishing boats in the Palestinian port in Gaza. 14 Palestinian fisherman were shot by Israeli navy vessels while fishing Palestinian waters off Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Jon Elmer

Nor did MacKay talk about the more than 30 incursions into Palestinian cities and villages by the Israeli army in the last eight days, or the 14 fisherman shot off the coast of Rafah last week as they fished in Palestinian waters. He didn't talk about the 15 Palestinians injured by Israeli forces in protests this week, or of 10-year-old schoolgirl, Abir Aramin, who died on January 20 as she left the grounds of her school in Anata. According to witnesses, Abir was pursued by Israeli forces as she tried to run awayand was shot in the head with a stun grenade or tear gas canister at close range.

It's doubtful that MacKay raised the issue of last week's bulldozing of the entire "unrecognized" Bedouin village of Twail Abu-Jarwal in the Negev Desert. The Bedouin were displaced because they were illegally "trespassing" on the land of the Jewish state, despite the fact that their presence in the desert long predates the State of Israel. They are being forcibly relocated to urban reservations, while the Negev is prepared for settlement by the Jewish National Fund. In the "only democracy in the Middle East," at least 75,000 Bedouin live in more than 40 villages that are officially "unrecognized," where, like in Palestinian areas, building permits are denied and demolition orders are routinely carried out. The unrecognized villages have no infrastructure--no sewage, no water or electricity, and often no health or education facilities.

While Arab and Bedouin homes are destroyed, Jewish ones are being built. On the same day that MacKay arrived in the region, the Olmert government announced that 44 new housing units would be built in the Maale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem, a settlement which effectively, if not absolutely, severs the West Bank in two. In fact, MacKay won't deal with the issue of settlements at all--not the 121 illegal settlements and 100 outposts in the West Bank, nor the scores of settlements in occupied-East Jerusalem, beyond acknowledging the massive infrastructure of permanent dispossession as a "hindrance." In fact, along with their Jewish-only roads and attendant security footprint, these settlements render a Palestinian state an impossibility. Rather than fortified colonies on illegally occupied land, the Canadian government calls the settlements "facts on the ground." Not to be outdone, Stephen Harper referred to the settlement blocs as "democratic realities" in addressing a Zionist advocacy group in early 2006 [pdf].

MacKay did not address the substance of the 700 km-long barrier of sniper towers, concrete walls and deadly electronic fences snaking deep into the West Bank (80 per cent of the wall is built on UN recognized Palestinian land) in order to annex the massive settlement blocs into Israel and isolate the Palestinians into enclaves. He did not visit the machinery of settlement and dispossession created by the wall, the checkpoints, the settlements, the settler-only roads. John Dugard, South African human rights lawyer and UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory told the UN General Assembly, "In other countries the process would be described as ethnic cleansing, but political correctness [forbids] such language where Israel was concerned."

MacKay certainly did not visit Gaza, where 1.5 million people (one million of whom are refugees) are sealed off from the rest of the world, teetering on the edge of total social and humanitarian collapse because of the cruel and comprehensive sanctions regime that he so proudly vanguards. MacKay boastfully declared "not a red cent to Hamas" when the movement won the Palestinian elections early last year, but failed to see what that means on the streets of Gaza. He did not visit the EU-funded power station that was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in June, nor did he visit the refugee camps where a million of the world's poorest people have been condemned to endless months of crippling power shortages, random blackouts and Israeli-imposed shortages of cooking and heating gas.

He didn't see the rubble left from thousands of aerial bombing raids and tens of thousands of artillery shells. He didn't see the roads shredded by tanks, or the pile of gravel in Beit Hanun that used to be an 800-year-old mosque. He didn't see the graffiti on the demolished houses that reads "we will never forget." He didn't walk in the refugee camps as winter rains and sewage run in rivers down the unpaved streets, or visit the beachside picnic site where the Ghaliya family was massacred in front of the eyes of seven-year-old Huda, whose horrified tears were broadcast around the world. He didn't visit the ambulance workers at the Red Crescent, four of whom were killed by the Israeli army since June. Where does Canada stand on the killing of medical relief workers, Mr. MacKay?

And what about the home of the Atamna family in Beit Hanun, where blood still covers the walls and pieces of shrapnel are scattered on the floor and embedded in the cinderblock walls after an artillery barrage by the Israeli army? The IDF had used the family's home as a forward operating base in the November operation during which more than one hundred Palestinians were killed; the Atamna family was cordoned into one room and guarded by soldiers. The morning after the army left their home, the shells came. Within moments, 60 members of the extended family lay in the street, either maimed or dead. When asked what they would say to the Canadian government, defending Israel's atrocities as it does time and again, Iyad Atamna said: "We don't want your money or your political support, just come here for one day before you speak about justice."

Jon Elmer is in Gaza City.

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