Canada Calling – Canadian MP Travels to Ramallah to Show Solidarity With Palestinians
By Faisal Kutty – Accusing Israel of carrying out “acts of state terrorism,” New Democratic Party (NDP) Foreign Affairs spokesperson Svend Robinson left April 5 on a mission to the occupied territories. He plans to circumvent the Israeli blockade and meet with besieged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to “demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
This is Robinson’s second trip to the territories since the first intifada erupted in 1987. “Like many Canadians,” he explained, “I am deeply concerned and alarmed about the illegal, violent actions of the Israeli government in the occupied territories. The Israeli government is demonstrating total contempt for international humanitarian law and the 4th Geneva Convention.”
Robinson, who is the rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly on human rights and democracy, called on the international community to speak out against Israel’s siege of the occupied territories. He criticized the Canadian delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for opposing a special sitting of the commission to debate the crisis. The outspoken MP also expressed his disapproval of the Liberal government in Ottawa for its attempts to appease Israel. “For too long our government has ignored the root cause of the problem,” he told the Washington Report, “and that is the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
“When you cut off food, when you cut off water and medicine, when you cut off oxygen and blood, when you block ambulances from coming in,” said the senior member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, “Israel is itself guilty of acts of state terrorism.”
Jewish groups reacted quickly, accusing Robinson of taking sides. “I haven’t seen Svend rushing to Israel to visit families who have lost loved ones in terrorist bombings,” Jack Silverstone of the Canadian Jewish Congress told the Globe and Mail. “I find his behavior to be nothing more than cheap theatrics.”
First elected to the House of Commons in May 1979, Svend Robinson is no stranger to controversy. He has championed causes ranging from lifting the crippling sanctions against Iraq to fighting for the right to assisted suicide. And he has been in hot water with the powerful Israel lobby before. It can truthfully be said, in fact, that he has never been in their good books.
After Robinson’s first trip to the West Bank and Gaza in 1991, the Zionist lobby, led by the Canadian Jewish News, the leading Jewish newspaper in Canada, and the Canada-Israeli Committee (CIC), blasted him for his eyewitness account of Israeli “teargassing” of Palestinian protesters. The CIC described his “gassing” remark as “extremely offensive” because it “consciously or otherwise” drew a parallel to the Nazi gassing of Jews during the Holocaust. The Jewish journal then reminded its readers that if Robinson’s party, the NDP, won the upcoming elections, he would be responsible for the foreign affairs portfolio. The NDP and Robinson denied the charges, saying his words had been “taken out of context and distorted in a way that was really quite repugnant.”
“I am deeply concerned about the illegal, violent actions of the Israeli government.”
Of course, there are also those who respect and admire him. “For years, Robinson has been the antithesis of a party seat-warmer,” said Ottawa journalist Dan Gardner. “Time and again he has stood for what he believes. He is the model of a principled parliamentarian—which, evidently, is not a model much followed in this Parliament.”
Despite his often unorthodox views about family, abortion and euthanasia, many members of the Arab and Muslim communities hold him in high regard for his stance on human rights issues. “He can always be counted on to speak up for the voiceless,” says Yusuf Refai, a student activist.
Robinson, a University of British Columbia law graduate, is a strong advocate of human rights, and has served on many parliamentary committees, including the historic Special Joint Committee on the Constitution in 1980-81, the 1985 Special Committee on Equality Rights, the Justice Committee, the Human Rights Committee, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also serves as vice-chair of the Canada-Cuba Parliamentary Friendship Group and is an honorary director of Lawyers Against Apartheid.
“My friend Svend displayed the same courage when he walked through Kosovo to defy the Serbian militia committing atrocities against the Muslims,” observed Muslim community activist Tarek Fatah. “Svend has time and again displayed courage and fortitude and stood up for Palestinians, Kosovars and Kashmiris.”
Young Israeli Refusenik Says Occupation Must End
“There will never be a military answer to suicide bombers. They are the result of the despair produced by the occupation,” wrote Sarah Shartal, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “People with hope for the future do not blow themselves up. Palestinians need land, work, bread and dignity,” she continued in a letter to the editor published in the March 14 Globe and Mail. “This cannot happen without an end to the occupation. But, instead, we invade and terrorize.”
This was the same message delivered two days earlier in Toronto by 19-year-old Israeli Matan Kaminer, one of the 62 high school seniors who last fall signed the widely publicized letter to Ariel Sharon announcing their refusal to take part in IDF operations in the occupied territories.
The Sept. 3 letter, the brainchild of Matan and five fellow students, addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, stated:
“We the undersigned, youths who grew up and were brought up in Israel, are about to be called to serve in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. We protest before you against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and to inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy.
“We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights. Land expropriation, arrests, executions without trial, house demolitions, closure, torture and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified.
“These actions are not only illegitimate; they do not even achieve their stated goal—increasing the citizens’ personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.
“Therefore, we will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions. We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army and reserve service soldiers to do the same.”
Born and raised in Israel until the age of seven, Matan’s family moved to California, then back to Israel when Matan was 14. Currently doing a year of service with the Re’ut Sedaka movement for Jewish-Arab coexistence, he said he began to think within a few years of his return about what he would do when it came time to serve in the army. All Israeli men must serve three years with the IDF, and then must report for reserve duty for about 30 days each year until they reach the age of 40.
“I knew I could not serve in the occupied territories, it was wrong and I could not enforce the occupation,” the articulate teenager said to thunderous applause at the packed Victoria House auditorium.
With this principled decision, Matan followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the refusenik movement, which got its start during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The movement began to lose momentum, however, after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and with the signing of the Oslo accords, since many felt it was only a matter of time before Israeli troops would withdraw from the occupied territories. In what some commentators suggest was tacit rejection of Israeli policy, the number of reservists who sought to defer their tour of duty doubled in the wake of the current intifada triggered by Ariel Sharon’s incursion onto the Haram al-Sharif.
“Many women in the peace camp would be pleased if their children refused to serve in combat units,” said Matan’s mother, Smadar Nehab. “I’ve been blessed by a son who has chosen not to serve in the territories. This is the strongest possible statement against the occupation,” she told Ha’aretz. “My son, Matan, is a patriot. He prefers not to serve there so that the state will continue to be able to exist.”
Such courageous words and actions appear to have had some effect. In fact, within the IDF itself, a similar revolt begun in January of this year by 52 reservists who refused to serve in the occupied territories has grown to more than 400. The outspoken “refuseniks” appear to be gaining momentum as support groups pop up within and outside of Israel. Most recently, in response to Operation Protective Wall, Israel’s largest military mission in 20 years, and for which the IDF has called up 30,000 reservists, the refuseniks and supporters ran an ad in early April in Ha’aretz.
“The mobilization of reservists for a new reoccupation of the territories is not an operation destined to defend the interests and borders of Israel and we won’t take part,” the ad proclaimed. “The Israeli government has unleashed a destructive operation whose magnitude and consequences are difficult to estimate. It’s a fool’s war conducted by an administration that prefers to bury its head in the sand and drag the Israeli army through the mud of the territories.”
Echoing the position of Matan and the other students who signed the “seniors’ letter,” the reservists, in their own “officers’ letter,” take the position that they “will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line [separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip] with the aim of pressing, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people.”
Matan believes that this movement is targeted at the core evil within Israeli society—namely, militarism. The military is Israel’s sacred cow, he argued, with the Israeli establishment relying on the military and the military in turn benefitting from unequivocal establishment support.
The Israeli establishment’s initial reaction to the refuseniks was hysterical and confrontational, Matan said. When this backfired, the government and the media tried to keep quiet about it, he told the audience, and the Israeli government now dismisses the opposition as a tiny fringe movement. In fact, the Israeli consul general in Toronto told this writer during a televised panel discussion that these refuseniks are simply “leftists” and “communists.” The facts appear to suggest that they are not quite the fringe element as the authorities wish to paint them, however. A poll conducted by Israeli radio last February revealed that 31 percent of Israelis supported the refuseniks.
“I am willing to serve in any war whose objective is the defense of Israel,” a corporal refusenik told Ha’aretz, “but in no circumstances am I willing to take part in any activity that causes suffering and victims to both the Israeli and Palestinian nations.”
“This is a strong social statement,” commented Gor Ziv of New Profile, the Movement for the Civilization of Israeli Society. “Our young people are voting with their feet and it is worth paying attention to their voice. The trend of non-conscription is on the rise. This is the spread of a broad resistance movement that the military-governmental system is trying to blur.”
The Refuseniks appear to have also energized the Four Mothers movement—a group of military mothers who believe that the occupation is unjust. Matan pointed out, moreover, that the movement is getting support from various quarters, and he urged Canadians to contribute and show solidarity with refusenik support groups such as New Profile (www.newprofile.org) and Seruv (www.seruv.org.il).
There is also some evidence to suggest that this most recent refusenik outbreak is not the IDF’s only worry. In recent years, according to its own numbers, a record 22 percent of all Israeli males eligible for the draft were granted exemptions. This is up from 12 percent two decades ago. In addition, only one-third of all men eligible for reserve duty completed their tour.
Matan called for solidarity with the Palestinian people, “who have been deprived of their basic human rights,” and with the refuseniks. Urging Canadians to pressure their elected officials to end Western military aid to Israel, he concluded by reminding the audience that criticizing Israeli policies is not the same as anti-Semitism. “Ending the occupation is in the best interest of Israel and the Jewish people,” says Matan, who spoke at both York University and the University of Toronto.
The mostly Jewish audience of about 300 at the University of Toronto were also privy to a screening of scenes from the occupation photographed during the last days of 2001 by B.H. Yael, associate professor at the Ontario College of Art. The footage of the life struggles of Palestinians was presented to serve as “counter images to the [pro-Israeli] images in the media,” said Yael.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Note: First Published: May 2002, pages 59-60
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