Speech by Paul Burrows (History Dept., U of Saskatchewan. Past participant on ISM "Olive Harvest" campaign in the Occupied West Bank).
When you board a civilian ship in international waters, and proceed to threaten, shoot, kidnap, or rob its inhabitants, you are generally called a “pirate” or a “terrorist,” more or less depending on your motivations. But according to Israeli military spokespersons of the IDF, it was the Israeli commandos who were “ambushed,” “attacked,” and almost “lynched” in a “well-orchestrated” attack by knife and gun-toting leftists. According to Israeli officials, it is actually the 700 civilians on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, from over 30 different countries, trying to bring 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian supplies to the world’s largest concentration camp – it is apparently these aid workers who are the real “provocateurs.”
We are here today because the Israeli army has committed yet another act of state terrorism, and as usual they are the ones calling themselves the victims. We heard similar lies a year and a half ago, during Israel’s vicious assault on the Gaza Strip. We heard similar lies before that when Israel invaded Lebanon and killed thousands of civilians.
The lies are not new, and to be fair, Israel did not invent them. It’s an age-old imperial lens and logic, repeated so often, and regurgitated by our own media and politicians in Canada, that it is widely believed. And we in Canada are particularly receptive to these kinds of lies, becausewe ourselves are standing on stolen ground. We ourselves are often indifferent to the impact of settler-colonialism on indigenous peoples right here – indifferent to a 500-year process thatcontinues to seek to “extinguish” Aboriginal title and historical memory by hook or by crook. In short, when we ourselves cannot understand why some indigenous communities continue to fight back, block railways and highways, or even occasionally take up arms to defend the remnants of a shrinking land base – should we really be surprised when Israelis exhibit a similar settler-colonial mentality, let alone a racism and self-righteousness, and viciousness that finds many parallels in our own history?
Canadians are complicit in Israel’s own atrocities, because of the diplomatic support Canada provides to Israel, and the ongoing and growing trade relationships we have – when we oughtlong ago to have joined the international campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Yesterday, Stephen Harper was wining and dining Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Ottawa, while the Israeli army was shooting human rights activists in international waters, or by then detaining them, and diverting much-needed aid to the people of Gaza. We are also complicit because of the military components Canada contributes indirectly to Israel’s military, and which have consistently been used in ways that contravene all norms of international law, let alone ethics. We cannot forget this history, and our own complicity in Israeli crimes, even while we denounce the latest and typically disproportionate assault against civilians off the coast of Gaza today.
It is also worth reminding ourselves why 700 international aid workers, members of state, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and journalists, from all over the world – including Canada – committed themselves to getting these supplies into Gaza – and why another ship, the MV “Rachel Corrie”, setting out from Ireland, is still on route despite Israel’s vicious response. For years now, Israel has been bombing a starving, captive population in one of the most-densely populated territories on earth, periodically using F-16’s and Apache helicopters with Canadian components, and backed by the silence or complicity of Western governments. These are “crimes against humanity.” People in Gaza cannot even flee, because they don’t control their own borders. There are one and a half million people living in a tiny strip of land totaling about 360 square km. That’s a smaller geographical space than the City of Winnipeg. Imagine all of us literally walled into Saskatoon, and maybe a tiny strip extending out to Borden and Radisson, with no access to outside food and medicines, antibiotics, dialysis supplies, blood plasma, no control over fresh water supplies, no guaranteed electricity, and no fuel for the emergency generators that hospitals must rely on to keep patients alive. Now imagine, after 40 years of foreign military occupation and months and months of such a total blockade, with malnutrition and unemployment the norm, that the largest humanitarian agency providing any kind of relief is forced to stop providing food aid – precisely as the UNRWA did about a year and a half ago. Now imagine that we are bombed by the fourth most powerful military in the world — ostensibly because of the actions of a few firing indiscriminate and almost entirely-useless home-made rockets into land that was once theirs. And imagine too that journalists and UN officials are barred from entering and covering the conflict, and “respectable” media sources rely almost exclusively on press conferences organized by those who are dropping the bombs. Only then will you start to get a picture of what has been happening in Gaza.
Israel is waging war on the entire Palestinian people, in violation of virtually every Geneva Convention, including the clear prohibitions against collective punishment outlined in international law. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have this very week called the blockade of Gaza one of the worst abuses of human rights ongoing in the world today. Half of all Gazans are children. 7 out of 10 Gazans – 70% of the population – are in a state of dire “food insecurity” – that’s a fancy term for literally not knowing where your next meal will come from. Gazans have relied on local fisheries along the Mediterranean for over two thousand years. But not any more. Today, they are forced to smuggle fish through underground tunnels from Egypt. FISH! Not because the fisheries have collapsed. Not because British Petroleum, or Exxon, or some other unaccountable corporate fiefdom had a predictable “accident” off their coast. But because for years the Israeli navy has been boarding Palestinian fishing boats off the Gaza coast, harassing and killing fishermen, confiscating the very boats, nets, and catch that an already starving people need to survive. This is why people from around the world have sailed to break the siege. This is why more and more people are supporting the international campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. And when I say “people,” I do not mean our so-called “representatives” in Ottawa. Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, waited to hear what the U.S. response would be, and then offered a virtual lip sync yesterday: “Canada deeply regrets the loss of life and the injuries suffered … We are currently looking for more information in order to shed light on what exactly happened." That is called “appeasement”. We know what happened. We don’t need more information to know that this was state terrorism, directed at civilians trying to mitigate an ongoing crime against humanity. Yesterday’s murders are a direct consequence of appeasement such as this, a direct result of the world’s failure to hold Israel accountable forpast crimes. Shame on Israel and shame on Canada!
I want to end on something hopeful, if that even seems possible given the circumstances. I remember 20 years ago when South African apartheid officials, and their Western backers, including the Mulroney government, also denounced the ostensible “violence” of the African National Congress – and this was a national liberation movement that was also predominantly – though not exclusively – non-violent. I also remember the essentially white supremacist opposition that was expressed to a single, democratic South Africa with one person-one vote for all, regardless of skin colour. South Africa did not end Apartheid voluntarily. It took decades of bloody struggle waged by an oppressed majority, and growing support from international civil society for a comprehensive Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Israel’s apologists have long lamented (or pretended to lament) what they called the “absence of a Palestinian Gandhi.” But the reality – proven yet again on the “high seas” yesterday – is that Israel simply shoots them. If they can murder international human rights activists like Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, or UN officials like Iain Hook, or flotilla’s of international aid workers, with utter impunity, what do you think the Palestinians are facing? The reality is that Palestinians have much to teach us about “restraint” and non-violent resistance—not the other way around. This is exactly what Palestinian civil society is calling for today – a non-violent campaign that we can all participate in and support. If we don’t step up, and heed their call for a BDS campaign, then we are complicit in crimes against humanity. Those of us in Canada motivated by universal principles of support for human rights, and genuinely opposed to war crimes, apartheid, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing – regardless of the perpetrator or victim – need to take our place in this growing world struggle for meaningful peace, justice and de-colonization, at home as well as in the Middle East. A meaningful peace is possible for both Palestinians and Jews in the whole land between the Jordan River and the sea. Clearly, our government is not going to lead the way. It is up to us. Thank you for coming out.