Canadian Boat to Gaza to break siege, overcome “aid traps”

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The Electronic Intifada, 23 August 2010 (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11478.shtml)

Canadian activists looking to assist in the breaking of the siege of Gaza plans to launch a Canadian Boat to Gaza this fall. However, this Canadian version of the Freedom Flotilla that seeks to break the siege has a twist.

In partnership with the Free Gaza Movement (the group behind numerous boats to the Gaza Strip), the Canadian Boat to Gaza initiative, headed in part by Canadian activist Sandra Ruch, seeks to also take goods out of Gaza. In this way, the Canadian activists hope to assist Palestinians in Gaza by helping them, as declared in their mission statement, “assert their right to export, trade and provide for themselves rather than be at the mercy of international aid.” It is often forgotten that the siege of Gaza, intensified after the Hamas elections victory in 2006, prohibits all exporting from the Strip. This is the other half of the siege, which helps to corrode the economic independence of the Palestinian people.

The launch of the project was made at the first fundraiser for the Canadian Boat to Gaza on 14 July 2010 at the Steel Workers Hall located in downtown Toronto. Having been to the Gaza Strip twice, Ruch has seen the effects of the suffocating blockade. “Every time that I went to Gaza,” recalled Ruch, “the people told me, ‘You know, we’re not farm animals, we can’t just be fed — we need to be free.'” The organizers estimate the initiative will cost at least $300,000 CDN ($294,663 USD) and fundraising efforts are going on at the moment to reach that amount before the fall sailing season starts in mid-September of this year.

This theme of self-empowerment and self-reliance ran throughout the kickoff fundraiser, which also featured Israeli economist Shir Hever, who gave a presentation on the different types of aid that go into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hever also discussed how Israel as the occupying power manipulates the management of this aid in ways that allow it to benefit politically and economically from the occupation. Hever detailed the ways in which international aid indirectly takes the heat off Israel’s responsibilities (and crimes), and how the Canadian Boat to Gaza project can contribute to the solution of these problems (Hever’s talk is available on Youtube).

Ultimately, the flotilla movement allows the humanitarian problem in Gaza to be tended to with dignity. While incorporating a mechanism by which the people of Gaza can profit on the ground from the humanitarian support, Hever also emphasized that the flotilla initiative itself is a “strong political message,” forcing “the world to focus on the political and humanitarian disaster that is the Gaza blockade as well as the Palestinian question in general.” By helping to carry Palestinian exports, the act brings to attention the Palestinian right to trade with the outside world (something that Israel, as the occupying power, is supposed to respect).

Hever’s research puts aid to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in political context. During the years of the Oslo accords from around 1994 to 2000, the international community (especially the European Union) began to funnel more humanitarian and developmental aid to the occupied territories, amounting to approximately $7 billion USD (see “International Aid to the Palestinians Under Occupation,” Alternative Information Center, 7 July 2010).

Instead of being makers of their own destiny, the Palestinians are forced into being passive consumers of mostly Israeli goods. The Palestinians in Gaza, who are not allowed any exports under the siege, and a very, very limited amount of imports from the United Nations (the amount of which fluctuates at the whim of Israeli officials), suffer most from these economic absurdities. All the while, Israel stands to gain the most financially by collecting service fees and customs fees that inevitably accompanies the aid itself. This makes the Canadian flotilla an even more urgent initiative. If successful, it will allow (in addition to raising awareness of the occupation) the Palestinians to fight for some semblance of economic freedom in the shape of exporting their goods to the rest of the world.

Being dependent on aid forever is not compatible with sovereignty. Being under occupation and dependent on international aid is even worse. As the occupying power, Israel’s responsibilities are partially blurred by the donations from international aid agencies. Thus, as Hever stated at the Canadian Boat to Gaza fundraising launch, “The Freedom Flotilla initiative has the exact traits that are the opposite of the aid that goes through the official channels of the UN and the World Food Program. … This is an opportunity to send aid without paying any taxes to Israel, without letting Israel decide what goes in and doesn’t go in, and without allowing Israel to control who will be the staff … many of the aid agencies working in the occupied territories have staff members disqualified by Israel.”

The nine Turkish activists (including one Turkish-American) who lost their lives on the Mavi Marmara last May exemplified solidarity and their sacrifice helped to further crack the fortress of Israeli hasbara or propaganda. The Canadian Boat to Gaza initiative hopes to honor the legacy of such efforts. In a time when conventional methods of international aid have proven to be largely ineffective in the face of a brutal and manipulative occupation, the Canadian Boat to Gaza seeks to help Palestinians achieve dignity and independence.

middle east, politics

Pakistan Drowning, Canada Offers Little

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The flooding in Pakistan, the worst in 80 years, has eclipsed the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Pakistani earthquake of 2005, and the Haitian earthquake earlier this year, says the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Around 1,600 Pakistanis have died, and an estimated 13.8 million have been affected, but even after the waters subside, the suffering will continue for some time.

The World Food Program reports that 80% of Pakistan’s food reserves have been wiped out, and 558,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed. This season’s rice crop in Sindh Province, part of the country’s “food belt,” has been destroyed, and the Punjab Province, which holds 70% of the country’s cotton reserves, has been devastated. It is now estimated that 1/3 of Pakistan is submerged, about the size of the United Kingdom.

A number of villages and towns along the Indus River have simply been washed away or submerged. The Swat Valley is completely closed off, and Mohenjo-daro, widely known as the world’s first planned city (2400 BC), may very well be destroyed.

All this destruction and Pakistan is only halfway through the monsoon season.

The United Nations has announced an appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars to assist in the aid effort, which is being complicated by continuing rain and landslides.

On Aug. 4, Canada announced that it was contributing $2 million in emergency aid. “[This] will help meet the immediate humanitarian needs of over 150,000 families who have been severely affected by the monsoon floods,” said Minister of International Cooperation Beverley Oda.

However, given the magnitude of destruction and the rising numbers of refugees, $2 million is nowhere near enough.

[Addendum: Canada has now pledges another $33 million.]

Despite the dispatching of 300,000 soldiers to help with the relief effort, people in severely affected areas have complained about the government’s lack of response.

For example, President Asif Ali Zardari has refused to cancel a prolonged trip to Europe to tend to the crisis. Facing protestors in Birmingham, U.K., Zardari made the excuse that he was not needed since he empowered other elected officials in Pakistan to deal with the crisis. This “excuse,” along with images of him lounging at his chateau in France, has infuriated Pakistanis.

“President Zardari has a history of leaving the country when the going gets tough,” said Fatima Bhutto, a vocal critic of the current regime and Zardari’s niece by marriage. “A local pundit anecdotally once estimated that Richard Holbrooke has spent more time in Pakistan than the president.”

Like Haiti, Pakistan is both prone to natural disasters and ill equipped to deal with humanitarian crises.

According to Bhutto, ignorance and corruption play a big role in ensuring such incompetence, but world powers like the United States are also culpable. The Obama administration has ordered dozens of drone air strikes in northern Pakistan to “wipe out al-Qa‘ida operatives,” and this complicates Pakistan’s status as a U.S. ally in the global “War on Terror.”  Thus, controversy erupts when Pakistanis see American ground troops trying to help with the relief effort.

The government has also done little to build up a disaster readiness program. “Everyone here has been complaining the government actually does not have the capacity to respond, because when there isn’t a disaster, they do nothing,” notes Qalandar Memon, a member of the Labour Party of Pakistan.

The bottom line is that the disaster has devastated five provinces and displaced upwards of 6 million people.

Relief efforts are only being conducted when circumstances are suitable, and the full scope of the damage is not yet known. Sadly, neither the Pakistani government nor the international community has responded effectively.

middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Omar Khadr, a Canadian Tragedy

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Among all the instances of human suffering in the world, it impossible to say that one is more important than all the rest; however, it is possible for an issue to have a particularly visceral effect on a person in ways that other issues do not. This effect is usually facilitated by a catalyst that intensifies feelings of disgust and anger toward the issue.

In my case the issue that has gnawed at me particularly hard is Canada’s refusal to repatriate Omar Khadr; the catalyst is Khadr’s Canadian legal counsel Dennis Edney.

I have met Edney a total of three times.

Each time, he gave an impassioned speech about Khadr’s plight, never failing to highlight Canada’s deathly silence, and how Khadr’s tragedy had changed his life.

“Think of the fact that he [Khadr] was 15 at the time [when he allegedly tried to kill a U.S. soldier] and think of the fact that that information was known to our government,” he said at a speech at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. “I ask, ‘where was the compassion, where was the humanity?’” With a noticeable Scottish accent, and an extraordinary sense of conviction and honesty, Edney never failed to convey to the audience his utmost frustrations.

The last time I saw him was at a fundraiser at a friend’s house right before he left for Guantánamo Bay.

He detailed how his efforts had failed, and how the Harper government ignored no fewer than four rulings from Canada’s top courts favouring Khadr’s repatriation. “I feel like I’m at the end of my journey,” he said.

Khadr, who has fired his American lawyers numerous times, has threatened to boycott his military trial at Guantánamo Bay.

Edney wanted to convince him to give his testimony to create some space for an appeal. But all signs point to the fact that there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. It now seems inevitable that Khadr, who will not receive a fair trial, will soon join the hardened murderers and rapists of the United States prison system.

Despite pleas from foreign policy critics within the Canadian parliament as well as pleas from the Obama administration for help, Stephen Harper continues his cold-shoulder stance.

Edney never failed to communicate the devastating effects of such ignorance and irresponsibility.

By now, Khadr has become cynical enough to want to forfeit his appearance in court and simply be convicted. “It might work if the world sees the U.S. sentencing a child to life in prison; it might show the world how unfair and sham this process is,” he explained in a publicized letter to Edney.

Edney’s profound frustration is ultimately aimed at Canadian civil society as a whole.

Typical is an Angus Reid poll showing that 54% of Canadians did not sympathize with Khadr’s plight.

Edney is especially upset at Canada’s Muslim community for its passivity. Mosques and Islamic centres have stayed silent, fearing that their charitable status might be revoked.

“You are the most educated group in this country,” Edney would say to them. “You are involved in the highest levels of society…but where are you?”

Then there is the deathly silence from those who spoke solemnly of Khadr’s tragedy, but failed to act upon their convictions. These people, according to Edney, represent our greatest failure.

“In the matter of Omar Khadr, the question is hardly complicated,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin. “You either support high standards of justice or you don’t. In the Khadr case, most Canadians, along with their government, do not. It’s a national disgrace.”

No question about that.

middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Michael Ignatieff on Bill-94

I approached Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff this past weekend when his nation-wide bus tour landed him in Mississauga, Ontario’s annual MuslimFest festivities. After a rather warm reception, I asked the Liberal Party leader to “clear up the confusion” that has accumulated recently regarding his stance on Quebec’s proposed “niqab ban”, or Bill 94.

Ignatieff was reported by the Globe and Mail on March 26th, 2010 as to have backed the bill. Commenting on the matter at the Liberal Party’s 3-day “Canada at 150” conference, Ignatieff was quoted by the Globe as to have supposedly stated that the Quebeckers “have found a good balance.” That balance apparently referred to how “The Quebec government is trying to make sure that in civic and public places that freedom of religion is respected but at the same time on the other side citizens come forward and reveal themselves when they are demanding public service.”

This statement actually does make sense, but it was tough to see how banning the veil in Quebec would strike such a “balance”.

His answer to me this past weekend was similar, but lacked an endorsement. He was clear enough that he wanted to seek the “good-old Canadian compromise,” and that he thought Quebec would have to find its own way in achieving some common ground. When I followed up by asking whether he was misquoted in the Globe piece, he replied (with a slight hint of annoyance) with a brief “Yeah, I thought I was.” Fair enough.

I later spoke with Liberal MP (Parkdale-Highpark) Gerard Kennedy, and Omar Alghabra (former Liberal MP of Mississauga-Erindale) on the same issue. Both are against the proposed ban, and both concurred with Ignatieff’s statement.

[Addendum: I didn’t note this in the first version of this post, but in all fairness, Ignatieff did say explicitly, along with his statement on “balance”, that the state cannot/should-not dictate how women practice their faith and how they dress. Again, note the striking difference between these statements and the Globe piece. Both Kennedy and Alghabra concurred with this specific point as well.]


The reason I, and many others, occasionally fixate on Ignatieff’s stance on particular political and cultural issues is because we want to know how viable he is as a potential alternative to Stephen Harper. Like most people I know, I am of the “anyone-but-Conservatives” camp, and think that the Liberals have the best chance of winning an up-coming election.

The Harper administration has had such a horrible effect on me (his immigration minister Jason Kenney being a primary reason) that I simply wish it political death as soon as possible (and by any means necessary/possible). This thrusts Ignatieff into unique significance for some of us at least. Will he turn out to be the more nuanced/just leader that is needed in order to mend the bleeding wounds torn by the current administration? What will he do for immigrants, for human rights, for the environment, etc.? These are the questions we have to ask, and this is why his conclusions about the niqab in Canada should be made as public as possible.

Those of us who value whatever progressive inclinations Canada possessed before the Harper nightmare, however we feel about Ignatieff, want to know whether or not he will make an effort to step away from the post-9/11 climate that has been dominated by American belligerence.

I won’t speculate on how a Liberal administration under Ignatieff will do. Anyone can rant. However, if anything needs to be said, it is the fact that the anti-Bill 94 campaign is necessary, and that political parties/administrations move based on the pressures they feel from their respective societies.