Israeli mortars struck a UN school in northern Gaza on Tuesday, killing more than 40 people.
Soldiers claimed they were returning fire, at first stating it came from within the school, later that it came from nearby. UN observers say that the attack was unprovoked, and have called for an investigation. As far as the Canadian government is concerned, no investigation is necessary.
While the school still smoked and searchers combed the rubble for bodies, Canada’s new Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Peter Kent, told the press, “Hamas bears a terrible responsibility for this and for the wider deepening humanitarian tragedy.”
While conceding that he knew next to nothing about the incident, Kent went on to say that “Hamas’ record is to use civilians — the population and civilian infrastructure — as shields and it would seem quite possible that this is yet another tragic instance.”
No evidence has been presented that would suggest Hamas fighters were in the school, or that they were using the occupants as human shields. All reports suggest that the school was full of civilians taking refuge from the terrible destruction Israeli tanks are inflicting in Gaza. This is common practice, especially in areas the military has leafleted, warning people to get out of their homes before they’re bombed. The UN schools were considered safe havens. Many of Tuesday’s victims were children, and no weapons have been found at the scene.
Canada’s rush to judgment should come as no surprise. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid all the blame at Hezbolah’s door. As far as Canada was concerned, attacks on apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and ambulances were justified by “Israel’s right to defend itself.” The Conservatives’ support of Israel runs so deep that even when they attacked a UN observation post and killed a Canadian soldier, Harper blamed the UN.
Since 2002, rocket attacks from Gaza have killed 19 Israelis. Kent shares Israel’s view that these attacks alone are the cause of this week’s carnage in Gaza, and certainly there can be no doubt that any sovereign state has to defend its citizens against terrorist attacks. This is the nub of Ottawa’s position. As Kent says, “Until (Hamas) commit to a permanent ceasefire — a truly permanent ceasefire, a durable ceasefire — and don’t use it as a break to rearm and resume rocketing, the fighting will go on.”
But there are commitments to be made on the other side as well. Hamas hasn’t been attacking Israel for sport, or simply because they hate Israelis. The rocket attacks are acts of resistance to a brutal siege that has caused countless deaths and untold hardship in Gaza, where Israel withholds cash and prevents food and medicine from reaching 1.5 million people.
The siege of Gaza is a collective punishment against a population, or in other words a war crime. It began as a punishment for electing Hamas. Now no one would want Hamas for a neighbour: they are a violent extremist band of religious fanatics who have brutalized Palestinians and terrorized Israelis, and furthermore are ideologically committed to the overthrow of the Jewish state.
Israel would like to see Hamas gone, and so would many Palestinians. Bombing the hell out of civilians is neither a decent nor an effective way to go about it, any more than starving them is. A prosperous Gaza would be a poor haven for fanatics. If Palestinians had the same opportunities as Israelis, the chances are that the crazed religious right would occupy about the same place in their society. Like the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel, they would exert some influence, but would ultimately be dominated by the larger secular society.
The beleaguered country of Israel needs to be able to defend itself. It also needs to be scrutinized by the international community, because beleaguered countries with large armies tend to lash out at their enemies, often with terrible results for innocent civilians.
The last thing anyone needs in the Middle East is thoughtless yes-men like Kent and Harper, who jump to exonerate one side and blame the other without waiting for the facts.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.