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Canadians planning return to Gaza

Israeli blockade and fears of weapons trafficking hindering relief efforts

The Canadian Boat to Gaza initiative is in the midst of fundraising for its contingent in the Freedom Flotilla II, a multinational humanitarian fleet with boats from Greece, the U.S., and Denmark dedicated to breaking the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Thus far, the Canadian Boat to Gaza has raised $240,000, with a goal of $300,000. The fleet is set to depart in mid-May.

Ehab Lotayeff, an organizer for Canadian Boat to Gaza, spoke of the necessity of such an endeavor.

“The blockade is unjustified; it’s a punishment towards the people and that’s why we see that sending a boat to Gaza is very important, and challenging the blockade is very important,” said Lotayeff.

“Our number one goal is to challenge the status quo here [in Canada] that the blockade in Gaza is legitimate…another goal is humanitarian aid and moral support. Even though we might not deliver enough aid, [the people in Gaza] need to know that the world is not leaving them alone,” he continued.

Operation Cast Lead, the December 2008 to January 2009 conflict in Gaza, left numerous hospitals, libraries, and schools destroyed. Since the war’s end, Israel has maintained a blockade in the region, only allowing a minimal amount of goods to enter. The blockade was ruled illegal under international law by the 2009 UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. According to the UN report, the blockade violates the Fourth Geneva Convention that governs the protection of civilians in a war zone.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has previously stopped or attacked Gaza-bound flotillas. One of the most violent incidents occurred in May 2010, when the IDF attacked and killed nine activists.

Glyn Secker, an executive member of the Jews for Justice for Palestinians, spoke on March 25 at an event organized by the McGill chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. He described an incident in September 2010, when he was the captain of a boat to Gaza, where the IDF surrounded the boat, tasered one of the crewmembers, and forced the boat to dock in the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Some pro-Israel organizations, including campus groups, fear the security threat from Gaza and do not support ships coming to the strip without being inspected by the IDF.

“There’s a difference between delivering aid into the Gaza Strip and deliberately trying to break a military blockade and endanger Israeli security,” said Zach Paikin, VP External of the McGill Friends of Israel.

Rex Brynen, a McGill Political Science professor who travelled to Gaza in January 2010, said the Israeli restrictions on economic goods were in fact making it easier to get weapons into Gaza.

“I say that because there didn’t use to be so many tunnels,” said Brynen. “The reason there were so many tunnels from Egypt is because Israeli restrictions on imports meant that goods had to be smuggled from tunnels.”

Paikin defended the blockade, saying he believed aid can be sent to Gaza through Israel.

“If [humanitarian organizations] want to bring aid into the Gaza strip they are welcome to do so, yet they just only have to do so through the appropriate crossings…they should not go directly to the Gaza strip because that’s how weapons are transported,” Paikin said.

Brynen, however, described how non-military goods, such as construction materials, were being held up.

“There’s multiple cases where it’s clear that construction materials will be in the custody of the UN and Israel has not allowed it in…if it’s a UN reconstruction program, there’s no risk that those goods somehow leak into paramilitary use,” Brynen said.

“There’s no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Paikin said. “If you go to the Gaza strip, there are nice beaches, five-star restaurants and hotels, and new shopping malls.”

Lotayeff has visited Gaza twice since Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

“Schools and farms are destroyed to no recognition, there’s lots of damage in Gaza city and more so in refugee camps,” said Lotayeff. “Because of the blockade, the people of Gaza cannot build anything.”