A small delegation of Canadian parliamentarians has returned from a solidarity mission to Israel organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett and Conservative MP Ted Opitz spoke to The CJN about travelling to the war zone late last month, along with Conservative MPs David Sweet and Randy Hoback, Liberal MP John McCallum and Liberal Sen. Grant Mitchell.
“It was billed as a solidarity mission, and Canada, as you know, unequivocally supports Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s right to defend itself,” said Opitz, who was in Israel with CIJA for the second time.
The 48-hour tour included stops in Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon, visits to hospitals, and a visit to the shivah of fallen soldier Yair Ashkenazy, a 36-year-old reservist who left behind a wife and three young children.
Bennett, who has travelled to Israel eight times, said visiting with the mourning family was an emotional, sobering experience – “to be in that tent with the family members who had only earlier in the day received all of his personal effects, including his dog tags – to be there and for them to be so grateful that we’d been there to understand the toll that it’s taking on individual families and whole communities when these terrible losses occur,” Bennett said.
She said the themes of her past trips to Israel have centred on furthering the peace process, but this time, it focused on the challenges of dealing with a terrorist organization.
“The people in Gaza are not being well served in this reign of terror that’s so upsetting to everybody,” she said.
“It’s crucial for people to understand that this is not two states working out some negotiating points. This is a terrorist organization in charge of a region, and I think that became very clear to all of us.”
Opitz said Hamas doesn’t care about its civilians.
“Any feeling human being doesn’t want to see innocent people suffer, and I’m convinced that it is Hamas that puts them in harm’s way. There is proof now that demonstrates this,” Opitz said.
He added that the Israel Defence Forces’ practice of warning the citizens of Gaza of an incoming attack with leaflets and phone calls shows that the Israelis have “shown great restraint overall in what they’re doing because… there have been 3,300 or 3,400 rockets fired at Israel.”
Both Opitz and Bennett said they were criticized for joining the CIJA trip.
“On previous trips, I don’t think any of us have ever experienced the kind of brutal criticism [on social media],” Bennett said.
“It’s very hurtful that people tend to see this in simple black and white when it is very, very complex, and I think it’s quite sobering that [this happens] when we, as Parliamentarians, seek to gain information directly from people living it… You cannot make good public policy unless you hear directly from the people affected by it.”
Responding to criticism that he didn’t visit Gaza, Opitz said it would have been too dangerous and would require resources from the Israeli army.
“I would take that risk for myself personally, but I’m not going to put that on someone else, and I certainly am not going to have the death of an Israeli soldier on my conscience because they perished trying to protect me so I could have a look around. There are multiple sources to be able to look very well into Gaza and get an idea of what is going on,” he said.
Bennett, who travelled to Ramallah with McCallum and Hoback following the CIJA tour, said both the Israeli and Palestinian experts they spoke to about the current crisis agreed that the Palestinian people need hope going forward.
“On both sides, what we heard was this hope for the Palestinian people and that the only way out of this, in terms of peaceful coexistence, will be if the Palestinian people themselves have hope… and for them to not be victims of the terrorist organization that doesn’t seem to be interested in peace.”