Members of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) were among groups of tourists who came under sniper fire last Friday morning while visiting kibbutz Nir-Am in Sderot, Israel.
Israeli Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter, left, and CIC chair
Moshe Ronen react to the fire directed at them by the Palestinian
sniper. [Photo courtesy of the CIC]
Among the dozens of tourists – including Jews and Christians – present at the site when the attack began were 16 CIC representatives from across Canada.The CIC tour group was being led by Israeli Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter and his bureau chief, Mati Gil.
The gunfire erupted while they were stopped at an observation point overlooking the town of Beith Hanoun in the nearby Gaza Strip.
None of the Canadians was hurt, but Gil was wounded. He was brought to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, where doctors said he was in stable condition, recovering from wounds to his abdomen and pelvis.
Speaking to The CJN by phone from Israel just hours after the incident, CIC chair Moshe Ronen, who was in the touring party, described the incident this way: “During the visit at the observatory point, we received a briefing from [Dichter] and near the end of his explanation we heard gunfire. We saw the bullets landing at our feet. It was pretty scary. As soon as Mati was hit and started screaming, we realized… we were being fired upon.”
He continued: “We were told by the secret service [officers] accompanying the minister to lay face down on the ground. The rapid gunfire lasted for almost a minute, and within five minutes the IDF returned fire. That put an end to the firing on us. We were then evacuated to a nearby IDF fortification, where we and the minister stayed for almost an hour.”
The committee members were in the midst of their annual, weeklong board trip to the Holy Land and were scheduled to return to Canada on Tuesday.
Officials for Hamas claimed responsibility for the shooting and said they had advance knowledge of Dichter’s visit and prepared for the attack once they saw armoured Israeli vehicles gather near the areas. A range of other terrorist groups also claimed responsibility.
“This is to confirm the continuation of our holy war and… the targeting of every Zionist on our pure land,” read a claim on Hamas’ official website last Friday.
Israeli troops later raided the area from which the sniper fire originated.
Ronen said that in spite of the attack, his group continued with its planned tour of the embattled town.
“We stayed in Sderot. We had our lunch. We met with people who live there, and we’re determined to return,” he said. “We came in solidarity [with the people of Sderot] and … we also got a taste of the kind of threat they are under daily. The terror that they experience. It’s important for Israel and Canada to understand that we cannot tolerate this, and we have to combat this ongoing terror and insecurity.”
An April 4 Canadian Press report quoted Dichter praising the CIC group’s response to the incident, saying they “behaved terrific, as if they are under fire in Canada every day.”
Ronen said the CIC was relieved to receive word from Dichter that Gil was recovering well from his injuries.
He said that an hour after the incident, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – who was attending a NATO summit in Romania at the time – and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert each called him to declare “solidarity” with the group and express their relief that no CIC members were hurt.
“We really appreciated that,” Ronen said.
Maxime Bernier, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, issued a statement denouncing the incident last Friday.
“Canada strongly condemns today’s attack on a delegation visiting an observation point near Sderot. These attacks targeting civilians are unacceptable, and I wish a full recovery to Mati Gil. I also extend my best wishes to the members of the Canada-Israel Committee,” he said.
“I have met with residents of Sderot and heard about their experience living under the constant threat of rocket fire from Gaza. Canada remains deeply concerned about the continuing violence in southern Israel and Gaza.”
Though he never expected to be in the line of fire, Ronen said that the experience only served to reinforce the need for the CIC to be more “vigilant in strengthening the bond between Canada and Israel.”
“The CIC will continue to bring [Canadian] VIPs to Israel to see first-hand [the security issues]. We’re very determined to do this,” he vowed.
In Ottawa last Friday, Liberal MP for Mount Royal and opposition human rights critic, Irwin Cotler, called on the government to respond to the attack.
“Today, a Canadian delegation, including constituents of mine, was the target of deliberate sniper fire while visiting Sderot, an Israeli town that has endured seven years of relentless rocket attacks… with the objective of killing Jews because they are Jews,” he told the House of Commons.
“We know the surest way to ensure that evil will triumph in the world is for enough good people to do nothing. Let Parliament speak, the international community act and let this culture of impunity end.”
Since 2001, Sderot and other southern Israeli border communities have withstood near-constant shelling by Hamas rocket fire, resulting in the disruption of daily life and 13 deaths so far.
With files from JTA and Ha’aretz