Senior Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel (2006- 2010)
In a recent post, Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) called on religous leaders including “ministers, priests, imams and rabbis” to begin a serious conversation with their parishioners about the challenging Israel/Palestine issue.
As violence erupts in Gaza, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank and even inside Israel, it is time to open up a conversation that many find difficult. Difficult for everyone, but arguably most difficult for Canadian Jews.
Jon Allen is NOT a rabbi, but he was invited by a rabbi at an important synagogue in Toronto to talk about the Israel/Palestine issue.
He took up the challenge, knowing that some (even many) in the Jewish community could be angry with some of his views. But having lived for 4 years in Israel as Canada’s ambassador, Allen is better positioned than many to understand and explain some of the background to the current violence.
CTIP does not necessarily agree with ALL of the former Ambassador’s views. But we applaud his courage and his willingness to enter into a conversation that many people prefer to avoid. His remarks are presented here complete and unedited. The underlining is mine, however.
Former ambassador Allen’s remarks
“Thanks to Rabbi Goodman and Holy Blossom for organizing this today. I was asked to talk about the causes of current conflict.
“Let me begin by making it clear that what I have to say is not about justifying the almost 2000 rockets that have been launched against Israel over the past few days. I condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks as pure political opportunism as I will explain later. Nor does it justify Arab on Jewish violence in Israel’s mixed cities, the shocking new dimension to this conflict. Not only are these actions terrifying for all Israelis, men, women and especially children – and they must stop, but they also feed the belief that there is no, and never will be, a partner for peace on the Palestinian side, and that an independent Palestinian state would be a constant threat to Israel. I don’t agree with either of those suggestions but many Israelis and many Jews in the diaspora do and the violence this week further fuels the mistrust and in some cases hatred that are major obstacles to peace going forward.
“In my view, the causes for the disturbances leading up to and including the rocket fire are multiple: they are secular and religious, they are long standing and immediate and they are political. But they are ultimately centered on the question of Palestinian rights and the lack thereof.
“Let’s begin with the immediate causes. The first was the barricading of Damascus Gate during Ramadan. This is an area where young Palestinians traditionally gather while waiting for the evening meal and after. I don’t know why the decision was taken to do it. (There is some speculation that the commanders of the police were new and inexperienced.) At any rate, it was a provocation and it set off the first demonstrations and acts of real violence on both sides. It brought out radical Jewish extremists, and innocent Jews and Arabs were attacked during the protests and police actions that followed.
“The second was the intervention by the Kahanist MP Itamar Gvir. According to the Times of Israel, Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai told Prime Minister Netanyahu that the extreme-right MK was responsible for ongoing riots in Jewish-Arab cities. He said that every time police appeared to be getting an area under control, Ben Gvir, the Kahanist member of the Religious Zionism party, showed up to fan the flames.
“The third cause was the pending, now postponed, Supreme Court decision on whether a number of Palestinian families would be evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah – homes they have lived in since 1948. Derek will explain this issue in detail. Let me just say that scheduling the court decision and possible evictions during Ramadan was not well thought out. The evictions are perceived by Palestinians and others as part of a larger effort to surround the Old City with “Jewish only” settlements and thereby cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank.
“The proposed march to celebrate Jerusalem Day that was intended to finish at the Damascus Gate, but which was re-routed at the last minute, also did not help. The simultaneous expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and the celebration of Jerusalem Day, which for the marchers means all of Jerusalem, both East and West, are also perceived as an effort to unilaterally settle one of the most sensitive of the final status issues between Israel and Palestine – the status of Jerusalem. The Trump Peace Plan’s formal recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol and his encouragement of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem are controversial backdrops to Palestinians concerns.
“The fifth and by far most provocative cause, especially given that tensions were already high and that violence on both sides had already erupted, was the use of force by the police on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa. No one in the Israeli government seemed to recall that it was a visit by Ariel Sharon to this same site that provoked the Second Intifada, or to realize that it’s violation, especially during Ramadan, was guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction, not only in Jerusalem but throughout Israel and the Muslim world. The media coverage of police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators further stoked the flames.
“As a result, even secular Muslims and non-Muslims could easily identify with these issues.
So why did Hamas act when it did and why with such force. The easy answer is that Hamas gave Israel an ultimatum to leave Al Aqsa and Israel didn’t comply. A more likely reason is far more political and opportunist. Hamas sought to take advantage of the Palestinian’s anger and long-standing frustration and fill a vacuum at a time when Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas were silent. Recall also that this was taking place shortly after Abbas had cancelled the Palestinian elections – the first in almost 15 years – elections that many predicted Hamas would win. Another possible reason for Hamas’ reaction is that Hamas (and some say Bibi Netanyahu) believed that a conflict of this nature and magnitude would disrupt the efforts of the anti-Bibi bloc to form a government in Israel. As we know, that bloc could have succeeded in forming a government only with the support of one of the Israeli-Arab parties. Hamas, you see, prefers a Netanyahu government just as Bibi prefers to quietly support Hamas. Both want to weaken Fatah, and neither are interested in a two-state solution.
As Shlomo Ben Ami stated in an article yesterday: Hamas connected all the dots needed to gain primacy in the Palestinian national movement. It positioned itself as the protector of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, as the spearhead of the Palestinians’ national and religious struggle against the Israeli-Jewish occupier, and also as the voice of the Arab minority in Israel proper. In the process, it became immediately responsible for much of the death and destruction that has taken place.
I want to conclude, however, by saying that the violence in Jerusalem, that so unfortunately has also spread to the mixed cities of Israel, should not have been a surprise to anyone. The occupation is 54 years long. There has been no path towards peace or even a glimmer of hope in that direction for 12 years since Bibi Netanyahu became Prime Minister.
Just how long did Israel think that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would put up with military rule and military courts; with house demolitions and evictions; with settler expansion and daily settler violence ignored by the IDF; with severe restrictions on their movement, both within the Territories and between the Territories and the outside world? How long would the residents of Jerusalem – they are denied Israeli citizenship – accept their third-class status?
Did Israeli government officials think that Palestinian Israelis in Lod, Akko and Ramle were either ignorant of or immune to the treatment of Palestinians in the territories or the provocations at Al Aqsa? For how long do Israelis and we Jews in the Diaspora think that this situation is sustainable? If nothing is done to fix this larger problem, I fear we will back here in a few years having a very similar conversation.
Former Ambassador Allen participated a month ago in an hour long webinar interview organized by the Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine, where interviewers asked him some tough questions. His presentation to Holy Blossom Synagogue is reproduced with his permission. An abridged version of his remarks also appeared as an op ed in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, May 19th.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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