Mr. Speaker, to start with, I would like to thank my colleague from Mercier for requesting this emergency debate, and the Chair for allowing it to happen. Today we are witnessing a spectacular escalation of the bloody conflict which has been dragging on for months in the Middle East and which is threatening to set the whole area ablaze.
We are directly involved, especially as this conflict seems to be spreading here in the repugnant form of unfortunate acts of hatred and intolerance. It was incumbent on us as parliamentarians to debate this sensitive issue in order to identify the kind of action we would like Canada to undertake in support of the international community's efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and resume the peace process without delay .
In 1818, when Franz Gruber composed the popular Christmas carol Silent Night, Holy Night , a solemn and gentle hymn, little did he know that the little peaceful village of Bethlehem he was referring too would one day become the scene of a bloody conflict pitting brother against brother: the descendants, according to the traditions of the Bible and the Koran, of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of the same patriarch Abraham. However, according to the prophet Micah, in Bethlehem was to be born a son to the illustrious house of King David, who, with his message of love, was going to finally change the course of the history of mankind.
The Holy Land, the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions in the world, was torn by violence under the combined influence of mistrust, century old hatred and escalating provocation set on a background of seemly incompatible territorial claims. This tiny territory one can cross from north to south as rapidly as one can go from Quebec City to Ottawa, is the subject of competing claims on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians, who both base their claims on historical and traditional grounds.
Indeed, it is true that Palestine's history is inextricably tied to that of Judaism, but also to that of Islam. After leaving Egypt and settling in the land of Canaan, more than 3,000 years ago, the Hebrews conquered Palestine and occupied it until they were dispersed by the Romans, around the year 135, as a reprisal following the second revolt against Rome. Around the year 630, Palestine fell under Muslim domination. Except for a few short periods during which it changed hands as a result of rare victories by the crusaders, Palestine remained firmly Muslim until 1919, when the British mandate was created.
With the growing number of Jewish immigrants, the political will to create a Jewish state in Palestine began to take form and the tensions between the two communities began to surface, before culminating in 1948 with the proclamation of the state of Israel.
The creation of the state of Israel was made possible through the combined effect of an international community that was embarrassed by the inertia and the passive complacency that it had shown when the nazi regime was committing innumerable crimes against Europe's Jewish communities—the international community was clearly trying to redeem itself—and the weariness of the British authorities responsible for implementing the mandate in Palestine, because they were constantly harassed by Zionist terrorist organizations.
The proclamation of the state of Israel was a painful process, since the Palestinian territory was dismembered. Incidentally, this was a solution proposed by Canada, but that the Arab populations who had been living there for centuries categorically refused to accept. As soon as it was created, the state of Israel had to fight for its survival by facing the combined and simultaneous attack of all the neighbouring Arab states.
Since then, Israel has invoked the need to ensure its security to keep extending and increasing its control over all the territories of the former Palestine, this in violation of the will of the international community. Such will was in fact expressed repeatedly in a series of resolutions adopted by the United Nations and asking for the withdrawal of Israel from what is now known as the occupied territories.
This is what created the fertile ground that would lead this region to the deadly spiral of violence that we are currently witnessing. Given the power of the state of Israel and the blatant injustices resulting from the occupation, young disillusioned and fanatic Palestinian activists reach the point where they feel that they have no other option but to commit terrorist acts involving the sacrifice of their own lives, in an attempt to change the situation. This in turn triggers a swift and brutal response on the part of Israel.
Today's international context, with its focus on fighting terrorism, obviously serves as a justification of Israel's harder line.
I want to make something perfectly clear. I have already had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Israel and Palestine on two occasions. Israel is an absolutely fascinating country. Despite its tiny size, its climate and scenery are amazingly diversified and full of contrast, as indeed are its people.
While there I had an opportunity to observe the most noble and also the most base parts of human nature. I had the opportunity to visit the Deganya kibbutz, which is on Lake Galilee. In addition to being the birthplace and childhood home of the redoubtable General Moshe Dayan, it is important to point out that this was the very first kibbutz in Israel.
When we visited the modest kibbutz museum, I was struck by how very young the Russian emigres were who left everything behind in the very early years of the last century to come and found this tiny agricultural co-operative community, which was to serve as a model of development for the country and which shaped the soul of an entire people.
I was in awe to think back to how very little I had accomplished in my carefree and frivolous days at the polyvalente De Montagne, at the same young age at which these young people, probably quite unwittingly, were laying the foundations of the State of Israel.
I was equally in awe during my visit to another of the kibbutzim at the point where the road from Tel Aviv to Gaza along the Mediterranean crosses the road to Beersheba, when I was told that its members had successfully held off the Egyptian army for close to six days before the Israeli army finally managed to drive back the invaders.
What a fine, eloquent example of determination, courage and devotion to country by these farm folk who turned themselves into soldiers to defend their cause.
I am in awe as well at the endurance and determination of this people who, despite the vicissitudes of history and the persecution they have undergone for centuries, have always been able to join forces, remaining faithful to the God of their forefathers, and even reviving the language of those forefathers, which had almost completely disappeared by 1948.
However, I also observed the proliferation of Jewish settlements that literally encircled Palestinian communities and choked them by preventing any expansion and development. For Palestinians, they constitute the hated and blatant symbol of Israeli occupation and the robbing of their lands.
I also observed the hurried construction of Israeli freeways, which disfigure the countryside in the occupied territories and which cut across them in a brutal manner, the only purpose being to allow Jewish settlers to travel between Israel and their settlements without having to go through Palestinian communities.
I saw the border checkpoints Palestinians have to go through in order to travel from one zone to another in their own country, provided, of course, that they have the right permit. This is why most Palestinians cannot visit Islam's third holy site, Haram as-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem, while tourists from around the world can visit it freely.
I also saw Israel, a constitutional state, a modern democracy, discriminate against its own citizens. While military service is mandatory for Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, with a few exceptions, are officially prohibited.
I was also disheartened to see that a people who have faced so many challenges in building their own state could turn such a blind eye to the most basic aspirations and misfortunes of the Palestinians. If there is one people that should understand better than others the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, it should be the Israelis.
It is important to point out that we would not want to attribute the decisions and actions of a government to all of its citizens. There are people on both sides who hope for peace more than anything else. The hope that the parties will one day reach a lasting peace rests on these people of goodwill.
In the meantime, the situation continues to deteriorate. It is only normal that the State of Israel should wish to ensure its continued existence and its security. However the disproportionate means used, initially a source of consternation, have now become quite simply indecent and intolerable.
Any loss of human life is regrettable, but it must be admitted that the toll is considerably higher on the Palestinian side. The Torah says that he who saves a life saves humanity. Do those who take the lives of so many innocent civilians on both sides commit crimes against humanity? Well might one wonder.
The belligerents are now engaged in a spiral of violence from which they seem unable to extricate themselves and which seems to have as its source the rhetoric used and the strategy put forward by Israel in response to the terrorist attacks.
Rather than going after the terrorist organizations, which are obviously working to undermine the peace efforts and which are beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has systematically attacked the latter, expressly calling on it to rein in the terrorists while, at the same time, destroying all its infrastructure and thus limiting its capacity for real action. The effect of this has been to provide the Jewish state with a convenient excuse for further tightening the noose around the occupied territories.
In so doing, Israel has exacerbated the reaction of terrorist organizations, which have renewed the macabre round of attacks with a vengeance, thus setting themselves up for increasingly brutal military reprisals. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, said Moses. This seems to have become “eyes for an eye, and teeth for a tooth”.
Israel's customary promptness in protesting vigorously any Palestinian terrorist attack contrasts sharply with the apparent indifference and apathy shown by the Israeli authorities following a bomb attack by an extremist Jewish group in the yard of an Arab school in East Jerusalem. What was the Jewish state's response in this case? “Anti-terrorist terrorism”, coldly concluded the Israeli authorities. Israel has imperturbably pursued its punitive operations in the occupied territories.
But the worst thing of all in this whole business is that Israel's policy has the effect of violating, one after another, all the provisions of the peace accords patiently negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which had held out the possibility of lasting peace in the region.
The events in recent weeks can lead us to only one conclusion: violence breeds violence. There can therefore be no question of either side trying to resolve this conflict through any sort of violence.
All solutions must begin with political negotiation. Although only the belligerents can achieve the final resolution of the conflict, we must do everything in our power to bring them back to the negotiating table.
We are therefore duty bound to speak out against any behaviour by either party that is contrary to the spirit or the letter of the peace accords and to support the idea of deploying international observers, and possibly an interposition force, to the region.
We must resolutely uphold the provisions of resolutions 1402 and 1397, recently passed by the Security Council of the United Nations. The parties must reach a ceasefire agreement promptly. Israel must withdraw its troops without delay from the occupied territories. President Arafat, who in our opinion cannot be excluded from any process to get the peace process back on track, must reiterate absolutely unequivocally that he condemns any act of terrorism targeting innocent civilians. Perhaps thought needs to be given to creating a buffer zone for a certain set length of time in order to ensure the safety and security of the populations of Israel and of Palestine.
Once these preliminary steps have been taken, it will be the appropriate time to ensure that the parties resume the negotiations that will finally lead to lasting peace in the region.
This being said, we believe that there cannot be any lasting peace without an end to military occupation and to settlement of the occupied territories. There cannot be any lasting peace without a satisfactory agreement on the status of Jerusalem and on the issue of refugees. There cannot be any lasting peace without the creation of a politically and economically viable Palestinian state. There cannot be any lasting peace without the formal recognition of the right of Israel to exist within secure and established frontiers.
That is why we applaud the peace plan established by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which was endorsed during the last meeting of the League of Arab States held in Beirut last March 28. For the first time, all the Arab states agreed to officially recognize the State of Israel and to establish formal relations with it, provided that the new state accepts to hand over the territories occupied since 1967 to a future Palestinian state, except of course the Golan Heights, which would be returned to Syria.
It will be very important that the international community, particularly Canada, substantially increase the level of the assistance given to the Palestinian Authority. Everything has to be rebuilt, the highway infrastructure, utilities, social services, and so on.
The international community will have to stand in solidarity with the populations affected by this conflict because, as we said with great insistence in the wake of the events of September 11 when we joined the ranks of nations determined to fight terrorism, we must not only target its effects, but also its root causes, that is poverty, injustice and exclusion.
Also, in the wake of the events of September 11, we have witnessed the emergence of hate motivated behaviours directed toward the Arab community. The government acted promptly to counter this wave of intolerance that seemed to associate Islam and Arab communities with terrorism, a simple but inappropriate association that had to be denounced.
Similarly, some people seem to want to transpose in our communities the conflict that exists in the Middle East. We were dumbfounded as we witnessed hate motivated acts against the Jewish community and we must denounce these acts with the same energy.
Therefore, we must expect this government to take measures to prevent, as much as possible, similar acts from being committed in our communities.
In these circumstances, I will conclude by saying that only an unconditional return to the negotiating table could prevent this situation from deteriorating even further and from making even more victims. The parties must break free of the vicious circle of violence in which they are becoming more and more entangled every day. They must truly believe that a solution is possible. For the rest, all we can do is pray Allah and Yahweh and hope for the best.