By Tobi Cohen
A year after a civilian aid boat attempting to break the Gaza blockade ended up in a deadly confrontation with Israeli soldiers, a group of Canadians is bracing for a second attempt despite calls by the federal government to stand down.
“I strongly urge those wishing to deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip to do so through established channels,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement Monday.
“Unauthorized efforts to deliver aid are provocative and, ultimately, unhelpful to the people of Gaza.”
Mr. Baird said Canada “recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns” and its desire to prevent the smuggling of weapons which may be used against its citizens by Hamas — a terrorist group that controls Gaza and has called for the destruction of Israel.
His comments came a day before the one-year anniversary of the death of nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel that led the last Gaza aid flotilla.
Only three Canadians were involved in that convoy, but many more have been working ever since to sponsor what’s now known as the “Canadian Boat to Gaza.”
Organizers say they’ve raised more than $300,000 through individual, non-tax deductible donations and are ready to launch the Tahrir from an undisclosed Eastern Mediterranean port, most likely in Greece or Turkey, in late June.
About 50 activists and crew members, most of them Canadian, will set sail for the Palestinian territory as part of “Freedom Flotilla II” which will include some 14 other vessels from other parts of the world.
David Heap, a University of Western Ontario linguistics professor and participant, said the repurposed passenger ship will be carrying tens of thousands of dollars of medical supplies.
While Mr. Baird is telling activists to find “legitimate and constructive” ways to help, such as by donating through the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Prof. Heap said the mission is actually less about aid and more about politics.
He also condemned the language used by the Israeli government and those of other nations, such as Canada, as scare tactics aimed at dissuading them.
“(Palestinians) don’t want to be the recipients of aid, they want to be people who can travel and trade with the world,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to stand with a group of people suffering under an illegal blockade and part of that is not being cowed by intimidation.”
The Canadian group has said it would not agree to make port in Egypt or Israel and have its cargo brought to Gaza on its behalf, but that it would allow the United Nations or another independent body to inspect the ship.
Organizer Ehab Lotayef added participants were receiving training in non-violent resistance and would take a pacifist approach to any sort of confrontation.
“We will not respond to violence with any kind of violence,” he said.
“We’re unarmed civilians, going as such.”
He slammed Mr. Baird for suggesting the group was trying to provoke an attack and noted the government ought to be talking to Israel about lifting the blockade rather than trying to stop their mission.
“We’re afraid that this is a strategy for . . . the Canadian government to distance itself from its responsibility to advocate for us or to protect us, and beforehand, to justify any Israeli aggression that will happen against us, which is not what we expect from our government,” he said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has asked governments to discourage activists from sending a new aid convoy to break Israel’s naval blockade, which is aimed at stopping arms imports.
He expressed concern that a new flotilla was in the works and called on Israel to “act responsibly” to avoid violence.