They might not have the federal government, any of the four federal political parties, or even local mainstream media on their side, but a group of St. John’s residents are gathering Thursday evening at Harbourside Park to inject some humanity into the growing Palestinian death toll resulting from Israel’s continued — and escalating — military offensive in Gaza.
In a press release organizers of the Vigil for Gaza event say attendees will “remember and honour the children who have died horribly as a consequence of this conflict” by reading the victims’ names aloud.
As of Thursday morning Israel’s assault on Gaza has claimed the lives of 1,360 people, most of them civilians, including more than 300 children. Israel, using the most advanced military technology in the Middle East, has targeted schools, mosques and hospitals. The United Nations (UN) has accused Israel of attacking UN shelters on six different occasions since the assault began 24 days ago and has called for an investigation into possible war crimes.
The UN and a growing number of international humanitarian agencies have condemned Israel’s massacre of Palestinian civilians, while on Wednesday Bolivian President Evo Morales declared Israel a “terrorist state” and has called the assault on Palestinians a “genocide”. Other Latin American countries such as Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil have pulled their ambassadors from Israel in protest over the violence.
Despite a propaganda campaign by the Israeli government that consistently features talking points which have been widely debunked (for example, here and here), and a pro-Israeli bias common among Western media, social media is helping illuminate the atrocities of Israel’s ongoing occupation and siege of Gaza and its subsequent massacre of Palestinians.
In St. John’s, Palestinian refugee Mohammed Bakri watches from afar but with an emotional closeness to Israel’s violence against his people. The local business owner grew up in Lebanon, where his grandparents sought refuge from the violence in Palestine decades ago. A lifetime refugee, Bakri says he is one of the “luckiest ones” to have been able to come to Canada, and that he will be a citizen of a country for the first time once granted his citizenship here.
“You have people killed every day, in the hundreds, and the world is just looking on [as if], ‘They can die. It’s not a big deal,’” Bakri says, frustrated at the response of Canada and the international community to Israel’s offensive, though he acknowledges the pro-Israeli media bias is gradually being exposed.
“People just want to act like it’s two sovereign countries, one of them just not happy with the other,” he says. “Why is Hamas acting that way? Why are they doing this? Is it just because they are planning to take over some country, or is it because these people are being imprisoned in their own country that’s being taken from them since more than 80 years ago? And yet most of the Palestinians have been exiled, (and) whoever’s left there are living under conditions that even animals can’t bear.
“There’s a huge blockade,” he continues. “[Israel] has Egypt on their side blocking all the entrances to Gaza and they’re blocking the other entrances. And you have the sea, which is also blocked. And if you remember the flotilla from Turkey four years ago — the Israeli commandos landed on it before it even reached Gaza and they killed Turkish people. The flotilla only had food, they were trying to break the siege. I mean, what [does Israel] expect? Do they expect Palestinians to say, ‘Thank you Israel for humiliating us and not letting us live’? They have to defend their rights. It doesn’t matter to me what they consider Hamas, but these people are trying with homemade rockets to defend themselves. When we talk about 1,000-plus people [dead in Palestine] and yet the Israelis are being terrorized … at least they have a place to hide. At least they have some infrastructure — they have electricity, they have water. It’s beyond me that people are trying to make it look like Palestinians are the oppressor.”
Israel’s ongoing occupation and seven-year siege on Gaza has prevented Palestinians living in Gaza from travelling outside the occupied territory. The blockade has also prevented the adequate flow of food, medical supplies and materials necessary to build infrastructure in Gaza to meet the needs of one of the most densely populated areas in the world, crippling Gaza’s economy and giving way to a humanitarian crisis.
People who try to justify Israel’s assault on Gaza “should be ashamed of what’s happening,” says Bakri. “If they are pro-Israel, or whatever is their motives, I’m not debating that — they can support whoever they want to support. But when it comes to people dead, over  kids being murdered just like that, and yet we try to defend it or try to justify that — it’s just not acceptable, no matter what.”
Last Thursday hundreds marched through St. John’s downtown core in protest of Israel’s attack on Gaza. Though it was likely one of the biggest and loudest protests in St. John’s in recent years, most local mainstream broadcast networks didn’t show up. But Bakri is confident today’s vigil will draw more people and media, since the truth of what’s happening in occupied Palestine is emerging in other ways.
“People know everything is being videotaped. Reporters, whatever agenda that they’re following — still, the truth is coming out so they should just give up hiding the truth and be professional about it. Show the situation as it is,” he says. “We’re not asking to be sympathetic toward the Palestinians. Be sympathetic toward the victims, no matter where they are, no matter what citizenship or what country they belong to.”
On concrete action that can be taken in St. John’s, Bakri reminds people Canada is one of Israel’s greatest supporters and allies, and that if they follow the news closely they can see through much of the media’s failures in covering the violence.
“I believe the Canadian government is the number one supporter to Israel, diplomatically,” he says. “There’s so much support to the Israelis. No matter what they do, it’s always acceptable, it’s always defended, no matter what — blindly. We need to at least be a mediator, which is what Canada has been throughout the years — a peace keeper. You don’t go and justify for anyone doing any atrocities and crimes against humanity just because you’re influenced by them or the lobby is strong, or whatever is their agenda. Canada has to say this has to stop, from both sides. I’m not justifying [violence] for anyone. People want to live in peace, they just want to live. Here we’re fighting for free education. [Palestinians] are fighting for just a chance to breathe air and say, I’m alive. You have kids being born and killed the next day. So we want the government to stop its biased stance [and] we want to override the media in a way that they can’t get away with it … The media have to know that they can’t get away with it now — we have social media.”
The St. John’s Vigil for Gaza will be held Thursday, July 31 at Harbourside Park at 5 p.m.
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