Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Canadian Parliamentarians in Palestine

Between August 8th and 13th three Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) visited Palestine to see for themselves how the Palestinian people live under occupation and blockade.

Libby Davies (NDP), Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Lib) and Richard Nadeau (Bloc), covered their trip costs out of their own pockets (not paid by the Canadian government or parliament). I accompanied them as a guide, translator and, sometimes, facilitator. Accompanying them were also Kim Elliot, Jase Tanner and Sarah Marois (Gaza part of the trip only).

The trip started in Amman, Jordan on August 8th where we met with the speaker of the Jordanian parliament and the Secretary General of the Jordanian ministry of foreign affairs before heading to the West Bank.

In the West bank we visited the Palestinian house evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements in Hebron, Bil'in village, an ICHAD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolition) Palestinian home rebuilding project near Jerusalem, as well as meeting the PA minister of foreign affairs, the Palestinian Negotiations team, Dr, Mostafa Barghouti, Danny Seidermann, Jeff Halper and UNRWA officials.

On August 12th we entered Gaza from Rafah, Egypt where we visited the
areas most devastated by the Israeli invasion of Dec./Jan., met with members of the Gaza industry board, Dr. Iyad Sarraj, the Gaza fishermen syndicate, doctors from al-Awda hospital, UNRWA officials and visited the tunnel area near the Egyptian border.

More photos can be found at the following links:
MPs' experience:
Images from the West Bank:
Images from Gaza:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Who killed Marwa El-Sherbiny?

A modified version of my OpEd below was published in the Montreal Gazette today:

Marwa El-Sherbiny, a pharmacist and ex-handball star, was three months pregnant when she was stabbed to death inside a German courtroom this month. The alleged murderer was the defendant appealing an earlier conviction for insulting Marwa in a public playground and calling her a terrorist. She was killed in front of her three-year-old son and her husband who, coming to her aid, was also stabbed then erroneously shot by the police.

“Who killed Marwa El-Sherbiny?” looks like an irrelevant question since there seems to be little doubt that the alleged killer, Alex W. (not identified by full name in line with common practice of German authorities and media concerning criminal suspects) is the culprit. However, looking beyond Alex W. is more important. As a Canadian, I am particularly interested in identifying those in Canada who are related in any way to this hate crime. I ask, who in Canada played a role, knowingly or unknowingly, in Marwa’s horrific death?

Hatred against Muslims is growing in Canada, as it is in much of the Western world, due to many factors, the foremost of which are two, governments’ interest in fuelling the so-called “War Against Terrorism”, and the campaigns by self-appointed experts to “expose” the Muslim danger.

Both of these are alive and well in Canada. After the end of the Bush era and the rapprochement towards Muslims and Arabs Obama is adopting, the way our government handles Arab and Muslim matters stands out in North America. Our government rarely comes to the aid of its Arab/Muslim citizens when they face trouble abroad till ordered to do so by the courts (to bring Abousfian Abdelrazik home from Sudan) and in some cases it even appeals such court rulings (to bring Omar Khadr home from Guantanamo). Our government holds Arab Muslim men (and only Arab Muslim men) under “Security Certificates” without informing them of the evidence against them. Our minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism cancelled funding for a language program ran by an Arab organization because he was criticized by the head of the organization in clear abuse of authority (funding of language programs for immigrants efficiently run by the Canadian Arab Federation was cancelled).

In Quebec the Muslim community was the target of many attacks, as were other minorities, throughout the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2007 and 2008. When the committee issued its recommendations, over a year ago now, they were welcome by the Muslim community yet to date no research into Islamophobia was conducted nor was a "vigorous campaign" to raise awareness of interculturalism in Quebec society launched as Bouchard-Taylor recommended. This exposes the will of the Quebec government towards the Muslim community as much as the situation on the ground does. The shooting death of Mohamed-Anas Bennis by Montreal police in 2006 has not yet seen a proper investigation despite many calls, campaigns and protests.

Beyond the official positions, a number of individuals, many of whom are of Muslim background, are very vocal in our media spreading fear of Islam and Muslims. Our media often gives disproportionate space to such individuals and is usually reluctant to allow the other point of view to be presented (Maclean’s refusing to allow the Canadian Islamic Congress to respond to Islamophobia). In many cases, the arguments presented by such “reformers” would have been quite constructive and would be very courageous if they were to present them in Muslim countries. Unfortunately, most of them left the Muslim world and brought their negative experiences to Canada where it is neither courageous nor constructive to voice such opinions. Repeating such criticism locally only helps fuel hate against our Muslim community as well as Muslims worldwide and rarely helps bringing about change or reform anywhere.

The applaud anyone attacking Islam or Muslims receives these days makes it difficult for them to resist going further in their attacks and criticism, let alone rethink or retract their positions even if they conclude that they were mistaken or that they went too far.

In today’s global village actions and words by anyone, official or not, here in Canada can and does have an effect on what happens far beyond our borders. Every one of us should be very careful as to what his or her actions and words may bring to an innocent person anywhere in the world.

This time the tragedy happened to Marwa in Germany and not to a Muslim person in Canada. Do we have to wait till it is repeated in a park in Montreal, a street in Toronto or a classroom somewhere in this country to feel and reflect on the tragedy? Do we have we wait for a similar incident to happen in our backyard to acknowledge that there is a problem? I hope not.

Our governments have made a habit of apologizing to groups of citizens for wrongs committed against them due to the governments’ actions, or inaction, years, decades or centuries after the harm is done and generally after the damage becomes irreversible. This is pathetic especially when the damage is happening in front of our eyes and the writing is clear on the wall showing us that wrong is being done here and now.

It is time that the government of Canada does something now to stop the Islamophobia that is spreading and prevent tragedies that are waiting to happen to the Muslim and Arab communities if it does nothing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Meaningless death on birthday

(for details see CBC coverage by clicking here)

photos: Ehab Lotayef

On her 33rd birthday she went out with her husband for dinner.

Not far from where I work, on Peel street just south of Sherbrooke street

View Larger Map

in sushi restaurent on the ground level of this building (Marriott Residence Inn, Montreal Centre-Ville)

they requested a window table in the atrium.

Who would have known or expected that from the facade of a downtown hotel a decorational concrete slab would come loose soon after they took their table

and fall through the atrium's glass roof

killing her without warning.

May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

West Bank after Gaza

Two months after leaving Gaza I arrived in the West Bank, the larger "half" of occupied Palestine. Although there is no destruction or death in the West Bank that can be compared to what I witnessed in Gaza, there is a different type of suffering which, in its own way, is very acute.

I was one of sixteen Qubeckers who landed in Ben-Gurion airport, near Tel-Aviv, on May 17th and from there headed to East Jerusalem, a city illegally occupied and annexed by Israel with total disregard to the international law or the objections of the international community.

Over the following six days we traveled throughout the West Bank, unsuccessfully attempted to enter Gaza and also visited Yaffa, the Arab southern suburb of Tel-Aviv/Yaffo.


East Jerusalem does not officially exist anymore. It is now a part of the municipality of Jerusalem that includes both East and West Jerusalem. When the city was merged the Palestinian population of the city was around 27%. Israel had hoped that this percentage would drop as years passed by. Many tactics were used to push this plan, some of them illegal, most of them immoral. These included the establishments of settlements, colonizing the Arab neighborhoods, and the confiscation of lands and houses.

An example of Israel's actions to change the landscape of Jerusalem reaches even the dead, although this time in the western part. Plans are made to destroy a Muslim cemetery to build a Museum of Tolerance. Yes there is no typo here.

In the Old City of Jerusalem the Jewish settlers are gaining a stronger foothold year after year. Last time I was in the old city in 2005 the Jewish population was less obvious and clearly far less comfortable when moving around. Today they are very obvious and clearly more confident and established in the old city.

Yet, despite all this the percentage of Palestinian population in unified Jerusalem has not decreased. Actually it has risen to approx. 33% of the total population.


In Hebron, the southern population center of the West Bank, the scene is much more disturbing. A few hundred ultra orthodox Jewish settlers protected by the army have taken control of strategic locations in the old city. There presence, coupled with the protection the Israeli army provides them, has turned the lives of the Palestinian population into a nightmare of road closures, checkpoints and business bankruptcies.

Moreover the settlers in Hebron are acting like thugs, burning their Palestinian neighbors' properties, shooting at them and terrorizing their children. All this happens under the eyes and ears of the Israeli army that only protects the settlers with total disregard to the lives and dignity of the Palestinians.

Gaza / Erez

We attempted to enter Gaza so that we would all have a first hand impression of the damage and destruction the Israeli invasion of December-January caused but our attempt ended at the Erez border crossing when the Israelis refused to let us through. The siege of Gaza is a horrible act of war and group punishment of a civilian population happening under the watch of the whole world. We expressed our objection through banners and signs after being denied passage.


The forgotten Palestinian population of Israel, who are full citizens of the state, live as second class citizens and are discriminated against in many ways. This photo of a house in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yaffa (Yaffo) just south of Tel-Aviv, says it all.


The highlight of our visit was visiting the village of Bil'in. Bil'in is a symbol of continuing resistance in the face of brute power as well as an example of unjust practices by a group of people against a weaker people.

For four years now and since the people of Bil'in knew that the path of Israel's security fence (aka Apartheid wall) will be cutting through their livelihood and separating them from their farm land they started a peaceful struggle against it. First they tried to stop its construction and change its path. Now they are challenging it against the courts of law in Israel and in Canada and have a regular weekly action against it every Friday. We joined them on Friday May 22nd, just a month after one of their own was killed on a Friday action in April. The killing of Bassem Abou Rahma did not deter the people of Bil'in or their supporters from Palestine, Israel or beyond from continuing their weekly marches against the wall.

(more photos at: www.lotayef.com)


The many people we spoke to and the NGOs we met with helped complement what we saw on the ground. The suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank as the dominant Israeli power persistently and unjustly carves into their property and lives is devastating. Yet one can only say that their persistence and determination to live through this suffering till justice prevails restores one's confidence in the human race.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gaza – Where you shouldn't make friends

(This is the original version, as I submitted it, of an Opinion piece published in the Montreal Gazette on Friday, March 17, 2009. To see the published version visit my webpage's - www.lotayef.com - "In the media" section)

Gaza an Arabic word that can translate to “a poke”. Yet visiting the small strip of land named Gaza on the south eastern side of the Mediterranean measuring an average of 9 km by 40 km you feel like the place has been repeatedly stabbed rather than poked.

Reaching Gaza was an ordeal in itself. I left Montreal by mid-February heading to Gaza endorsed by many local groups in a mission of solidarity. A few days later I was at the Egyptian border town of Rafah, the only access point to Gaza not directly controlled by Israel. My Canadian passport was of no help in convincing the Egyptian gate keepers to let me through. Many internationals were also there, waiting for days for an opportunity to pass to Gaza; an opportunity which never came for most of them. I was told that the first thing I need is a letter from my embassy. Back in Cairo the Canadian embassy charged me $130 for two forms, which I filled, absolving them from any responsibility if I go to Gaza. They then stamped and handed me back those forms. These were the “letter” they provide.

Back to Rafah with a couple of American activists armed with similar, but not as costly, letters from their embassy, we were again denied access although the border was open and allowing Gazans who wanted to return home to pass.

Frustrated, but still hopeful, I contacted international delegations on their way to Gaza through Egypt: The Viva Palestina convoy (numbering over 300 delegates) lead by British MP George Galloway which took the road from the UK via north Africa and the Code Pink organised international delegation (numbering over 50 delegates mostly women) planning to be in Gaza for International Women’s Day. I was welcomed to join the Code Pink delegation and we headed to Rafah on March 6th.

Third time lucky! It seems that the Egyptians did not want the bad press for being responsible of denying passage to hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists from all over the world travelling to Gaza with messages of support and with material aid, so they decided to forget about all the excuses they have been giving for weeks and allow us through.

Despite this temporary change of position it was clear that the Egyptian government is acting as a willing enforcer of the siege of Gaza. Israel and Egypt, with the support of other countries including Canada, are taking the people of Gaza hostage in their fight against the Hamas led government that was democratically elected by the people of Palestine (in both Gaza and the West Bank). It is one of the confusing messages the International community sent the Palestinians over the years, we want you to accept democracy but we do not accept your democratic choice.

On the evening of March 7th we arrived in Gaza. During the days we spent there we visited schools and children centres, travelled through devastated border areas and refugee camps, talked to people on the street and met with physicians, activists, UN personnel and MPs. We heard pro Hamas arguments as well as harsh criticism of the movement.

It is shocking when a young teenager tells you that he does not want to make new friends anymore because it is so painful to lose them suddenly in an air raid. Nearly everyone in the Jabalia refugee camp (population 125,000 and one of the most crowded area in the Gaza strip with is itself one of the most densely populated areas in the world) had the experience of losing someone close during the last few years if not in the last Israeli three week offensive.
Despite this the message we heard most was one of persistence and pride. This is strange coming from people who have nothing, not even the support of the fellow Arabs with which they have many ties, beyond words of sympathy.

The people of Gaza do not want handouts. They are confident that they themselves are capable of building a flourishing society. What they want is normal access to the world and a guarantee from the International community that Israel will not systematically destroy the houses, mosques, schools, hospitals and factories they build.

So why does Israel attack and destroy? Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt are the main reasons usually given.

The tunnels, even if used to smuggle weapons, are only sustainable by the need to smuggle basic supplies Gazans have been denied through legal channels for years: food and fuel. To stifle the tunnel smuggling industry (of which weapon smuggling is just a small fraction) simply allow normal monitored trade and open merchandise routs to Gaza through Egypt, Israel and the sea. There are opportunists on both sides of the border who are making too much profit that will keep this industry in business as long as the siege continues, despite any military action.
As for the rockets (which are in fact primitive missiles if compared to the weaponry used by the Israeli army) launched from Gaza, both those who support them and those who oppose them agree on one thing, these rockets are their only way to tell a world that is ignoring them, their suffering and their problems that they exist, are suffering and will fight until they find justice. An argument which can be understood in the light of the huge increase of settlement building and numbers of settlers moving to the West Bank over the years of “peace negotiations” with Israel (since the Oslo agreement of 1993). The people of Palestine are loosing faith in a peace process that has brought them nothing over a decade and a half but more losses. The international community has failed them and Israel takes more away from them whenever they deal with it in good faith than when they don’t.

In areas in the north and east of the Gaza strip Israel killed hundreds and intentionally flattened houses, mosques, schools, factories and plantations for distances up to a couple of kilometres from its borders to end rocket attacks against its nearby towns. After all this rockets are still being fired which should tell us something about the effectiveness of the brutal Israeli tactics and raise the question of what these attacks really achieve.

In my previous visits to Palestine, a few years ago (although those visits were to the West Bank not to Gaza), I felt no such hate and anger towards Israel as I felt this time around. What Israel is doing, with the help of other countries including Egypt and Canada is killing any chance for a real peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis in the foreseeable future. I am left to wonder if this is done intentionally.

Leaving Gaza I was wondering what would happen when a new Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and including Avigdor Lieberman takes over and how the international community should act if we really want to see peace in the Middle East.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pressure bears fruit

I am now in Gaza, but let me start from where I left off last.
An international delegation of mostly women organized by Code Pink planned to be in Gaza on International Women’s Day. I contacted them before their arrival in Cairo and requested to join their delegation. They arrived in Cairo on March 5th and we all left to al-Arish on March the 6th.

At al-Arish we were directly sought out by directors of the Egyptian Red Crescent in the region who – to our surprise – said they know about our delegation and have orders from the head of the organization, Ms. Suzanne Mubarak wife of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to facilitate our crossing into Gaza!

It was a surprise move that could only be explained by the Egyptians’ worry about having hundreds of internationals stuck at the Rafah-Gaza border at the same time (knowing that the Viva Palestina convoy led by British MP George Galloway is arriving at al-Arish on March 7), attracting media attention and further tarnishing the already bad image of Egypt as a major participant in enforcing the siege of Gaza.
On March 6th we headed to the border. The Egyptian Red Crescent provided us with a truck to carry the symbolic gifts we carried and the directors were with us every step of the way.

This accompaniment, of course, did not save us from the ills of Egyptian immigration bureaucracy but after a few hours that saw the loss of, search for and finally finding one of our delegation members’ passport (which alone took one hour) and paying over 5,000 in “exit process processing” fees.

Finally we were in Gaza by 2:00PM. The immigration process by the Palestinians (Hamas led government) was extremely efficient and the terminal was far better organized than the Egyptian one. We were welcomed by the governor of the Palestinian city of Rafah and headed to Gaza city which we arrived at by sunset.
Yesterday, Sunday March 8th, International Women’s Day, was our first full day in Gaza. Our program was set by UNRWA which is giving us lots of logistical help. The women in the delegation visited women’s community centers and celebrated with the Palestinian women. I did not leave the center of Gaza city yet I did see bombed government buildings and police stations in the middle of residential areas.
I visited Ramattan news agency, the only agency that was reporting from Gaza during the period of the war. They showed us footage from before the war of Israeli helicopters launching 4 missiles in a row on the apartment building that houses their offices.

I also visited the “Community Media Center” which works on giving youth media experience. There I met a group of youth who have degrees in various media disciplines and who are unemployed since the media business is being stifelled in Gaza more than most other business. Their hopes and vision were inspiring but their pain and frustration were undeniable.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The siege continues

As the dialogue between Palestinian factions takes place in Cairo I sit in the same city waiting for an opportunity to reach Gaza.

After a second trip to Rafah, joined by American activists and armed with a letter from the Canadian embassy I was still denied crossing to Gaza, by the Egyptian authorities.
The letter (actually I was forced to obtain two letters) the Canadian embassy gave me was a disappointment for which they charged me L.E. 520 (approx $130 Cdn.) . They were not really letters from the Canadian embassy to the Egyptian authorities but rather declarations by me stating that I absolve the Canada from all responsibility, which I signed then the embassy stamped! (see http://picasaweb.google.com/lotayef/EmbassyLetters#)

During the day (Tuesday) I spent at the Rafah border crossing there was more action than last time (Thursday and Friday of last week). They were allowing Palestinians to cross to Gaza, but no one else.

Other than the Palestinians at the Rafah border crossing there were a handful of internationals: activists, film makers and independent journalists, who were trying to go through. We, internationals, were Americans, Norwegians, British, a Bosnians and a Canadian. Most of us had some sort of support from our embassies. The Norwegian film makers were confident there clearance – coordinated between their embassy the Egyptian state security – would get them through. But alas, the clearance letter was not communicated to the authorities at the crossing and they had to go back to al-Arish at the end of the day with the rest of us. . (see http://picasaweb.google.com/lotayef/RafahBorderCrossing20090224#)

On our way back to al-Arish we drove into the town of Rafah, the border town that is split in two, a larger part is in Gaza and a smaller part is in Egypt. Rafah gained international fame as the site of the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. With Israel and Egypt’s siege it would have been difficult to imagine Gaza surviving without these tunnels and with. The smuggling of arms is not the main reason for the existence to these tunnels. They are a basic lifeline for the people of Gaza. All supplies, from gasoline to livestock pass through the tunnels and the price of merchandise increases tenfold as they pass from the Egyptian side to the Palestinian side. A very lucrative industry that is difficult to combat or crush even by turning Rafah into a military occupied zone (see http://picasaweb.google.com/lotayef/SecurityInTheEgyptianTownOfRafah#)

The only effective way to combat this smuggling industry is by opening legal trade routs, something the Israelis oppose so they can continue exerting pressure on the Palestinian population till Hamas accepts whatever conditions they want to impose.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who is taking hostages?

The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaze was quieter than I expected it to be. The sand storm that engulfed the whole area, from Cairo to Rafah, maybe partially to blame but it is clear that the refusal to grant passage to Gaza to most of those who seek it is the major reason for the dwindling number of attempted crossings.

A French delegation of medical workers and activists from “La Campagne Civile Internationale pour la Protection du Peuple Palestinien (CCIPPP) have followed the Egyptian recommendations and obtained a letter supporting their attempt to cross to Gaza from the French embassy in Cairo yet all eleven of them have been waiting in Rafah by day and al-Arish by night for days. Tomorrow, again, they plan to pack their bags and checkout from their hotel rooms in the morning and head to the border crossing (forty kilometres away) in hope to enter Gaza.

A Jordanian delegation left today after three days of waiting. Before the end of the “gate work day”, at 4:00 PM, they set up a protest art exhibit: a few photocopies of political cartoons secured by rocks on the asphalt a few meters away from the gate. This was quickly dismantled and confiscated by the Egyptian security forces.

The Jordanians will not be back tomorrow. They left for Cairo this evening.

A few Gazan Palestinians were also present at the gate for hours, none of whom got through. Why? The border is closed. But why is the border closed? This is the million dollar question.
I asked many people and the clearest explanation came – unofficially of course – from one of the gate’s guards. Not a high ranking officer, actually not an officer at all but a simple solider. The closure is to force and pressure Hamas to accept the conditions of the latest Israeli proposal.

Let’s get this clear, Hamas has been accused of taking the people of Gaza hostage in the war with Israel (or was it Israel’s war against the people of Gaza?). But what is happening now is that Israel, Egypt and all their allies are taking the people of Gaza hostage and have no shame about it, starving them, barricading them and restricting all kinds of assistance or access to them till they have their way.

When will the hostages be released?

Ehab Lotayef at the Rafah border crossing, Feb. 19, 2009

(also see http://picasaweb.google.ca/lotayef/RafahBorderCrosiing#)