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Planting Over Palestine

Planting Over Palestine

There’s a massive park in the Occupied Territories, built on the ruins of destroyed villages—and it’s named after the Canadians who funded it.

A view of Canada Park, in the Latrun Valley.

Ahmad Abu Ghosh will never forget the day he was expelled from his hometown. His family lived in Imwas, in what is today the Occupied West Bank, until 5 am on June 5, 1967, when they saw the lights of approaching Israeli tanks. “We were all afraid, especially my father,” recalls Abu Ghosh, who was fourteen at the time. The family of eight fled, setting out on foot to the nearest village. But when they arrived, they found it already surrounded by Israeli soldiers. They were forced to continue walking until they reached Ramallah, over twenty kilometres away. Abu Ghosh and his family didn’t bring anything but the food and water they picked up along the way; they thought they’d soon be allowed to return home.

Abu Ghosh’s story is typical of Palestinian refugees, and his expulsion mirrors the widespread Arab displacement that marked Israel’s creation in 1948. However, Abu Ghosh lost his home during the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Today, the remains of his destroyed hometown are covered by a national park. It was established in the West Bank’s Latrun Valley in 1972—mostly outside the Green Line, Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 border, which today forms the basis for most discussions of a future Palestinian state. Canadians made this park possible: the Jewish National Fund developed it using Canadian donations, and called it Canada Park.

In a cafe in downtown Ramallah, where he now lives, Abu Ghosh shows me photos documenting his birthplace over the years. Some depict Palestinian families walking along the road carrying white flags, as Israeli soldiers stand guard. By 1968, what was once the centre of Imwas was merely a patch of grass. Today, cacti, prickly pears, daisies, rows of trees and monuments line the dirt paths of Canada Park, which surrounds a late-nineteenth-century monastery. Every year, thousands of hikers, picnickers and tourists flock to the three-thousand-hectare park, which is one of the largest in Israel. The marble plaques on the park’s donor walls host an impressive list of names: former prime minister Paul Martin, former Ontario premier Bill Davis, former Toronto deputy mayor Joe Pantalone. There’s even a John Diefenbaker Parkway. Promotional materials boast that the park contains ruins of the biblical city of Emmaus. But did Canadian donors know it would also cover up three Palestinian villages—Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba—destroyed just a few years prior?

The Jewish National Fund is a registered non-profit whose American chapter boasts that it is “caretaker of the land and people of Israel.” In North America, it raises money to develop parkland and forest areas in Israel, like Canada Park, for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, its Israeli sister organization. KKL-JNF was created at the start of the twentieth century with support from Theodore Herzl, the father of political Zionism, with the mission to reclaim formerly Arab lands in Palestine—the biblical region of Israel—for Jews. Israel has signed a covenant with KKL-JNF, protecting its right to hold these lands exclusively for the Jewish people. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for anyone else living in Israel—including the 1.5 million Arabs who make up 24 percent of the country’s population, or the four million Palestinians who, like Abu Ghosh, live in overcrowded refugee camps and municipalities in the Occupied Territories.

When Canada Park was established, the president of the Jewish National Fund of Canada was Montrealer Bernard Bloomfield. His father Harry, a pre-state Zionist, died in Palestine when Bernard and his brother Louis Mortimer were young, and in 1949, the brothers commemorated him by planting trees at the French kibbutz Neve Ilan. They named it Bloomfield Memorial Forest. “We planted it in territory allotted to the Arabs under the Partition Plan, but won by the Jews after bitter fighting and many casualties,” Bernard Bloomfield wrote in a foreword to his 1950 book Israel Diary, “as a symbol that this ground, stained by the blood of our heroes, must ever remain in Jewish hands.” Twenty-three years later, just a little further along the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Bloomfield would establish Canada Park.

For years, Palestinian-rights advocates have been pressuring Canadian diplomats in Israel to visit the park. Israeli Eitan Bronstein began trying to arrange a tour for the Canadian Embassy in 2003. He frequently leads visits to destroyed Palestinian villages, and has founded an organization, Zochrot, that aims to educate Jews about the expulsions and abuses that accompanied Israel’s creation. “[The embassy] always postponed it, and they never did it in the end,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Tel Aviv. Finally, in 2008, after a meeting with Palestinian human-rights organization Al Haq, then-Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen and David Viveash, a former Canadian representative to the Palestinian Authority, decided to visit Canada Park independently of the embassy.

Pointing to old stones where donor plaques are mounted, Bronstein told the diplomats that most of those stones were taken from the houses of Imwas. Bronstein says Allen was shocked that there was no recognition of the destroyed Palestinian village. The ambassador remarked that if donors knew, they would perhaps do something to rectify it. But his shock did not end there: Allen discovered his own name on one of the plaques. A Canadian government spokesperson later told Abu Dhabi newspaper the National that Allen’s name had been included when his parents donated to the park.

Bronstein says that Allen admitted he wasn’t able to do more than write a report of the tour. He didn’t explain why. “I understood that this was, you know, the policy of the Canadian government and they wouldn’t do anything to change it,” Bronstein says. When Bronstein typed his own report of the tour, he says, Allen asked him not to publish it.

On March 15 of this year, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at al-Manara Square in Ramallah to protest the Palestinian political establishment. Palestinian youth had already staged solidarity demonstrations during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and those who grew up in the disillusioned 1990s—when the Oslo Accords failed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict—were emboldened by the Arab Spring’s successes. But Palestinians are in a unique bind: they must contend with both the Israeli occupation and repression from their own feuding political parties.

The so-called March 15 movement has already had an indelible impact on Palestinian society. In May, rival parties Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank, ended a four-year stalemate by announcing a reconciliation agreement and promising to hold elections. Protests calling for Palestinian refugees to march on Israel’s borders in May and June ended with dozens of demonstrators shot dead by Israeli soldiers. This fall, in a historic move, the Palestinian Authority will bid to become a member state at the United Nations General Assembly, based on its 1967 borders.

The Canadian government has been less than supportive. At a G8 meeting this spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear that Canada would not provide direct bilateral aid or debt relief during the Arab uprisings. At the same meeting, following a last-minute phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Harper managed to remove any reference to Israel’s 1967 borders from a G8 statement on the Middle East, shifting away from decades of Canadian diplomatic policy. (Harper’s spokesperson later denied the two leaders discussed G8 matters during their phone call.)

But in the face of pressure from activists, “Canada is trying to distance itself” from Canada Park, says Dr. Uri Davis, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and the author of a 1988 book about the JNF. He points out that the Canada Park sign at its entrance has been taken down. (When I visited earlier this year, it had still not been replaced.) More recently, it’s been called Ayalon Canada Park—referring to a place in the biblical Land of Israel—in promotional materials, downplaying the very country it’s supposed to represent.

Davis has petitioned the Representative Office of Canada to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah since last September, requesting that Canadian diplomats visit the park with representatives from the destroyed Latrun villages. This May, the office finally responded to his request and declined his invitation, citing Jon Allen and David Viveash’s tour of the park three years earlier. “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over the territories occupied in 1967,” the office wrote, “including the area of Ayalon/Canada Park.” (When I called the office about Canada Park, the Department of Foreign Affairs responded only with an email stating it had received Davis’ letter.)

Although Ottawa might not diplomatically recognize the Israeli occupation, the JNF enjoys tax-deductible donations thanks to its non-profit status, granted by the Canada Revenue Agency. When Davis sent the CRA a complaint, citing the JNF’s actions in the Occupied Territories, the agency responded that confidentiality issues prevented it from discussing the affairs of specific organizations. In response to a similar complaint from another Canadian citizen (provided to me by author Yves Engler), former minister of national revenue Keith Ashfield wrote that there was no policy “prohibiting Canadian charities from operating in the Occupied Territories.”

I ask Joe Rabinovitch, executive vice president of JNF Canada, if donors were aware that Canada Park is on disputed territory. “We were asked by the [Israeli] government to build a park and raise money, and that’s what we did,” he tells me. “We don’t provide the details of how old the park is, the land going back to three hundred, four hundred years ago. Never have.” Did donors know about its status pre-1967? “No,” he responds. “Some know about it, some don’t.” But the park is on occupied land, I point out, pressing him for comment. Rabinovitch only responds in the most evasive terms; he says JNF policy is not to comment on Canada Park.

Abu Ghosh fondly remembers the village where he was born and raised. The last time he visited the area, in 1991, he went to the orchard where he played and picked fruit as a child. “After that, I was so sad that I cannot go there now,” he laments. Not that he would be able to: the same year Abu Ghosh visited, the Israeli army erected a checkpoint preventing Palestinian refugees in the West Bank from accessing the site. Now Israel’s separation barrier stands at the entrance to Ramallah, making it impossible for Abu Ghosh to pass without a permit.

I want to see what remains of his house. “It will be very difficult for you to find,” he tells me. Since Abu Ghosh can’t accompany me, he draws a map, depicting Imwas as he recalls it. He draws a cave and well near his childhood home; a mosque that has since been demolished; a church and graveyard, at the edge of which once lay his grandfather’s headstone. He suspects the gravesite has been destroyed.

Entering the park from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, there is no indication that I am crossing the Green Line. Two backpackers pass me. One says, “Shalom!” The path into the park veers to the right, leading to a clearing where an Israeli flag stands next to a large rock monument commemorating Israeli-Arab wars from 1948 to 1982. I wander up and down the footpaths that wind through overgrown grass. I stop to consult Abu Ghosh’s map, but it’s hard to distinguish a cave from the ruins of a house. Seeing a well, I think I’ve found his former home.

Walking past signs in English, French and Hebrew that read “Top of ruins,” in reference to a destroyed village, I continue along a fence. The church bells of the monastery chime. Down the road, an Arab man descends from a tractor before sitting to pave stones around a tree. When I stop to speak with him, the man, Ahmad Moussa, tells me he has been working for the monastery for the past thirty years. His father worked there before him. Like Abu Ghosh, Moussa was born in Imwas. He was seven years old when he was expelled. He points out his own house in the pages of a booklet Abu Ghosh gave me, and informs me that the ruins I took for Abu Ghosh’s house are actually from another, much smaller village that was destroyed in 1948.

Moussa has a long commute from his home in Ramallah. He waits at the checkpoint each time he comes to work and sleeps at the monastery overnight. When I tell him I’m looking into the park’s Canadian connections, he says, “Canada took money for Israel and made a park on my home.” As we part, I thank him in Arabic. He looks stunned; it’s not often he hears his native language spoken in the place that was once his home.

The print version of the article originally reported that the Palestinian Authority intended to bid for non-state membership at the UN. After this article went to press, the PA decided to bid for full state membership.

See the rest of Issue 41 (Fall 2011).

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