It roared furiously across acres of soil, its fiery plumes undulating in the wind as it rampaged mile after mile, felling trees in its wake. It hurtled forward, flailed its luminous limbs as it leapt, and charged into the homes of thousands, slicing great swathes of Albertan ground and human habitation.
Residents of Fort Mac became refugees overnight -- refugees in their own province. At a moment's notice, they fled, bundling their children into cars, scrambling to pack necessities. An endless cortege of vehicles rolled along the highways to shelters well out of the fire's reach. But the beast roared on, unstoppable and voracious, sweeping away the memory of a landscape once filled with human dwellings and everyday buzz. Hollowed-out houses now glare blindly as charred skeletons of mangled life.
Nightly we listened to the media. Nightly we fixed our gaze with disbelief upon ghastly sights -- on silhouettes of trauma. We heard the voices of the displaced, shot through with pangs of longing. "We want to go home," they cried out in a protracted groan of homesickness. Theirs is an unquenchable desire to return to their hearth.
Almost 50 years ago, news reports around the world directed our gaze upon the frontal events of the June 1967 War when Israel was said to have made short work of her Arab neighbours. But behind this spectacle of military strength and unbeknownst to many at that time, the Israeli army committed egregious war crimes: it effected the forcible evacuation and thereafter the destruction of three Palestinian villages -- Imwas, Beit Nuba and Yalo -- situated in the Latrun salient, an area of the West Bank between Israel and Tel-Aviv. Though there were no combatants among the villagers, a trumped-up charge of "security" was the pretext for a massive expulsion of roughly 10,000 defenseless residents.
Upon their exodus, the villagers' centuries-old homes were bulldozed and buried under rubble. "The chickens and doves were buried ... The fields were turned into wasteland in front of our eyes," reported Israeli journalist Amos Kenan, a reserve soldier in the occupying force in Beit Nuba who witnessed events first-hand. "The children wept and asked for water," he recalled. "They all carried white flags ... We drove them out. They [went] on wandering in the south like lost cattle."
Terrorized into flight by the army's aggressive threats, the villagers staggered for 32 kilometres with babes in arms and few belongings. Long processions of anguished folk trundled to Ramallah, parched and battered by the summer heat. And as they fled through the hills, the Israeli army (with the aid of the Jewish National Fund, a "charitable" organization whose objective is land redemption and reclamation in the State of Israel) carried out its demolition work, razing homes to the ground and seizing thousands of acres of privately owned Palestinian property. The aged and crippled, who were unable to leave, met their death under the collapsing quarry stones of their once magnificently fashioned homes.
In the early 1970s, the Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF Canada) and its Canadian donors established a sanctuary of pine forests on the scattered remnants of Beit Nuba, Imwas and Yalo. The conservancy became a recreational resort and was designated Canada Park. Today it poses as a monument to JNF Canada's "environmentalist" ventures.
Yet this so-called green project sequesters the dark deeds of 1967 under a canopy of European vegetation. In a veritable travesty of an odious past, the park offers visitors carefree amusement, leisure grounds for picnicking and occasions for extreme sports. Dirt-bikers spurn history and run roughshod over Palestinian graveyards. Meanwhile a majority of Palestinians are barred from entering the stolen land that is theirs. Such is the cruel irony of Canada Park.
Happily, for all their tragedy, the victims of Fort Mac will one day see the restoration of their homes and most will enjoy the return to their beloved abode. But 50 years on, the Latrun villagers have yet to see their right of return granted. For they are not the victims of a disrupted and "vengeful" ecology -- a fate that readily elicits universal compassion -- but of a disaster mired in settler-colonial politics, caused by discernible human agency and one that has actively forestalled the villagers' right to go home.
The expropriation of the Latrun salient was a premeditated act of military vengeance inflicted upon innocent inhabitants, not an act of God. As Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (1915-1981) averred, the villages were collectively punished for having stood undefeated before the forces of the Haganah (Israeli army) in 1948. (Moshe Dayan, Story of My Life, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976, p. 397.)
In effect, Beit Nuba, Yalo and Imwas were the casualties of an expansionist policy of land clearances dating back to the early days of Israel's conception. Under international law, such clearances are deemed war crimes, since they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention on at least three counts: 1) by forcibly depopulating villages; 2) by destroying civilian property in occupied territory; and 3) by preventing the displaced from returning to their homes and properties. (John Reynolds, Where Villages Stood, Al Haq Report, December 2007, pp. 41-62.)
The third of these violations persists today. The survivors of the 1967 expulsion and the descendants of those villagers are still, after 49 years, denied access to their native home. Yet their desire to return never diminishes; their ache is as intense as the longings felt by the evacuees of Fort Mac.
Canada Park, which sits in Occupied Palestine, may seem remote to us here; yet it was conceived and financed in the 1970s by Canadian funds, tax-deductible donations collected by the Jewish National Fund of Canada. The story of the park's genesis is a sordid chapter in our history and on June 7, 2016 it behooves us to recall it, condemn it publicly and, not least, to demand that the survivors of that episode at last be granted the right to reclaim their most beloved hearth.
The Liberal Government's recent endorsement of a joint statement affirming the application of international law in the case of displaced persons highlights the legitimacy of the Latrun villagers' right of safe and dignified return to their home.
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