CANADA PARK, WEST BANK // Canada's chief diplomat in Israel has been honoured at an Israeli public park - built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law - as one of the donors who helped establish the park on the ruins of three Palestinian villages. Jon Allen, Canada's ambassador to Israel, is among several hundred Canadian Jews who have been commemorated at a dedication site. A plaque bearing Mr Allen's name is attached to a stone wall constructed from the rubble of Palestinian homes razed by the Israeli army.
Mr Allen, who is identified as a donor along with his parents and siblings, has refused to talk to The National about his involvement with the park. Rodney Moore, a Canadian government spokesman, said the 58-year-old ambassador had not made a personal donation and that his name had been included as a benefactor when his parents gave their contribution. It is unclear whether he or they knew that the park was to be built on Palestinian land.
Canada Park, which is in an area of the West Bank that juts into Israel north of Jerusalem, was founded in the early 1970s following Israel's occupation of the West Bank in the 1967 war. It is hugely popular for walks and picnics with the Israeli public, most of whom are unaware they are in Palestinian territory that is officially a "closed military zone". Uri Avnery, a former Israeli parliamentarian who is today a peace activist, has described the park's creation as an act of complicity in "ethnic cleansing" and Canada's involvement as "cover to a war crime".
About 5,000 Palestinians were expelled from the area during the war, whose 42nd anniversary is being marked this month. Israel's subsequent occupation of the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem and Gaza, is regarded as illegal by the international community, including by Canada. The country has become increasingly identified as a close ally of Israel under the current government of Stephen Harper, who appointed Mr Allen as ambassador.
About US$15 million - or $80m in today's values - was raised in tax-exempt donations by the Canadian branch of a Zionist organisation, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), to establish the 1,700-acre open space following the 1967 war. The Canadian government spokesman declined to say whether an objection had been lodged with the fund over its naming of Mr Allen as a donor, or whether Mr Allen's diplomatic role had been compromised by his public association with the park. The spokesman added that the park was a private initiative between Israel and the JNF in Canada.
That view was challenged by Uri Davis, an Israeli scholar and human rights activist who has co-authored a book on the Jewish National Fund. "Canada Park is a crime against humanity that has been financed by and implicates not only the Canadian government but every taxpayer in Canada," he said. "The JNF's charitable status means that each donation receives a tax reduction paid for from the pockets of Canadian taxpayers."
Dr Davis and a Canadian citizen are scheduled to submit a joint application to the Canadian tax authorities next week to overturn the JNF's charitable status. He said they would pursue the matter through the courts if necessary. Dr Davis said attempts to rename Canada Park "Ayalon Park" over the past decade suggested that the Canadian authorities were already concerned about the prospect of the country's involvement in the park coming under scrutiny.
Joe Rabinowitz, the executive vice-president of the JNF in Canada, said ceramic plaques to Canada Park's donors - including Mr Allen - had been erected a couple of years ago. Previous metal dedication signs were stolen many years ago, he said. He refused to comment on the circumstances of the park's creation, saying details about the park were available on the JNF's website. A search, however, found only passing references to Canada Park.
The JNF is a major landowner in Israel, with duties that include establishing and managing parks and forests on behalf of the Jewish people worldwide. Most of the parks have been created over the remains of more than 400 Palestinian villages destroyed after the foundation of Israel in 1948. Canada Park is believed to be the only example, outside East Jerusalem, of the JNF becoming directly involved in managing land in the occupied territories. JNF operations in the West Bank are run by a subsidiary, Himanuta. The formal division between the two companies is designed to protect the charitable status of contributions to the JNF.
Donations are often used to plant forests of pine trees over destroyed villages, including at Canada Park. The organisation boasts it has helped plant more than 240 million trees in Israel. According to Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, only a tenth of local indigenous tree species survived the JNF's reforesting programme with pines. He said that fast-growing pine was preferred because it was a rapid way to ensure expelled Palestinians could not return to their land and year-round foliage also helped to conceal the rubble of the destroyed villages.
At Canada Park, scattered stones from the three villages are still visible, and one building, a mosque misleadingly labelled a Roman bathhouse, stands near its entrance. One of the villages, Imwas, is believed to be the Biblical site of Emmaus, where Jesus supposedly appeared to two disciples after his resurrection. Among non-Canadian donors mentioned on the plaques in Canada Park is "Martin Luther King, USA". It is believed the donation was made on behalf of the human rights leader after his assassination.
In an interview with Canadian TV in 1991, Yitzhak Rabin, who headed the army during the 1967 war and later became prime minister, said he had personally ordered the destruction of the three villages within what became Canada Park. He justified the decision on the grounds that Egyptian commandos were hiding there. However, photographs by Amos Keenan, who entered the villages with the army as an official photographer, confirm Palestinian testimony that the Israeli soldiers faced no resistance as they advanced.
Uzi Narkiss, the Israeli general who led the assault on the villages, has said their destruction was "revenge" for the army's failure to capture this much-prized section of West Bank land - then known as the Latrun Salient - in the earlier, 1948 war. Today most of the Palestinian families expelled from the three villages are living in the West Bank or Jordan, unable to visit their former lands.