Podcast Ep 56: Canada’s arms exports to Israel

On episode 56 of The Electronic Intifada Podcast, we discuss Canada’s arms exports to Israel with researcher Michael Bueckert, and Dr. Tarek Loubani talks about making medical equipment for Gaza’s medics amid 15 years of Israel’s blockade and a constant, looming threat of war.

Bueckert is the vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME).

CJPME recently released a report, “Arming Apartheid: Canada’s Arms Exports to Israel,” which lays out the acceleration of Canada’s exports of military goods to Israel in recent years.

Last December, Robin Wettlaufer, Canada’s envoy to the occupied West Bank and Gaza, claimed that “we neither fund nor arm Israel.” Wettlaufer’s statement was a response to The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, who asserted – correctly – that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is an accomplice in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.

“It was really embarrassing to see that response from Canada’s diplomat,” Bueckert tells us.

Although Canada does not directly provide arms sales to the Israeli government, he explains, “Canada does approve the exports of private sales of military equipment … millions of dollars worth of military goods in 2020, which has been accelerating for years.”

Wettlaufer’s claim was “a very narrow approach to try to avoid any accountability or responsibility for Canadian policy, but everyone can see right through it,” Bueckert says.

“And I think the results of this report show just how ridiculous those kinds of claims are.”

“We’re selling weapons to a country that is actively engaged in a military occupation, whose maintenance requires daily violence, and is engaged in military offensives and abusive practices that amount to apartheid, according to Amnesty International and a growing consensus in civil society,” Bueckert notes.

“So any amount of value to this context presents a human rights risk.”

For years, Bueckert had also monitored the Act.IL app, an Israeli government-funded app meant to “influence foreign publics” and “battle BDS.”

The app was recently deactivated, Bueckert explains.

“I think we can take it as a positive development that they’ve decided that it’s a failure, and they’re shutting it down.”

Later on in the program, we speak with Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room physician based in London, Ontario, who works closely with physicians and medical personnel inside Gaza.

Loubani is the co-founder of the Glia Project, which works to provide communities with low-cost medical devices using open source technology and 3D printing.

With a new initiative, Stop the Bleed Gaza, he and his colleagues are working to get 3D-printed medical supplies into the hands of doctors in Gaza.

The initiative, Loubani says, “is a response to a problem that we saw in the 2014 war.”

Of the more than 2,000 people killed, Loubani explains, “about a quarter died from bleeding out in a way that should have been treatable. Now, if those people had been in hospital, obviously we’d have been able to treat them with tourniquets and with our expertise, but also these kinds of injuries are salvageable if people outside or paramedics are well trained and have the gear that they need.”

As a result, “the [Gaza] Ministry of Health asked us to start developing a tourniquet, having heard about some of the work that Glia was doing on 3D-printed medical devices and local production,” he says.

Despite the blockade and occupation, Loubani says, “Palestinians have risen to the challenge in a really incredible way. And so they weren’t just sitting there, lamenting and saying, ‘Oh, well, I guess we just have to die now because we don’t have tourniquets.’ They were asking, ‘How can we make these? How can we take control of the situation?’”

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman with Asa Winstanley, and we have a fantastic episode for you today. Coming up later on in the program, we speak with Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room physician based in London, Ontario, who works closely with physicians and medical personnel inside Gaza. He’s the co-founder of the Glia project which works to provide communities with low-cost medical devices using open source technology and 3D printing and we’ll be talking to him about a new initiative he’s involved in to get 3D-printed medical supplies into the hands of doctors in Gaza as fears of yet another Israeli assault looms.

But first, we’re glad to have Michael Bueckert back on the show today to talk about a new report his organization, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, or CJPME, has just released on Canada’s arms sales to Israel. Michael is the vice president of CJPME, welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, Michael Bueckert.

Michael Bueckert: Thanks so much. I’m really happy to be back.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks for being back. There’s so much to get into. Let’s start with this report. In the executive summary, CJPME says that “the annual value of Canada’s exports of military goods to Israel has been accelerating in recent years, and in 2020 reached their highest level in over three decades, even when adjusted for inflation.” Last December, as you may remember, Robin Wettlaufer, Canada’s envoy to the West Bank claimed that Canada neither funds nor arms Israel, which was quite a statement, and she did not walk that back. Let’s talk about how Canada both funds and arms Israel, your reaction to Wettlaufer’s lazy and insidious lies and what that says about Canada’s positioning here?

Michael Bueckert: Well, I guess it’s – it was really embarrassing to see that response from Canada’s diplomat. I think that when people like her say that kind of thing, Canada’s not arming Israel, I think they’re taking a very technical narrow approach to say, well, Canada is not directly providing military transfers to the Israeli government. But Canada does approve the export of private sales of military equipment, millions of dollars. And peak – spiking up to $20 million worth of military goods in 2020, which has been just accelerating for years.

So it’s, I guess, like kind of a sneaky way to try to deny that fact. But it’s also consistent with other sorts of other destinations as well, Canada will claim that Canada’s not supplying arms to the parties of the conflict in Yemen, while transferring billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia, and millions to the United Arab Emirates, and other countries that are very much directly involved in that war. So it’s a very narrow approach to try to avoid any accountability or responsibility for Canadian policy, but everyone can see right through it. And I think the results of this report show just how ridiculous those kinds of claims are.

Asa Winstanley: It’s interesting historically, though, in a way that even though it’s a very weak denial, do you think there’s any significance in the fact that historically she felt the need to even deny it, that it’s like, maybe in past years, it would have been seen, certainly in American politics, I know there’s a great deal of difference in Canadian politics, but of something to be proud of – arming Israel.

Michael Bueckert: Yeah, I do think that there has been a changing tide a little bit in public opinion around this and within some of the political parties, and among civil society that is increasingly looking at Israel’s human rights violations very clearly and increasingly, publicly putting support behind the need to suspend arms exports. So I do think that there is, yeah, definitely a shift. Whereas I mean, if you look at the past 20 years, clearly Canada – most Canadian officials have no problem sending greater and greater amounts of military goods to that conflict. But that is something that is historically somewhat new as well.

And one thing maybe we’ll talk about is some of the historical context in the report is that there was a time when it would have been seen as inconceivable to be supplying weapons to Israel as it is conducting violence against civilians. So I think for a long time, I guess it has been just seen as unconditional, or unexamined. But that is changing.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. Well, let’s get into the report. What are some of the key findings here? And what kinds of exports and weapons deals are we talking about?

Michael Bueckert: Maybe just to say a little bit about why we produced this, too, is following the events of May of last year, with the escalation of Israeli violence, we did see this outpouring of support across Canada for Palestine. And we saw some political figures and civil society take pretty bold stances that we haven’t seen before. The New Democratic Party, for example, which is our nominally left-wing party, responded to this violence by calling for suspension of arms until the end of the occupation. And that was a pretty bold step from them, pushed by, you know, grassroots members, but still a kind of a new development. And we saw similar calls from the Canadian Labour Congress and dozens of other labor organizations calling for the suspension of arms. And so it was becoming quickly sort of like a consensus among the sort of progressive sectors in Canada, but there is no research or, or evidence into Canada-Israel military trade that could provide, you know, context and data for those debates. And so we thought, well, what exactly is Canada exporting? How does this change over time?

And so we partnered with Project Ploughshares, which is a very prominent disarmament think tank in Canada who provided a lot of guidance, and they provided the data sets going back to 1978, some of the numbers for us to write this report. And yeah, and the big picture is that Canada’s arms exports to Israel are at a 30-year high, really accelerating, really picking up starting in the early 2000s. And then, under Stephen Harper in 2010, and then 2015, as well, there’s been even a sharper increase since then under Justin Trudeau. So that’s sort of the big picture in terms of the numbers, but we also wanted to get into, like, what exactly is Canada exporting, and unfortunately, we really don’t have concrete evidence. Canada’s export regime is very, maybe secretive isn’t the right word, but it’s certainly not open. They don’t provide information accessible to the public, for example, what exactly is being exported, who is being exported to and how those goods might be used.

So what they do provide are these very broad categories, things like, like one of the categories is components related to a military spacecraft, another category, which Canada provides a lot of arms under this category, is things related to explosives, bombs, torpedoes, all sorts of things could be included in this bucket of things. And then the other one that is very prominent among Canadian exports is related to military aircraft. And I mean, that could be anything. It could be full systems, full military aircraft, or it could be components, sensors, engines, all sorts of things could be included in that and then eventually incorporated into like fighter jets. So we don’t know the specifics, which is really troubling. But we tried to bring together as much detail as we can about what these exports could include.

Asa Winstanley: And to clarify one point there. If I understood you, right, that Canada is exporting parts for military spacecraft to Israel.

Michael Bueckert: Well, we don’t know exactly, but that’s one of the categories, actually the category …

Asa Winstanley: What could fall under that category?

Michael Bueckert: Let me just read you how they describe it because it’s just so vague, electronic equipment, military spacecraft and components, which isn’t specified elsewhere. Yeah, again, we don’t know. Canada did …

Asa Winstanley: Right. So it’s part of a wider bracket, including electronic equipment, right, which could be anything.

Michael Bueckert: Right. But in this bucket is sort of implied that it’s related in some way to a space – it’s probably related in some way to Israel’s space program. But I mean, again, that could, it could be so many different things. And you know, the space program, like when you think of like, satellites are the things that could be part of traditionally, we don’t think of those as like munitions, per se. But we know that the Israeli space program is very connected to the defense industry, to defense objectives. And some of – you know, every once in a while there is a press release about a big contract. And so we know that some Canadian suppliers did win this contract to provide goods as part of this satellite that was, I think it was made by the Israeli – Israel Aerospace Industries, I think. Yeah, and this specific satellite, I don’t think is sort of a defense satellite, per se. But IAI has produced other I guess, more military-specific satellites for defense purposes.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: For surveillance, Israel’s major industry right now.

Michael Bueckert: Yeah. Surveillance, I mean, presumably inside and outside its territory. So I it raises a lot of questions. The fact that it’s under this category of munitions, suggests that it is related in some way to Israel’s military objectives.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And is this like opaque, you know, vagueness specifically around Israel? Or does Canada also not really provide much information about the munitions and equipment and supplies to other countries?

Michael Bueckert: I think this is across the board. This would be for all military exports to all countries would have this similar, very vague reporting. However, what I’ve heard from our partners at Project Ploughshares, which is following this closely, is that for Israel, it’s less readily available to find this information. That might mean that companies that are winning contracts are less likely to issue a press release about it or be open about it. And so maybe there is sort of a stigma there that they don’t want it to be known that they’re providing weapons to Israel, but in terms of the broader – the actual reporting, it’s, it’s across the board, I believe.

Asa Winstanley: Well, that’s good, that’s progress, if there’s a stigma.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: They want to hide their dealings with Israel. Amazing. Can you talk about the amount of money we’re talking about here? You know, how much funds is going to these, you know, very nebulous, opaque, arms export deals?

Michael Bueckert: Well, the total, the 30-year high that I talked about in 2020, was just under $20 million. So it’s not a huge amount of money if you think of it in terms of Canada’s exports to other countries. For example, exports to Saudi Arabia are billions of dollars a year. $20 million doesn’t seem that high. However, I always think about it as the context – we’re not selling weapons to Ireland, we’re selling weapons to a country that is actively engaged in the military occupation, whose maintenance requires daily violence, and is getting engaged in military offensives and abusive practices that amounts to apartheid, according to Amnesty International and growing consensus in civil society.

So any amount of value to this context presents a human rights risk. So I think it’s important that we tried to reduce that number and eliminate these exports rather than worry too much about the numbers in comparison to other countries. It’s all very dangerous. And again, the bulk of this is within those three categories that I talked about, with about a quarter more than a quarter of Canada’s exports in the last five years would be in that bucket related to bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles and other explosives. And again, it could be – it could be any as any aspect within that we could be talking about equipment that is incorporated in some way into airstrikes, air strike capabilities. It could be the stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets that we saw Israeli forces use this weekend against Palestinians in Al-Aqsa mosque. It could be all, you know, all sorts of different things. And unfortunately, we just don’t know.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, I mean, talking about, you know, the kinds of I mean – do we know, like, are there companies that you can name, who, Canadian companies that are engaging in these export deals? I mean, I’m reminded of, you know, the actions that are happening right now in Asa’s backyard, in London, across the UK, against Israel’s Elbit factories. Where, you know, activists are literally, you know, pinpointing and targeting the companies that are involved in actively producing weapons that go to kill and injure Palestinians. Are there, you know, is there a list of companies in Canada that are involved in these crimes?

Michael Bueckert: Well, as I mentioned, most companies don’t publicize their role in these exports. And so you know, we can find a small number of companies a press release here or there. But so far, we haven’t done enough research to sort of bring that together. And to say, the, you know, these are the list of companies we’re worried about. There is a major arrow, or I guess, a major company near Montreal that produces equipment that would be incorporated into military aircraft, so producing aircraft engines and that kind of thing. Those exports might not even be monitored and classified as military exports, because there’s this long-standing loophole related to exports that have dual could have dual purposes could be for civilian or military exports. So the actual value of military exports could be much bigger if you remove these loopholes and look at this in a complete way.

You mentioned Elbit Systems. Certainly we’ve seen permit requests, due to a parliamentary investigation released some unclassified information that we know that at least some companies are trying to sell weapons to Elbit to be incorporated into whatever broader systems. But we don’t know that much about that. And that’s something too, you know, our report doesn’t look at purchases of military goods, but Canada did recently purchase a $36 million surveillance drone from Elbit Systems and just purchased, I think, $8 million worth of surveillance technology of military technology that Israel boasted of using to enhance its targeting process in May of last year in Gaza. So we’re very much directly complicit in these kinds of violations. And yet Canada has no issues with purchasing these kinds of goods. So it’s a broader problem than even what we discussed in this report.

Asa Winstanley: Yeah, it sounds it all sounds very opaque. Like you’re talking a lot about the things that you don’t know. Do you think that’s a reflection on – I mean, I suppose this is the way the weapons, the arms trade works, that they don’t like to – I suppose they’d like to boast of their successes, but then again, they don’t want negative publicity. Do you think this is pretty standard for the arms trade? Or is it something that – I mean, you’ve mentioned how, you know, there may be an extra stigma there when it comes to Israel? Are you optimistic as well, about being able to discover some of these known unknowns?

Michael Bueckert: Well, one of the recommendations that we have is calling for a parliamentary investigation, because, you know, the public can’t access this information, but parliamentarians can, and so they can get documents in front of them that actually goes into far more detail. What exactly is being sold, who is purchasing it, and then we can figure out potentially the actual risk. So there are you know, there are people, parliamentarians who have talked about arms, suspending arms, so we’re hoping that we can convince those politicians to bring us on board and to push for that kind of an investigation so we can get that information. In the meantime, our other recommendation is to suspend military trade with Israel given the context.

Like I said, we don’t know the specifics, but we do know that the context is one of occupation, of military offensives, of blockade, of apartheid. And no, we can’t consider any arms exports into that context to be safe. And similarly with purchases, purchasing goods from that context makes us complicit in their ability to conduct these violations. So there is no safe exports, we need to suspend that completely. But it is important for accountability purposes to actually find that information and get MPs to dig into that so that we can get a better sense of the actual, I guess, Canada’s record in contributing to these to these crimes.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I wanted to ask a little bit about your reaction to, you know, Canada’s ongoing stalling and attempts to thwart the International Criminal Court in its investigation of Israeli war crimes, you know, especially now, when we see, as you mentioned, Israeli violence meted out at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. We saw two separate bombing campaigns just in the last few days in Gaza. What can you say about, Canada’s insistence that it is, you know, an arbiter of peace and justice around the world, that it’s very polite Canada, while it is engaged in these arms exports, while you know, not just to Israel, but as you mentioned, to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the 20 years of occupation that was involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. But also, you know, and then at the same time, trying to punish the ICC for investigating Israel.

Michael Bueckert: Yeah, I think Canada has this reputation of being sort of like a middle power, like an unaligned or somehow sort of like a balanced presence, a constructive presence. But when we look, especially at its international efforts, it really, over the last couple of decades has sided with a small number of countries in opposing any efforts to achieve justice at the international level by Palestinians, or to even lightly criticize Israel, we see, you know, when there is rounds of voting on different resolutions about Palestinian rights that the United Nations, Canada, for years has sided with a tiny handful of countries and voting against virtually all of them, you know, on votes that are something like 140, 160 countries in favor, five opposed with Canada, the US Israel, and then usually a few like tiny island countries. So that’s, that’s Canada’s actual record. And, and when it comes to anything, they try to stop the ICC investigation, since then, they’ve been quite quiet about it.

But they were very quick to support ICC investigation of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, which is interesting. Canada had abstained on a motion or basically, you know, the United Nations formed that commission of inquiry to investigate Israeli war crimes last year. Canada is not on the Human Rights Council, so it didn’t have a vote. But there was an opportunity where Israel tried to put forward an amendment at a different UN body to basically defund that commission, and Canada decided to abstain on that vote, basically, out of respect for the independence of the Human Rights Council while expressing its reservations or its concerns over the commission.

So it doesn’t support a commission of inquiry, but does support a commission in regards again to Russian crimes, and this is a consistent pattern. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the last couple of months is that Canada’s response to Russia shows it provides an example of the types of language and actions that Canada can take, when it actually wants to and shows us that the reason that it doesn’t directly criticize Israel’s daily actions, it doesn’t support an investigation, or any of these other mechanisms of accountability is because Canada chooses not to hold Israel accountable and makes it just – we knew that already, but it just makes it so clear. Many of these mechanisms are exactly the same ones we support in one context, we don’t support them in another and that’s Canada’s actual legacy or, or sort of influence at the international level. It’s just marginalizing itself against the majority of the international community.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Finally, we wanted to ask you – for the last few years, you’ve been monitoring one of the most insipid Israel lobby organizations and formations. The Israeli-funded, you call it Israel’s troll army. It was this app called Act.il. We’ve all done extensive reporting on this app and the so-called missions that it sends its users on to bully, harass, smear and target supporters of Palestinian rights. And as you reported on your Twitter account that monitors this app, it decided to kind of pivot to a different formation, it’s no longer recruiting and sending its users out through the app, but it’s kind of doing something a little bit less public these days. Can you talk a little bit about Act.il? And the significance of, you know, it announcing that it’s kind of closing?

Michael Bueckert: Yeah, well, I would say it was shut down, essentially, because, you know, it started, Act.IL started as this private initiative at a private Israeli university of you know, students creating this rapid response system, to get people to talk, to say nice things about Israel online. And then that became so successful by their metrics that they, this Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs decided that they are going to come on board, and there was this huge rollout of this app, where, you know, at the time, they were pushing sponsored content, and all of these was really newspapers, promoting it, they – Gilad Erdan spoke at this rally talking about this app about how it was an Iron Dome of truth, the website had this big logo for the ministry of strategic affairs, eventually, they started to roll that back, change the position on the webpage of where the logo is, and then just sort of back out to the point where they were denying that the Israeli government had any role in this project at all, which was really interesting.

And I mean, the app lasted for four or five years, which I was surprised that it lasted that long, but they eventually just decided to shut it down. And yeah, there if you are a user of the app, you’ll still get emails to complete these different tasks, but there’s no app, there’s no central place to go. The gamification approach is gone. There’s a lot of aspects to this, which have been totally abandoned, and is now it’s probably just a private sort of initiative. Once again, I never thought it was that successful in the first place. A lot of its missions were very amateurish, and or, you know, just irrelevant. You’ve done great reporting on some of the missions that were more insidious or could have had a more harmful impact, cyberbullying students, trying to shut down California’s ethnic studies curriculum, all sorts of things, where with localized impact, it could be more successful, getting teaching students fired from their jobs, that kinds of things. But overall, I don’t – I think it was kind of an embarrassing thing.

And even in recent years, they were sort of trying to move its activities off of the app, and into private channels, like a telegram channel, a Facebook group, things like that, where they, they felt like they could have a more of a rapid response that way. So I think – you know, for whatever reason, they’ve decided the app doesn’t work. I think it’s, I highly doubt that it’s going to continue to grow as just like an email list, essentially, or, you know, these sorts of diverse channels, WhatsApp or whatever. I think I think we can take it as a positive development that they’ve basically they’ve decided that it’s a failure, and they’re shutting it down.

Asa Winstanley: I think the wider context is that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs itself has folded in a way that it’s been publicly shut down, but its functions folded into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And, you know, this is was part of that, you know, the whole demise of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs is a really interesting subject, which we haven’t really covered. And we should really, but it’s a big topic because it goes to the heart of the Israel lobby, the Israel lobby and the state of Israel’s orchestration of it, its coordination of it and how it was, you know, how the State of Israel directly intervenes in the affairs of other countries where, where the issue of Israel is more contested, so especially Britain and the United States, Canada and so forth. And I, you know, I – Yeah, I mean, I agree with what you’re saying. I do think it was an embarrassment to them, which was to, I mean, to a faction of the government, right. So, to me, it works with the coming in of the coalition government, it was, it was the Blue and White faction, who, as far as I can understand, it, made the decision to shut down the ministry of strategic affairs, because Erdan was succeeded by two ministers in rapid succession, I believe it was, I think we’re both from Blue and White, if I remember correctly, and you know, and then basically, it was then sort of shut down. And to me, this represents the culmination of a long-running kind of interim ministry, Israeli civil war between the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because the Ministry has the problem, from the Zionist perspective, from the Israeli state’s perspective, the problem with the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was that it was too open.

But the silver lining of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to us was always that it, it was to open it did things in a fairly, it gave us an insight into what they were doing into, into things that in past generations would have been done more stealthily, I think, and this app was a great example of that, you know, they just put it out there in this app. And they just, I don’t know, they didn’t, they didn’t think from their point of view, they didn’t think it through very well, but because it was sort of like, oh, you know, only pro is, well, people are gonna look at this, you know, and they were able to send it around our community. But, you know, they didn’t, they didn’t seem to have caught on to the fact that, well, you know, where people like yourself, again, install it, for research purposes. And it was all in English as well, more for the most part. I was Hebrew, too, but, you know, as I understand it, the majority of it was in English. So yeah you know, it was – My take is that it was shut down. Because yeah, it was, as you say, it was kind of seen that as an embarrassment and too open from their, by their metrics.

Michael Bueckert: Yeah, I think that’s right. And as you say, a lot of this is being folded into foreign affairs. And –

Asa Winstanley: Sorry, there’s also, I mean, there’s also a question of where there’s money when there was a great deal of money sloshing around in this, you know, at one point, yeah, as you know, there’s the Act.IL organization, because it wasn’t just an app, it had the sort of war rooms, quote, unquote, in several different countries, at one point that had reported budget of a million dollars annually, you know, so it’s a question of where all this money went to.

Michael Bueckert: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t see like a drastic expansion of the app’s activities or anything like that, over the years, I would suggest that it was, you know, had received greater money, it was able to expand, those kinds of indicators. So it is, yeah, it’s a good question of where that money went. And, I mean, another aspect of this, too, is that while the ministry of strategic affairs might be gone, that concert is still there at this very shadowy organization that was created basically as a slush fund, to give money overtly to pro-Israel groups around the world. So that money wouldn’t be tied to the Israeli government. For various reasons. I think there was an approval of $30 million earlier this year, for that money to be put into the slush fund organization. So that’ll continue. But yeah, I think it’s sort of the previous style, the bombastic style of the previous minister, the openness I think that has been abandoned completely, and they’re back just to this more low profile. Totally secret under-the-radar types of propaganda.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Amazing. Finally, Michael, tell us a little bit about how you and CJPME, your organization is, is you know, looking at the events over the last week and a half in Palestine and what you’re doing as a human rights organization to try and you know, really rattle the cages of the members of parliament and Canada who are are watching this happen and encouraging it?

Michael Bueckert: Yeah, I think there are a few things we’ve been following quite closely. And we’re pretty disappointed but not surprised that the statement from our government was incredibly weak. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs put out a tweet that was along the lines of calling for de-escalation of all sides. You know, this was after this was, I think, maybe Friday or Saturday, Saturday, shortly after the first invasion of Al Aqsa, when 152 people at least were sent to the hospital and there were videos circulating of, of it all sorts of people, journalists, elderly people on crutches, people being hit with batons, and through to thrown to the ground and all sorts of types of violence. And Canada can’t even name the aggressor, the perpetrator in this, I think, was pretty obscene.

And so, yeah, we’ve been pushing MPs to speak out, quite a few have made much stronger statements than that. We right now have an email campaign on our website that can target your local MP as well as key political figures, asking them to clearly condemn this violence and to go further by suspending arms exports to Israel. Yeah, 5,000 people and more have so far sent a letter that way. But we’re continuing to follow this. It’s not clear exactly, exactly if things are going to, I guess continue to escalate. Or, you know, if it’s going to die down, but we’re still in the middle of this holiday season, and Israel’s actions have not changed. And last night, we saw pretty intense bombing of sites in Gaza. So we’re just going to have to try to continue to make sure that members of parliament can’t ignore this, or act is if you know, sort of these like, like thoughts and prayers types of attitude that doesn’t actually name the party that is committing the violence, that they can’t rely on that. So yeah, we’re doing what we can. And if you are in Canada, and you want to check that out, you can find it on our website at CJPME.org.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Michael Bueckert, you’re a researcher and the Vice President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, CJPME.org. Again, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast. It’s always great to have you.

Michael Bueckert: Thanks so much.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks, Michael. And stay tuned for an interview with Dr. Tarek Loubani coming up next.

Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. We turn to the situation in Gaza. In the early morning hours of April 19, Israeli warplanes launched a series of missile strikes in Khan Younis in the southern part of the Gaza Strip as part of a string of escalations by the Israeli military. Just four days before, as we reported, Israeli occupation forces attacked Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque wounding more than 150 Palestinians while it was filled with Ramadan worshippers, on one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar, six people sustained serious injuries during the hours-long assault on one of the world’s most significant religious sites early Friday, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, and more than 400 people were arrested.

We’re joined today by our good friend, Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency room physician based in London, Ontario in Canada, who works closely with physicians and medical personnel inside Gaza. He is the co-founder of the Glia Project, which works to provide communities with low-cost medical devices using open source technology and 3D printing. Glia has been working in Gaza since 2014 and has provided health care workers there with stethoscopes, face shields and tourniquets. Tarek, welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Tarek Loubani: Thank you so much for having me, Nora.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: So first off, we’re recording this on April 20. And many people on the ground in Palestine are saying that the escalations Israel and its fanatical settler movement are engaging in around Jerusalem are very similar to the provocations we saw last May, which culminated in Israel assaulting Gaza for 11 days and killing hundreds of Palestinians, flattening apartment buildings and office buildings and destroying critical infrastructure. What are your thoughts on what’s happening now, especially as an emergency physician and knowing intimately the medical crisis, that that could once again happen in Gaza?

Tarek Loubani: I mean, that’s the thing I think we’ve kind of realized about Gaza. The crisis is severe and ongoing. And it’s hard to have – really appreciate how much worse it does get things are bad, they’re always bad. I think we all kind of realize that they’re catastrophic. When war hits, though, that last little shred that you kind of hang on to is gone. So for example, generally day to day when I’m in the emergency there, I’m dealing with all of the consequences of occupation. It’s direct, but not, not in the military sense, when the bombings start it’s a different kind of escalation.

In a sense, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing the made literal, what we experience every day in Gaza, people’s health is taken from them every day. But in that moment, it’s more dramatic, it’s more visible. And I think too many physicians and too many Palestinians, when that happens, it’s not, it’s substantially worse. It’s something nobody ever wants. At the same time. It’s one of those things that allows us to witness firsthand in an absolutely tangible and physical way what the daily occupation is like.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: What can you tell us about the medical infrastructure in Gaza right now, you know, still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is hitting Palestinians hard. And the 16-year Israeli blockade, which makes access to critical medicines and medical supplies extremely difficult. What’s going on now?

Tarek Loubani: Yeah, I mean, let’s be clear. In Canada, where I’m working right now, in the hospital, where I’m working, there is a massive COVID crisis. And this is despite billions of dollars, thousands of physicians and lots and lots of energy and effort, and basically no barriers. The biggest barrier, of course, for us, as I’m sure it’s probably true for you, is our political leadership. When, when you look at a situation that is so bad, just out of the gate, then, of course, we can imagine that when you pile onto that problem, the additional problems of occupation and years and years of blockade, it is that the medical infrastructure there is lacking everything. So for example, if we start with the infrastructural components, there aren’t enough hospitals, the hospitals don’t have clean water, the clean water and electricity are always lacking. And there, of course, aren’t enough beds.

Once you get into the training situation, there aren’t enough physicians, because of course, physicians who get trained, may want to seek a better life for their families, and so may flee as refugees from the Gaza Strip, which is perfectly understandable, but at the same time, devastating to those left behind. And so there’s a Human Resources crunch, always. And then, and of course, that’s also true in London, London has a population less than a quarter of that in Gaza. And at the same time, we have over I think 10 times the number of licensed emergency physicians.

So we really are talking about a situation in which the Gazans are left with no infrastructure, no human resources, and then no material. So the material when we’re talking about medications, almost all the medications are on these stock-out lists. And of course, medical devices are not to be found. I mean, it is ridiculous to think that I looked at the problem of medical devices and thought, hey, why don’t I spend the next 20 years of my life 3D printing these and validating them from scratch? Really, that was a response to the absolute catastrophe of lack of devices there. And the blockade that will not allow them, despite really supposing that it should allow them through.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can you give us a kind of a snapshot of the kinds of conditions kind of illustrate for us a little bit more about what it’s like working as a physician in Gaza under these conditions, based on the last time you were there, which was not that long ago. Talk to us about just daily life, a day in the life of a Gaza physician.

Tarek Loubani: I think, up until now, I had kind of reflected upon this a little bit differently. I had always asked myself, well, what’s it like when I make it to the hospital? And one of the things that I realized It is that the first problem, the first challenge for me and for every physician is getting out of bed. It feels so overwhelming. And it’s absolutely devastating on an emotional level. As a doctor, I think when I came into medicine, especially when I came into emergency medicine, I understood that I was going to see bad things, things that nobody should see things that nobody should experience.

And I understood that there would be a little piece of me that I lost every time that I saw one of these cases in Gaza, that that happens, and it’s bad. At the same time, it’s not a consequence of just the way in which people live, it feels so eminently reversible, it feels so achievable to end this and to make it so much better. So the first challenge, and I’m realizing this more and more, as me and my Palestinian colleagues discuss our own sort of mental health abilities.

The first challenge for every doctor is getting out of bed every day so that they can meet this gargantuan challenge. When we’re in the hospitals. Of course, we see lots of patients many more than we do here, there is a mixed blessing in that we can’t do much. So for example, in Canada, I have the option of doing bloodwork or cat scanning a patient, whereas the reagents are often missing, that’s for bloodwork. And the machines are often broken. That’s for things like CAT scans or X-rays.

So when we come into the hospital, we’re coming into a hospital that’s usually quite ragged and broken down to see way too many patients who have waited too long to come in and have pre-existing conditions that make feeding them a real challenge. Every doctor knows that the determinants of health are really, really important. In one study on British people, it was found that being a little bit poor, so not even, you know, homeless poor, still with a job in the in the British public service. Those people had a worse risk as compared to being rich than if they had taken up smoking. So we know the social determinants of health matter. And of course, the Gaza Strip, they matter even more.

Almost every patient I see at this point is suffering from malnutrition, especially the children, and almost all of them have other conditions or diseases. And usually my job in the emergency is just to treat what’s in front of me. Get them out to them. Hope for the best, which is what me and my colleagues do.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: We’re speaking with Dr. Tarek Loubani. Tarek, talk about the new initiative that you’re involved in with the glia project. You’re calling it Stop the Bleed in Gaza. What’s new about this initiative? And how can people get involved?

Tarek Loubani: The Stop the Bleed Initiative is a response to a problem that we saw in the 2014 war. In the 2014 war, there were about – the numbers are rough here. So excuse me for that. There are about 2,000 people who were killed and have them about a quarter died from bleeding out in a way that should have been treatable. Now, if those people had been in hospital, obviously we’d have been able to treat them with tourniquets and with our expertise, but also these kinds of injuries are salvageable. If people outside or paramedics are well trained and have the gear that they need.

As a result, the Ministry of Health asked us to start developing a tourniquet having heard about some of the work that glia was doing on 3D printed medical devices and local production. I had mentioned lots of the bad parts of the blockade and the occupation. Of course, the flip side is that the Palestinians have risen to the challenge in a really incredible way. And so they weren’t just sitting there, lamenting and saying, Oh, well, I guess we just have to die now because we don’t have tourniquets. They were asking, how can we make these? How can we take control of the situation?

Tourniquets are pretty simple. And so we started 3D printing them. And unfortunately, before we were ready, we had to rush them into service in the Great March of Return. During the Great March of Return, there were 22,000 or so casualties. Again, the numbers are rough right now. And approximately 6,000 people received gunshot wounds, of which about 80 percent were limb gunshot wounds. These are people who could have easily died. And, and really those are injuries that are also very treatable. Despite that, the rate of death was only about 0.02 percent. This is an injury that usually has maybe 10 or 20 times that death rate. So we saw that this campaign worked.

When we were talking about the Great March of Return, we were able to take a small number of tourniquets, and put them in the right places, because we knew where the protests were, we knew where all the paramedics were, and we could work with them and train only the paramedics who are going to be on the field that day. Now, we want to go further.

And we want to make sure that every person living in Gaza, every Palestinian has access to this potentially life-saving treatment. The first stage, which we’re fundraising for right now, is to get tourniquets into every ambulance, every hospital, every clinic in the Gaza Strip. And so that’s why we’re targeting about $25,000. Once we reach that goal, we want to start thinking of the next phase, which is putting it in basically every civilian center that there is every mall, every grocery store, every mosque, church, synagogue, really everywhere, where we can where people congregate.

And then the last phase would be to make kits available to individuals and families so that they are able to use them as well. This – you know, Nora, you’ve, you and I have talked and I think you get the sense that what I care about most is that the Palestinians are able to stand up and do things for themselves that we support them in becoming more independent and self-sufficient. And this project suits that we’re not shipping and tourniquets from outside, we’re making them on location using recycled plastic, solar power, and, and seamstresses and tailors who are available on site. So, at the end of this, they ended up not just having tourniquets that will save lives, they will also end up having an industry that knows how to make these important devices for the foreseeable future.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: When I tell people about Glia, or I’m talking to friends and family members about the work that you do, we’ve been friends for a long time. And I tell them that essential supplies such as tourniquets are, you know, very hard to find in Gaza, because of Israel’s sadistic 16-year blockade, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As you said, there’s a stock list of medications and medical supplies that Israel has prevented from reaching people inside Gaza, 2 million people. It’s kind of – it’s astounding, and it takes people’s breath away.

How can people not have tourniquets? How can people not have syringes, and you know, enough ICU beds, especially in a pandemic, but this is the situation in Gaza, and then you add in, you know, successive, serial Israeli assaults where people cannot leave. And there is no safe place and entire apartment buildings are flattened by, you know, US-made Israeli-fired missiles. How do medical personnel even begin to prepare for another Israeli assault with the kind of bare-bones infrastructure that that that they’re working with?

Tarek Loubani: We are rapidly trying to scale up the production of tourniquets right now in preparation for a potential attack in the coming weeks. This is as well, you know, another thing that I think is important, the decision of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, was to release 500 tourniquets, which was almost the entirety of their supply at the time to the Ukraine. So I think one of the things that’s also important to know is that while we as a medical system, I’m not part of the Ministry of Health, but you know, I consider myself a member of the medical community, while we as a medical system are trying our best to deal with a situation, we’re also not blind to the suffering of other people.

And we understand that, you know, right now today, it’s Ukrainians who need the tourniquets more. Tomorrow, it might be Palestinians who need the tourniquets more. So I think that, that when we talked about preparing for a situation like this, it’s really trying to stock up, both in terms of equipment, but also in terms of energy, just preparing oneself emotionally, talking to one’s family, you know about what it means, because remember, most physicians, the majority of physicians and gals are women, and most physicians have families.

And when they’re doing service during the war, they will be away from their families for a long period of time. And lots of people, lots of physicians and lots of nurses will have family members die while they are in service of the health of the population. So it’s about preparing the environment as well as possible, and also that sort of last lingering hug that you give to your family before you go in. Part of it being worried that something might happen to you and part of it being worried that something might happen to them. So I think it’s it’s in that particular perspective, there’s no sandbagging, you know, you see it, you see that in the Ukraine, everything that could be bombed, has been bombed. And ultimately, the Israeli bombs are so extensive, and their campaigns are so extensive, that things like sandbagging don’t work. So really, it’s about being at the mercy and being at peace with being at the mercy of the Israelis at any moment.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And it’s extraordinarily generous that the Gaza Ministry of Health would send tourniquets to Ukraine, when Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, has had, you know, pandered to Israel and said that, you know, Ukraine are the Israelis, and that their, their fight is against a common enemy. And Benny Gantz just today said that he would be sending weapons to Ukraine. So it’s very, I mean, it’s very emblematic of like physicians, looking out for civilians, when, you know, the leadership of whatever government is just sending weapons and, you know, calling for more war. It’s, it’s extraordinary. Especially when, you know, people in Gaza don’t have enough. That’s, that’s stunning.

Tarek Loubani: It’s one of those interesting paradoxes. It’s been known for quite a while, but the people who donate the most to food banks are people who are poorer. And I think I think this is one of the things that we see – the people in Gaza fully understand what occupation means, they fully understand what this kind of war means. And they feel for the people in Ukraine. In fact, the largest expat population, the largest immigrant population in Gaza is Ukrainian. Yeah. And there are deep links between the two areas, I’d say countries, but I don’t know that we can say, Gaza is a country.

So it’s, to me, I have never looked at it as “Oh, you know, fuck that guy, listen to what he’s saying. I don’t want to help his people.” It’s not about that. It’s, it’s about people in need. And all of us when I got up this morning, it was to help people. When I came to work today, it was to help people. And that’s true of every doctor, every nurse, every person who cleans the floors and hospitals in Gaza, it’s just true of everybody all around. And if it were, you know, the Israelis, even the Israeli population is not our enemy, of course. And if they were in need, it would, you know, I don’t think anybody I know would hesitate to help.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. Yeah. In the end, it’s about people. Right? Dr. Tarek Loubani give us the details on how people can find Glia and the Stop the Bleed campaign. And tell us what the next steps are.

Tarek Loubani: The Stop the Bleed campaign is a way for us outside of Gaza to participate in this effort of Gazans to make themselves a little bit more self-sufficient. They’ve got the gear, they’ve got the time they’ve got the people, they just need the money at this point. Of course, Glia is participating extensively in this. But there are lots of really important partners like the people who are doing the training on how to use the tourniquets, including Medical Aid for Palestinians. And, of course, the Ministry of Health. So people can help in two big ways. Of course, making a donation is really important.

Also talking to your friends and family about this. We have two big goals here. One of them is to make sure that everybody has a tourniquet who needs it. And the other one is to embed an industry, a medical device industry and Palestine, and in the Gaza Strip, that is indigenous, and that is independent. And hopefully if we can get started with these kinds of simpler medical devices, like tourniquets, we can escalate and move on to other important medical devices and perhaps in my sort of like fever, dreams, maybe even medications being able to produce them locally. So if your listeners, watchers and readers want to go they can go to StopTheBleedGaza.org to make a donation, every dollar counts, of course, and every share on social media or conversation with your friends also counts.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Awesome. And of course, we’ll have the links up on The Electronic Intifada blog post that accompanies this episode. Dr. Tarek Loubani, thank you as always, for everything you do and for being with us again on The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Please be safe.

Tarek Loubani: Thank you, and thank you for all you do, Nora.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).