The 15th annual Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) gave its John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to the “People of Israel.”

The award was presented on November 18, when the death toll from Israel’s massive attack on Gaza had passed 12,000 people. The death toll now stands at over 14,000, including at least 5,500 children.

The prize is named after the late hawkish U.S. senator who was a staunch proponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, including the besieged Gaza Strip.

In announcing the award, HFX president Peter Van Praagh called Israel a “beacon of democracy in the Middle East.”

This view contrasts sharply with the findings of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations who have accused Israel of presiding over an apartheid regime, where Jewish people have full democratic rights and Palestinians live under various configurations of Jewish domination.

A representative of Achim Laneshek, an organization of Israeli military reservists who protested the impact of the far-right Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms on the rights of Israeli Jews, accepted the award on behalf of the “People of Israel.”

In a HFX press release, Achim Laneshek boasted that after Hamas’ October 7 surprise attack on Israel, which Israel says resulted in the killing of 1,200 Israelis and migrant workers and the abduction of 240 others, they “put politics aside and immediately came to the aid of our fellow citizens.”

“Members of Achim Laneshek have gone from demonstrating for democracy in the streets to demonstrating their commitment to democracy by mobilizing to assist the country’s fight against terrorism,” Van Praagh said. “They do great justice to the spirit of John McCain and are very worthy to accept the prize on behalf of the People of Israel.”

This “commitment to democracy” has resulted in what UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict” since Guterres assumed his position in 2017.

When the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last updated their figures on November 10, nearly 70 per cent of Gaza’s population had been displaced.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees reported 104 fatalities among its staff as of November 18. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of November 22, at least 53 Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli forces during its attack on Gaza.

On November 16, the UN warned: “Grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making.” A temporary, four-day pause in fighting was announced this week to allow for some hostages and Palestinians arbitrarily detained by Israel to be released.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli settlers have ethnically cleansed 16 villages, burned 3,000 olive trees during harvest season and killed nine Palestinians. Israeli forces have killed 206 West Bank Palestinians, in addition to the 250 who were killed by Israeli forces this year prior to October 7, and arrested 2,700 Palestinians, in addition to the 5,100 already in Israeli custody before October 7.

Ukraine As A Model For Israel

As was the case last year, the bulk of HFX’s programming focused on how to ensure Ukraine wins its war with Russia. All eight plenary panels had the words “victory in Ukraine” in their titles, which emphasized the reverberations of a hypothetical Ukrainian victory elsewhere.

On the same day it gave out the John McCain prize, HFX hosted a panel called “Victory in Ukraine = Example for Israel,” which featured former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who was charged with corruption and “financing terrorism” in December 2021 before the Canadian government pressured its Ukrainian counterparts to drop the charges.

Joining Poroshenko was Center for International Policy CEO and president Nancy Okail, U.K. Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair Alicia Kearns and Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, as well as moderator Nick Schifrin, PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defence correspondent.

Okail noted at the outset that she didn’t agree with comparing Israel to Ukraine “since it’s so different in so many ways.”

“It’s not because the Middle East is so complicated,” she added. “It’s actually not very complicated. It’s actually very clear and, if anything, this war [in Gaza] gave it far more clarity than before.”

Okail described the “complete absence of a serious political path for Palestinians to live with dignity, equality and rights like other people” combined with a “complete lack of accountability for atrocities and crimes on all sides that we have seen over the years.”

Most important, she said, is the “flawed assumptions upon which the U.S. bases its foreign policy towards the Middle East.”

Referencing president Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, she criticized the notion that “you can have deals with leaders of government that are not representative of the people … and that somehow they will make the Palestinian issue disappear if they’re not included.” 

In July, British Tory MP Kearns predicted the “Gaza crisis of 2023” in the U.K. House of Commons, admonishing her government to play a more proactive role in support of diplomacy in the region.

“I didn’t expect it to come in this form. No one could have predicted the crimes against humanity that we saw Hamas perpetrate in Israel, but if we listened to our partners in the region we should have known we were moving to crisis point,” Kearns explained, citing an extremist Israeli government, mass protests against it, increasing tensions at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and alleged weapons trafficking from Syria to Palestinian militants.

Disgraced Former Ukrainian President Blames Russia For October 7

The only panelist who had no reservations about Israel’s conduct in Gaza was chocolate magnate Poroshenko, who enthusiastically endorsed the panel’s equating of Ukraine and Israel while spending much of his allotted speaking time asking for further assistance to Ukraine.

“Ukraine is fighting for the whole free world,” said the former president. “Ukraine is a democracy. What’s the connection to Israel? Israel is a democracy also.”

He said a “Russian axis of evil,” which includes Iran and North Korea, is responsible for both wars.

There is “only one difference,” he said — that Ukraine’s territory is 50 times larger than Israel’s.

Shortly after the October 7 attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attempted to plan a solidarity visit to Israel for early November, which the Israeli government rebuffed, according to the Israeli news outlet Ynet, for reasons that are unclear.

Poroshenko said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told him that Israel supports Ukraine, but it also doesn’t want to “irritate” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Later, Poroshenko said he is “absolutely confident” that Russia was involved in planning the October 7 attacks, which he said must be “immediately investigated,” without providing any evidence beyond comparing the tactics of Hamas and Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.

Where’s The Logic?

Schifrin asked Moustafa, who is Palestinian on his father’s side, whether Israel’s assault on Gaza will enhance its security.

Moustafa, who called the late senator McCain a “dear friend,” said he wasn’t making an “appeal for humanity, but an appeal for logic in the long-term.”

“Such a campaign where you see more children being killed than Hamas fighters is not something that frankly makes Israel, nor the West, safer,” he said, noting how Iran, which backs Hamas, was able to capitalize upon the death and destruction in Syria and Iraq to support its allies in those countries.

Schifrin said Moustafa’s “criticisms have been echoed in private and public by the U.S. government who has been pushing the Israeli military to use certain tactics that aren’t necessarily the ones they’ve been using.” He did not provide any specific examples.

The U.S. is in the process of facilitating a US$14.5-billion aid package to Israel on top of the US$3.8 billion in aid it already receives annually under a 10-year agreement signed with president Barack Obama during his final year in power.

Is Hamas Like ISIS?

The Israeli government, since October 7, has been referring to “Hamas/ISIS,” equating two Islamist militant organizations.

Kearns said she largely rejects that comparison, referring to ISIS by its Arabic name, Daesh.

“The only similarity between the two is how grotesque they are willing to act, that they are embracing fully the title of ‘terrorist’ and are proud to do so, but Hamas is a political Islamist, territorial-focused organization,” she said.

“Daesh was an apocalyptic global Takfiri Salafi jihadist organization. They are different. I understand why Israel wants to put the two of them together, but we have to be cautious when we do so, because it doesn’t actually help in the long-term.”

Kearns added that she regrets how Israel referred to its attack on Gaza as a “war,” rather than a “counter-terrorism operation.” She insisted, despite the immense toll Israel has inflicted upon the entire civilian population of Gaza, that “they are not at war with the people of Gaza.”

However, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who used to lead Israel’s Labour Party, has suggested otherwise.

“It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said at an October 13 press conference. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”

Kearns said that, regardless, Israel should be conducting its war in a “more patient and calm manner” that avoids attacks on civilian infrastructure.

A Plea For Humanity

In the panel’s final remarks, Okail said the lessons of the Syrian Civil War and Israel’s previous attacks on Gaza demonstrate the necessity of a political, rather than purely military, solution to discord in the Middle East, noting how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still firmly in power 12 years after efforts to topple him began.

By refusing to find a political solution, she said, global powers ensure that death and destruction will continue.

“These are not numbers; these are people that are dying, but the cruel part about it is that they’re not just dying. They don’t know if they’re going to live the next day,” Okail said.

“We talk about people being killed. No, people are not being killed. There are people who are killing and we can stop it,” added Okail. “Just stop the killing.”

Jeremy Appel is an independent Edmonton-based journalist and the author of Kenneyism: Jason Kenney’s Pursuit of Power.

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