A handful of Canadian Armed Forces members and RCMP officers have had front row seats over the past two weeks as protests and violence have rocked parts of Israel and the Gaza Strip, leaving scores of people dead.
The 23 Canadian troops and three Mounties are part of a U.S.-led mission, first launched in 2005 and based in East Jerusalem, whose aim is to train Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.
Brig.-Gen. Jeannot Boucher, the commander of Task Force Jerusalem, says the Canadians represent the largest contingent in the mission, which includes about 20 Americans and smaller numbers of British, Dutch and Turkish trainers.
“We work primarily with the Palestinian Authority security forces in trying to build capability,” Boucher said in a recent interview. “We spend most of the time trying to facilitate co-ordination between the Palestinian Authority security forces and the Israeli Defence Force.”
Yet the Canadians have been largely confined to their compound and forced to work remotely since clashes between protesters and Israeli police broke out in East Jerusalem a few weeks ago over the threatened eviction of Palestinian families.
The focal point of the protests has been Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood located only about 200 metres from where the Canadians are based. Hundreds of people gathered there most recently on Saturday to protest the planned evictions.
“There’s been protests that the Israeli security forces have countered with a mix of stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas,” said Boucher. “So obviously, we’re able to see that play on a nightly basis.”
Clashes over Sheikh Jarrah this month precipitated fresh fighting between Israeli forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza and is a listed terror group in Canada, with the two sides launching airstrikes and rocket attacks against each other.
A ceasefire was declared on Friday after 11 days of fighting that killed more than 200 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 Israelis.
East Jerusalem, which is currently controlled by Israel but whose ownership is claimed by the Palestinians, was largely spared from attack. But Boucher said air-raid sirens did go off on one occasion, sending the Canadians and others scrambling for cover.
The training mission does not work in Gaza but rather in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority under Hamas rival Fatah. Despite being largely confined to their compound, Boucher added, the Canadians have continued to work remotely.
While Boucher described the tensions in the area as palpable, he suggested the relative calm in the West Bank is evidence the training mission is having an impact as security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority work with Israeli counterparts.
“If you look at Area A, which is the one controlled by the Palestinian Authority security forces, things have been relatively calm and under control,” he said.
“The relationship between Palestinian Authority security forces and the co-ordination with the Israeli Defense Force is happening on a 24/7 basis right now. And I would argue that’s probably the thing that is keeping violence from erupting in Area A in the West Bank.”