The Canadian doctor who spent 53 days in an Egyptian prison was recently detained again, this time at an immigration jail in Israel while he appealed the decision to deny his entry there.
In an interview with The Globe from Europe, Dr. Tarek Loubani said he flew to Tel Aviv on Aug. 6 with the intention of entering Gaza to help provide emergency medical assistance to those injured in the latest conflict.
A federal Foreign Affairs source who specializes in consular issues said Dr. Loubani was previously in direct contact with multiple senior consular officials, including the Ottawa-based case management officer who was the primary point of contact on his Egypt file.
The officials advised Dr. Loubani against travelling to Gaza, citing the government advisory urging Canadians to avoid all travel there. The case management officer also told Dr. Loubani in a July 14 e-mail that “neither we in Ottawa nor the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv can assist in facilitating the entry of Canadians into the Gaza Strip.”
Upon landing in Israel early Aug. 7, he was questioned by border officials, denied the opportunity to call his lawyer and told he was being expelled, Dr. Loubani said. His lawyer knew something was awry when he didn’t phone by 5:30 a.m. local time, as planned, so she initiated a legal challenge. Dr. Loubani was later taken to an immigration jail, where he said he was held for roughly 24 hours and questioned, including about his Egyptian detention and political views.
He said his lawyer was told he was denied entry for “activities against the Israeli army.” The court challenge was unsuccessful and Dr. Loubani, who didn’t seek consular assistance while in Tel Aviv, is now in Europe. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was awaiting the required documentation to make his third attempt at entering Israel since February.
Dr. Loubani said Ottawa’s refusal to assist his entry into Gaza for humanitarian purposes is proof the government is disingenuous in its stated desire to help ensure greater capacity at hospitals there.
Last week, the Ontario government said it supports a Toronto-based doctor’s vision of bringing injured children from Gaza to Canada for treatment, but a spokesman for federal Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said it’s important to avoid the medical risks associated with overseas transport. Adam Hodge said the government is “exploring options with international partners and stakeholders on how best to deploy Canadian medical expertise,” and a spokeswoman for International Development Minister Christian Paradis said Ottawa provides support to those in Gaza through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Just like it’s important to show Baird is being insincere, it’s important to show the Israelis are being insincere ... about the idea they’re going to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip,” said Dr. Loubani, an activist of Palestinian descent who worked in Gaza on several occasions. “Truly speaking, who actually thinks I’m a security threat?”
It’s difficult to know how many Canadian doctors are in Gaza, in part because Ottawa doesn’t require or track the employment information of its citizens registered abroad. But a spokesman for the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit of the Israeli Ministry of Defense that facilitates access into Gaza for international organizations and their staff, said two Canadian doctors had been approved in the last two weeks as members of non-governmental groups.
Dr. Loubani’s latest COGAT application was backed by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which is among the 68 non-governmental organizations registered with the Israeli government and eligible to enter Gaza. On its website, the organization says it believes “Israel’s prolonged occupation over Palestinian territory is the basis of human rights violations.” Dr. Loubani’s COGAT approval had yet to come through ahead of his Aug. 6 journey, but he had planned on waiting in Tel Aviv until he got the green light.
Dr. Loubani, an emergency room doctor at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, said other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., help their citizens with the COGAT application process. However, American and British government websites say officials can’t assist with entry into Gaza. And the COGAT spokesman said the unit co-ordinates with embassies only on government business, and works directly with non-governmental organizations on admission of foreign nationals into Gaza.
The federal Foreign Affairs source said Canada doesn’t have control over who is granted access to another country, adding, “we would tell Dr. Loubani the same information we would tell any Canadian, to avoid all travel to Gaza.”
Dr. Loubani had previously tried to enter Gaza in February but said he was held at the airport, questioned and strip-searched before being deported from Israel. He was told there was an error with the entry date on his COGAT application, which he said had previously been approved.
After that attempt, Dr. Loubani said his lawyer confirmed with Israeli officials that he wasn’t barred from entry based on his 2013 detention in Egypt, where he had travelled with the intention of entering Gaza through the Egyptian crossing. With the border closed because of weeks of unrest, he and filmmaker John Greyson decided to “check out” a protest in a downtown Cairo square and were later arrested but never charged.
Dr. Loubani said “disaster has been heaped upon the [Palestinians]” and that he feels an obligation to offer medical assistance in Gaza. He said he was the first of a team of at least 10 Canadian doctors gearing up to offer assistance at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, but that the physicians have put their travel plans on hold in light of his experience.