Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Sunday that he would make an official visit to Israel in January.
Harper, a staunch supporter of Israel, made the announcement at a JNF-KKL fundraising event in Toronto held in his honor Sunday evening, where it was also revealed that a bird sanctuary in the Hula Valley would be named after the prime minister.
“I am honored by this particular gift…I value it [because] it is where it is. It is in that homeland of the Jewish people and that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness — the State of Israel,” Harper said in his opening remarks.
“These are dark days,” the prime minister went on, explaining that Ottawa and Jerusalem share common values but also common threats.
“In the world of diplomacy, we know how easy it is to drift away from Israel. We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and the thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East.”
“Israel will always have Canada as a friend in the world,” Harper vowed, before performing with his band at the event as his show of appreciation.
“This official trip is an important indicator of the dynamic relationship that exists between two great countries, which has grown and strengthened under the prime minister’s leadership. This visit will provide Israelis with an opportunity to thank the prime minister for his steadfast friendship and support over many years, ” said David Koschitzky, the chairman of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), following the speech.
The CEO of the JNF-KKL’s Canada branch, Josh Cooper, said Sunday that Harper had “raised the bar of what is considered to be a true friend of Israel.”
Meanwhile, a protest outside the Toronto event against Israel’s controversial Bedouin resettlement plan in the Negev attracted hundreds of people, including persons from the local Jewish community, according to reports.
The protest came a day after demonstrations marking the International Day of Rage against the Prawer Plan held in cities across Israel, the West Bank and Europe Saturday turned violent.
At least 40 people were arrested and 15 police officers were injured Saturday during clashes that broke out at a demonstration at Hura junction in the Negev against the plan.
Demonstrators threw stones at the security forces deployed to the organized protest, which attracted over 1,500 people Saturday. Police responded with stun grenades and water cannon to disperse the demonstration.
Israeli officials and opponents of the plan each indicated that they would not be backing down from their stances Sunday.
Bedouin leaders promised that the violence was just the start of their campaign against the plan.
The Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, calls for Israel to officially recognize and register the vast majority of Bedouin settlements throughout the south, and compensate the residents of 35 unrecognized villages — some 30,000 to 40,000 people — who are to be moved off state-owned land into towns built for them.
The government says the plan will give the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities they currently lack. But where the government sees investment, Bedouin and human rights activists see a land grab tinged with anti-Arab racism.
The plan was drawn up by former Likud minister and Knesset member Benny Begin and approved by the cabinet in January.
Critics have called the plan a forced population transfer, with some even referring to it as an “ethnic cleansing” scheme.
Around 200,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, most concentrated in an area around the city of Beersheba.
They lived under military rule until the 1960s, and have since resisted government efforts to move them into seven larger, recognized communities. Bedouin say those towns are rife with crime, poverty and the same lack of basic services they currently face.
The urban setting also makes their traditional occupation, raising livestock, much more difficult.
AP contributed to this report.