Speaking at an event sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel in May, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper described Canada’s support for Israel as “unshakable.” Earlier in the day Harper had told the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee (CJPAC) that anti-Israeli sentiment was “really just a thinly disguised veil for good old fashioned anti-Semitism.” In a statement issued less than a week later marking the same anniversary the PMO noted that, “We count ourselves among Israel’s staunchest friends.”
These pronouncements represent an accurate appraisal of the Tory government’s stance since its election in early 2006. With Canada’s recent decision to boycott, along with Israel, the planning for the Durban 2 anti-racism conference Canada has become Israel’s strongest supporter. Even the United Sates does not have the loyalty from Canada that Israel does.
This new policy represents a significant departure from Canada’s historic Middle East policy of following a middle path. In the wake of the Suez crisis Lester Pearson, then Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs won a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a ceasefire and organizing the first United Nations peacekeeping mission. Since then Canadian peacekeepers have served in the Sinai, Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Only two month’s after the election of Harper in January 2006 shifting policy winds made themselves apparent. In March 2006, Canada was the first state, other than Israel, to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won the election to the Palestinian legislature. That summer the Canadian government refused to sign a resolution that expressed sympathy for the Lebanese civilians caught up in the Israeli invasion of that country. Harper described the resolution as “a case of political correctness gone mad.”
Not surprisingly, this seismic shift in Canadian policy has become evident during the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza. On January 23, 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted on a statement that expressed concern about Gaza’s civilians as a result of “the series of incessant and repeated Israeli military attacks and incursions.” Alone on the 47 member Council, Canada voted against the resolution.
On February 4 the Honourable Lawrence Canon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Honourable Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation issued a statement that blamed Gazans, and their democratically elected government for the invasion: “Hamas precipitated the recent crisis by its rocket attacks on Israel.”
The day before the frightening practical implications of this unconditional support for Israel were made shockingly clear. Eva Bartlett, a Canadian citizen currently in Gaza reported to the mission in Tel Aviv that she was “being shot at by Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border fence.”
Her blogpost of the incident continues, “Jordie Elms, the Canadian attaché in the Tel Aviv office, informed us that “Israel has declared the 1 km area along the border to be a ‘closed military zone’” and added that humanitarian and aid workers need to “know the risk of being in a closed area”. Meaning, apparently, that it is OK with Jordie that Israeli soldiers were firing on unarmed civilians.”
Shocked by this statement I contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Middle East spokesperson Rodney Moore asked that I put my questions into writing. On February 9 I did so asking for comment on “Canada’s position on the IDF declared ‘no-go’ zone extending 1 kilometre into Gaza” and “allegations made by a Canadian international observer, Eva Bartlett” about contacting the mission while under IDF fire.
Four days later Moore responded with a three-part, diplomatically worded non-answer:
Canada welcomed the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. What is needed now is a permanent, sustainable and durable ceasefire, as called for in United Nations Security Council 1860, so that Israel and the Palestinian Authority can return to the peace process.
The security situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is very poor and unpredictable due to inter-factional violence and ongoing military operations.
In its travel advisory to Canadians, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises Canadians against all travel to the region surrounding the Gaza Strip due to the risk of rocket and mortar launches, gunfire and of ongoing military activity.
His response is remarkable for reasons other than its absolute irrelevance to the questions that were submitted. It twice states that risks to civilians and foreign nationals are a result of Palestinian actions―“inter-factional violence” and “rocket and mortar launches”–as well as “military operations” and “military actions.” In the specific circumstances of the Bartlett incident this is categorically untrue.
It also highlights the emasculation of DFAIT. Under Harper’s autocratic style, Ministries and their spokespersons have been reduced to parroting the party line as it is delivered from the PMO and issuing meaningless, generic statements to the media. In this case the message is that staunch support” of Israel extends to blaming Hamas and Israel equally for the recent fury in Gaza even to the extent that the safety and security of Canadian citizens be damned and disregarded.