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Been There And Done What? Canada's Role In The Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Bahija Réghaï

27 July, 2008

During his state visit to Canada , Israeli President Chaim Herzog was invited to address the Canadian parliament on June 27, 1989. He was introduced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney with these words:

“Canada played a part in that process by participating in the United Nations Commission that proposed the partition of Palestine, by voting for Israel's membership in the UN and by contributing to the Middle East peace-keeping forces in the hope of stabilizing the region and of bringing peace to your country. Most of all, in the daring and difficult period of Israel's infancy, when your nation needed friends - true friends – Canada was there. Canada was there over 40 years ago and our friendship and support remain with you today.”

The Prime Minister was right. Canada was there with Canadian Justice Ivan Rand who wrote the partition resolution. Canada was at the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question created to examine the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposals.

Arabs felt, as Sami Hadawi wrote in Bitter Harvest, that “[B]y denying the Palestine Arabs, who formed the two-thirds majority of the country, the right to decide for themselves, the United Nations had violated its own charter." Syria proposed a draft resolution (A/C.1/405) requesting that the International Court of Justice give its legal opinion on the powers of the General Assembly on this question, and the international status of Palestine upon the termination of the mandate. The Arab draft resolution was rejected by 20 votes to 20, with 8 abstentions. Walid Khalidi writes that the draft counter resolution stating that the UN did have the authority to determine partition was carried by only 21 votes to 20 in the Ad Hoc Committee.

So, in spite of its reputation for fairness and respect for human rights, Canada was responsive to the concerns and interests of Zionists rather than those of Arabs, the majority and long-standing population in mandatory Palestine. Lester Pearson, Canada’s lead representative at UNSCOP who later wrote that he had learned in Sunday School that “the Jews belonged in Palestine,” used his immense diplomatic skills to navigate the resolution through in spite of strong objections from member states, advice from Middle East expert in Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth P. MacCallum, and the concern expressed by then Canadian Justice Minister James Ilsley. MacCallum predicted that the partition of Palestine would create chaos for 40 years. That was a conservative estimate.

UN Resolution 181 was never really fully respected or implemented. There was forced transfer of the Palestinian indigenous population and those Palestinians who were displaced, both inside Israel and outside, have not been allowed to return to this day. Private Palestinian land and property were expropriated as the borders of the self-declared state of Israel were forcibly expanded.

Israel declared itself a state on May 14, 1948, several hours before the British Mandate for Palestine came to an end, thus imposing by force “a settlement” that was not in accord with the following paragraph of the resolution:

“The Security Council determines as a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, in accordance with Article 39 of the Charter, any attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged by this resolution” (UNGA 181 November 29, 1947).

In fact, even before the British withdrew on May 15, 1948, before any possible intervention by Arab states, Zionists had occupied most of the Arab cities in Palestine. No city or area allocated to the Jewish state under the Partition resolution was taken by Palestinians.

Canada was on the UN Security Council as a non-member during 1948 and 1949. The opportunity to rectify the injustice done to Palestinians was present, but nothing was done. For Canada, it seems that the issue was one of refugees only. It was only in 1973 that Canada stopped opposing the principle of Palestinian representation, with the implication that the Palestinian issue was political and that there was indeed a Palestinian people. In 1988, the European Community endorsed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, followed by la Francophonie. However, while all 41 other Francophonie states endorsed this Palestinian right, Canada did not.

UN Security Council Resolution 242, which Canada helped draft as a member of the Security Council in 1967, requires that Israel withdraw from the territories it seized in the Six Day War of 1967, including East Jerusalem. This is our official policy. However, Canada has consistently resisted any attempt at addressing this or any other Israeli violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. This protection of Israel by Canada, and by the US veto, has undermined the institutions of the United Nations, made a mockery of the will of the international community, and contravenes the rule of law.

After Oslo was signed, only Israel was rewarded with a free trade agreement with Canada - a flawed agreement under which products from Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are admitted into Canada, something the European Union doesn't do. Canada’s government thus violates its own policy.

Canada’s votes at the UN still deny Palestinians the unequivocal right to constitute their own independent state, insisting that this must be negotiated with Israel. In November 2007, Canada abstained from endorsing the “resolution on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination (document A/C.3/62/L.63)” which was approved with 172 in favour, 5 against (Israel, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, United States) and 5 abstentions (Australia, Cameroon, Canada, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji).

The “tilt” (as Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson called it) in foreign policy that became apparent under Prime Minister Paul Martin, was fully exposed under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The “war on terror” allowed the Harper government to give its imprimatur to the violations committed by Israel against the Lebanese people during the summer of 2006 and against the Palestinian population on an ongoing basis. Ibbitson explained that according to Harper’s Conservatives, Canadian foreign policy must be guided by an overriding commitment to "strong solidarity with our traditional allies - not just the United States, but Britain and Australia, NATO and Israel."

How did we come to accept such a flagrant disregard for the violation of human rights and the rule of law? Beyond the “Sunday School message that the Jews belonged in Palestine”, one has to look at both Zionist advocacy and the absence of a strong voice for the Palestinians. The media were able to expose Israeli violence during the first Intifada because they were able to circulate freely. However, they are almost absent from the closed off Palestinian territories today. When Israelis are targeted, TV reporters are on the scene immediately – not so for Palestinians. Editorial rooms of the main print media do not seem to reflect the diversity of the Canadian population, including the Arab segment of Canadian society.

Add to this the Hasbara (Public Relations in Hebrew) campaign that Israel and its supporters have been running which includes paid trips to Israel for key elements of Canadian society (chiefs of police, MPs, provincial leaders and legislators, and their staff, heads of universities and departments, students), as well as the presence of Israeli representatives on campuses, use of intimidation tactics, and so on.

The asymmetry in messaging and advocacy capacity contributes not to peaceful co-existence or to robust debates as required in strong democracies, but rather to asymmetry in public policy and comprehension of the conflict.

So what do we do about this state of affairs? Official Canadian policy on the conflict calls for its resolution according to international legal standards, including UNSC 242. It rejects Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. It rejects Israel’s construction of the wall and Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Canada supports the “Palestinian right to self-determination and supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state, as part of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace settlement”, as well as a solution to the refugees’ plight that “respects” their rights “in accordance with international law”.

However, Canada has still to live up to, implement and - as a responsible member of the international community and High Contracting Party to the Geneva Conventions - enforce its own policy. At the moment, Canada ’s policy pronouncements and diplomatic activity are selective and indeed violate its own stated standards.

In calling on Canada to uphold international law and encourage others to do the same, we may face some difficult choices and challenges. One is the question of boycotting Israeli products, as well as cultural and academic exchanges. CUPE Ontario and CUPW have taken brave stands in support of the boycott. But in doing so, they have faced severe criticism from those who choose to show friendship with Israel by overlooking its human rights abuses. Interestingly, progressive, human rights advocates among Israelis and Jews inside and outside of Israel have also taken a stance in support of the boycotts.

More difficult still is the question of Canadian aid to the Palestinian Authority. Before Oslo, Israel was solely and rightly responsible for the welfare of Palestinians living under its military occupation. The 1990s peace process changed this, as donors began supporting what they thought was a state-building exercise. However, Oslo was never intended to produce a Palestinian state, but instead sub-contracted management of the occupation to the Palestinian Authority—and by extension, to the international community who began financing it.

Yet, Israel has never had any respect for international efforts aimed at alleviating it of its responsibility under international law, but has deliberately destroyed valuable Palestinian infrastructure underwritten by foreign aid money. More disturbingly, the international community—including our Canadian government—has not called the Israeli government to account for this destruction.

The man-made crisis in Gaza and to a lesser extent in the West Bank has turned the self-sufficient population that needed no international aid during the first Intifada, into a population that is caged in by Israel and that relies extensively on an ever-dwindling humanitarian aid. Last year, Canada pledged $300M over 5 years, but there is a lack of transparency in how these funds have been or are being used. Much of international and Canadian aid monies to the Palestinian Authority are going to finance the PA’s security infrastructure instead of addressing the real needs of Palestinians. In this era of governmental accountability where aid investments are scrutinized ever more closely, we need to call our government to account for its expenditures in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Fourth Geneva Conventions were inspired by the atrocities visited on Europeans, Jews, Roma and other civilians under Nazi rule and military occupation. They were intended to hold to account military occupiers of territories not their own. The “never again” has to include protection of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Our Canadian government must live up to its responsibilities as a High Contracting Party to the Fourth Geneva Convention now.

Words are powerful tools. As promoters of human rights we have to continue challenging the conventional terminology that fudges or hides the reality. No, it is not a ‘complex problem’ requiring ‘painful compromises on both sides.’ No, criticism of Israeli policies is not anti-Semitism. The term “Israel Lobby” has made fellow Canadians aware of the pro-Zionist agenda and its effects, and more Canadians now disagree with the Harper government’s uncritical support of Israel’s every action and omission. This is an important foundation on which to build.

Israel demands to be treated as an equal in the community of nations, and this requires being answerable to international norms and human rights standards. As Canadian citizens, we must hold our own government accountable for upholding and promoting these norms, including insisting that Israel’s government does the same.

Bahija Réghaï is a Canadian Human Rights activist based in Ottawa.


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