Ottawa blames Hamas for civilian deaths at school
Harper government’s staunch support for Israel stands in sharp contrast with international reaction to incident
OTTAWA — Canada’s Conservative government says Hamas is responsible for civilian deaths at a UN school where Israeli mortar fire killed at least 40 yesterday, arguing they have used civilians to shield fighters.
The Harper government says a ceasefire can work only if Hamas not only stops rocket attacks but permanently disarms, maintaining a staunchly pro-Israel position as many other Western nations pressed for an immediate ceasefire.
The Israeli military operation in Gaza has now killed more than 660, including an Israeli mortar blast yesterday at a United-Nations-operated school in Jabalya, northeast of Gaza City, where at least 40 were killed. Six Israeli soldiers and four civilians have been killed.
Canada’s junior foreign minister, Peter Kent, said that despite sketchy details on the school strike, it is clear that Hamas "bears the full responsibility for the deepening humanitarian tragedy.
"We really don’t have complete details yet, other than the fact that we know that Hamas has made a habit of using civilians and civilian infrastructure as shields for their terrorist activities, and that would seem to be the case again today," he said in an interview.
He added: "In many ways, Hamas behaves as if they are trying to have more of their people killed to make a terrible terrorist point."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the firing on the UN school "totally unacceptable," but the Israeli military said its shelling was a response to mortar fire from within the school.
Canada’s position now places it among Israel’s most staunch supporters in the world during the 11-day military offensive in Gaza.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for an immediate ceasefire, as has a European Union mission – calling on Israel to stop its offensive but also on Hamas to end rocket attacks into Israel.
Like the United States, Canada insists that any ceasefire must be durable, but as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday stressed the need to "urgently conclude a ceasefire," Mr. Kent seemed to attach greater conditions.
He said that Hamas must not only end its rocket attacks, but to "down arms and to cease and desist its terrorist activities," and agree not to rearm.
"Canada believes there should be an immediate ceasefire, but only if it’s a permanent ceasefire, if it’s a durable ceasefire, and if Hamas is prevented or is willing not to rearm and resume its terrorist rocketing at some point down the road," Mr. Kent said.
The comments from Mr. Kent, usually responsible for relations with the Americas, are the Conservative government’s most extensive since the Israeli military operation began; Prime Minister Stephen Harper has yet to speak of it, while Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has issued written statements.
Mr. Kent also said that Canadian officials were working with Israeli officials to help 39 Canadian citizens leave Gaza. They were stranded yesterday for a second straight day when Israeli officials said it was too risky to try to bus them across northern Gaza’s Erez Crossing into Israel, then on to Jordan.
One of the Canadians seeking to get out of Gaza, Marwan Diab, said in a telephone interview that Canadian embassy officials told him by phone that the Red Cross would try to get him out today with his wife and four children, ages 9, 7, 5 and 3.
"They are very terrified, and they are not really able to handle it," he said of his children.
Mr. Diab, 39, emigrated to Calgary in 1994 but said he has for several years spent part of each year in Gaza where he works for a mental-health organization.
"There is no safe place anywhere in Gaza," he said.