Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Ottawa softens Hamas stand

[March 7, 2006]

Despite previous hard line, MacKay says aid to Palestinian Authority won’t stop

JEFF SALLOT

From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Canada will continue to provide some aid to the Palestinian Authority on the basis of third-party assurances from Russia that the money will not be diverted for military purposes or to finance terrorism by Hamas.

The announcement yesterday by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay was a softening of the new government’s previous position. Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened last month to cut off aid after Hamas, considered by Ottawa to be a terrorist organization, won a majority in the Palestinian parliamentary election in January.

But Mr. MacKay said "some Canadian aid will continue" to the Palestinian Authority after he received an encouraging report from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who said that Hamas will allow foreign aid programs to be audited.

Mr. MacKay did not specify how much aid would continue. Canada has a $25-million annual long-term commitment to projects in the West Bank and Gaza. The previous Liberal government planned substantial increases.

The Hamas issue has been one of the first major foreign-policy challenges for Mr. Harper’s government.

Mr. Harper said last month future aid to any new Palestinian government would be measured against that government’s commitment to non-violence, recognition of the Israeli state and acceptance of previous Palestinian obligations and agreements. Hamas has not changed its positions on any of these issues.

The same hard line was taken initially by major donors in Europe, but the European Union came forward with millions in short-term assistance late last month when the Palestinian Authority was on the verge of financial collapse.

In opposition, the Tories complained that the Liberals were slow to condemn Hamas as a terrorist group. Canadian Arab and Muslim groups thought Conservative foreign policy tilted toward Israel.

"International monitoring can ensure that the money is going to the Palestinian people, that it is reaching its destination, that it will not be subverted or perverted," Mr. MacKay said at a joint news conference with Mr. Lavrov. Neither minister elaborated on how the audits or monitoring would be conducted.

But Canada will not go as far as Russia and will not have direct political contact with Hamas, Mr. MacKay said.

Hamas is on a government blacklist of terrorist organizations. Canadians can be prosecuted for aiding and abetting Hamas. Canada’s official dealings with the Palestinian Authority have been through the office of president Mahmoud Abbas, whose own political organization, Fatah, lost control of the legislative branch in the January election.

Mr. Lavrov, who arrived in Ottawa straight from talks with Hamas officials in Moscow, said he had received a pledge that foreign aid money would not be diverted for "military or other related purposes."

Moreover, Hamas agreed to an "international monitoring mechanism" to make sure aid money goes only to humanitarian work, Mr. Lavrov said.

The Russian minister also said Hamas has left the door open to a possible resumption of peace negotiations with Israel on the basis of a U.S.-backed plan known as the "road map."

Mr. Lavrov offered condolences for Canada’s military casualties last week in Afghanistan, a country that Moscow’s troops had to abandon after a failed occupation that lasted a decade and cost the lives of many Soviet soldiers. Asked whether he had any advice for Canada about Afghanistan, Mr. Lavrov said emphatically, "No."

Mr. Lavrov said it would be a mistake if foreign powers tried ever again tried to use Afghanistan "to play games" with each other, a clear reference to the Cold War conflict in that country between Washington and Moscow.

Instead, Canada and other countries should work together to help Afghans to unite their own country, Mr. Lavrov said.

Last week, Canada’s top military commander, General Rick Hillier, told The Globe and Mail that Canada and its NATO allies have to be prepared for a military commitment in Afghanistan of at least 10 years. Mr. MacKay said yesterday said it’s an "open question."

Canada has about 2,200 soldiers in the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan, scheduled to serve there for nine months. Whether there will be a fresh rotation in the fall or whether another NATO country will replace Canada is not yet clear.

Mr. MacKay said, however, that Canadian commanders "have indicated clearly this is going to be a longer-term commitment than was perhaps originally intended as far as troop deployment."

The government will rely heavily on the advice of Gen. Hillier and other commanders, he added.

Mr. MacKay, Mr. Harper and other ministers have said they do not want Ottawa’s support for the troops to be questioned in any way.

"We have to exhibit in a very clear way that we are committed to this mission, that we intend to finish what we started . . . and to work with our allies there," Mr. MacKay said. Canada is the first stop for Mr. Lavrov on a tour of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, and analysts expect him to spend part of his time trying to quell concerns about Russia’s first year as G8 chair.

Russia isn’t yet a full-fledged member of the group, and its behaviour in the first months of its chairmanship — cutting off natural gas to Ukraine and breaking ranks with other countries by holding talks with Hamas — has led some Western politicians to question whether Russia belongs among the world’s leading countries.

Besides making preparations for the G8 summit in June, the Russian Foreign Minister is also expected to try to facilitate business deals. OAO Gazprom is in the final stages of negotiating a major agreement with Petro-Canada to build a liquefied natural gas plant on the Baltic Sea, and energy deals of that size are rarely concluded in Russia without government involvement.

With a report from Graeme Smith in Moscow