VANCOUVER-Confronted by his first international crisis as the newly-anointed leader of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff’s handling of Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza marked a continuation of the current Liberal-Conservative consensus on Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.
On December 27, 2008, without warning and at the height of the midday bustle in the overcrowded Gaza Strip, Israel unleashed the single most devastating aerial attack in its 41-year occupation of Gaza, killing 230 people and overwhelming hospitals with more than 750 wounded in a single day.
Many of those who died were killed in the first five minutes of the bombings, as Israel used a ‘shock and awe’-style massacre intended to, in the words of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, "totally change the rules of the game."
Three days after the attack was launched, Ignatieff broke his silence with a written statement. Despite a death toll that had risen to 350 Palestinians along with two Israelis after 72 hours, Ignatieff began his message by expressing concern for the victims "on all sides," before "unequivocally" condemning Hamas and "affirm[ing] Israel’s right to defend itself."
For their part, the Conservatives were pointedly silent on Israel’s assault as well; when they did speak, it was only to blame Hamas and its rocket fire from Gaza and back Israel’s bombardment. "Canada maintains that the rocket attacks are the cause of this crisis," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said.
The statements by both parties once again staked Canada’s position as unreserved support for Israel, well beyond norms in the diplomatic community, and out of all proportion to the scale of Israel’s long-running devastation of Gaza.
Since 2000, Palestinian rocket fire has killed 16 people in Israel, according to Israeli government numbers; during that same time, more than 4,400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza alone.
The Economist noted during the invasion that "Gazans have long felt they lived in an open prison; now they are trapped in a shooting gallery."
Following Israel’s shelling of a United Nations shelter on January 6, calls for a ceasefire grew louder. The head of the UN agency that oversees Gaza’s 1.1 million refugees, John Ging, appealed emphatically to the international community to intervene. "There’s nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized," Ging said.
When Ignatieff spoke publicly for the first time, on January 8 at a town hall in Halifax, he was unwilling to concede that the bombardment should end. He offered only that perhaps "we are approaching the time when a ceasefire will be appropriate," according to a transcript published in the Canadian Jewish News.
Indeed, Ignatieff went so far as to cast doubt on the gruesome images of civilian carnage coming from Gaza, particularly children, which had shocked the world. "We have to understand that many of the images we see out of Gaza are structured and created and organized by Hamas," the former human rights professor said when asked about Israel’s shelling of a United Nations elementary school-turned-shelter, which killed 42 people.
Ignatieff offered no evidence for his remarkable claim, which – though indistinguishable from Conservative Party official statements – was more than even Israel’s spokespersons were willing to assert in the hours and days before the army finally admitted to shelling the school. "What happened in the UN school was not a mistake," foreign minister Tzipi Livni told Der Spiegel, one week after the attack.
Ignatieff also used the crisis to reiterate his support for Israel’s punitive and devastating siege of Gaza which followed Hamas’ decisive election victory in the winter of 2006. "Canada can’t touch Hamas with a 10-foot pole," he said, casting Canada’s significant diplomatic support for the extraordinarily cruel blockade into a cheap sound bite.
None of this is new territory for Ignatieff. When Israel attacked Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Ignatieff, then a leadership contender, notoriously broke a three-week silence only to characterize Israel’s brutal massacre of 28 civilians in the village of Qana, most of whom were children, as "frankly, inevitable."
At the time of Ignatieff’s statements on Israel’s bombing of the civilian shelter, news reports indicated a toll of more than 50 dead. To that, Ignatieff observed: "This is the kind of dirty war you’re in when you have to do this and I’m not losing sleep about that."
Ignatieff’s message was clear: these terrible crimes are part and parcel of diplomatic support for Israel’s dirty wars. Indeed, the Liberal party made no effort to distance themselves from Ignatieff’s statements on Qana as "inevitable." The record clearly shows that Ignatieff – however vulgar his phrasing – had simply stated the effect of party policy.
In both invasions, Israel’s principle diplomatic concern was avoiding an immediate ceasefire; in both cases, the Liberals and the Conservatives actively pursued Israel’s objectives as the terrible civilian toll mounted – 1,200 dead in Lebanon and 1,400 in Gaza.
While the Liberal-Conservative consensus on foreign policy in the Middle East predates Ignatieff, the crises in Gaza and Lebanon show that the new Liberal leader intends to strengthen it.
Jon Elmer is an independent journalist and researcher who covers the Israel-Palestine conflict.