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Expanding Free Trade With Israel: A Step in the Wrong Direction for Canada

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On July 21, the Conservative government announced an "expansion" and "modernization" of Canada's free-trade agreement with Israel. This development didn't make it into any headlines in Canadian media, and it eluded the attention of the official opposition. But if we, as Canadians, wish to play a positive role in the international community, this development cannot be overlooked.

It has become common knowledge that since 1967, Israel has maintained a military occupation over lands it captured in a war with its Arab neighbours. We are all familiar, too, with the fact that Israel has been establishing Jewish-only settlements on prime real estate within these occupied territories, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. For nearly 50 years Israel has openly flouted international law as it continues to build new settlements and expand its existing ones, displacing more Palestinians and appropriating more lands and resources in the process.

Canada's official policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recognizes the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the lands Israel has occupied since 1967, and states, "The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace." So these settlements, according to Canada, are not only war crimes, but are a "serious obstacle" to ending one of the longest-running conflicts in the world.

In close to 50 years of this illegal behaviour--and in violation of our official policy--Canada has never leveled sanctions against Israel. In fact, as Israel has continued to gobble up Palestinians' lands and resources, we've been rewarding Israel, rather than reprimanding her. In 1997, while Israel was violating its obligations under the Oslo Accords by exponentially expanding its illegal settlement enterprise, Canada established its first-ever bilateral trade agreement--the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA).

Under CIFTA, Canada has been importing goods produced and manufactured in Israel's illegal settlements, free of tariffs. Nearly 20 years after CIFTA's signing, you would think that this practice would be reversed, if anything, since Israel's current Prime Minister has made it clear that he refuses to establish a Palestinian state, and will never relinquish land Israel has settled illegally within occupied Palestinian territory.

Not only has this practise continued without hindrance, it has not even been discussed in the political arena. The European Union, meanwhile, has had measures in place for well over a decade to ensure that illegal settlement products do not enjoy tariff-free status under its free trade agreement with Israel. It's no surprise, really, since the EU recognizes the settlements as being illegal under international law.

It gets worse. Canadian consumers are not given the real freedom of choosing to avoid products from Israel's illegal settlements, since they are mislabelled as being "Made in Israel." This violates the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, which in Section 7 (c) prohibits false and misleading representations on prepackaged products, which includes the product's origin.

The UK, Belgium and Denmark each have national guidelines on labeling goods from Israel's illegal settlements, and the EU committed to establishing these guidelines years ago. After being pressured by John Kerry to delay implementing these proposed guidelines until after the most recent "peace talks," which of course failed in the face of Israel's refusal to freeze expansion of its illegal settlements during the duration of the talks, the EU is about to begin labeling illegal settlement products.

The complete lack of discussion on this issue in the Canadian political arena is not because those segments of Canadian civil society that support Palestinian human rights have not tried to initiate dialogue. The United Church of Canada sent a letter to John Baird on February 28, 2013, urging the Canadian government to, at the very least, "introduce guidelines for retailers that would encourage them to label goods from the settlements differently from products made in Israel." A page encouraging Canadians to take action is set up on the Church's website, directed to Minister of Trade Ed Fast and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rob Nicholson.

While many supporters of Palestinian human rights acknowledge that labeling goods from these illegal settlements is not nearly enough, as the United Church indicates, it is the very least we would expect Canada to do. Of course, Israel is to blame for its illegal settlements, and cannot be disconnected from them, since successive Israeli governments are fully responsible for establishing them and creating the conditions for them to expand and multiply. Logically, sanctioning Israel would be the appropriate measure to take.

But in a Canada in which our current government has expressed undying loyalty to Netanyahu's regime, and where the opposition parties appear unwilling to publicly shame the government for its appalling disregard for the human rights of Palestinians, we cannot realistically expect the enactment of state sanctions against Israel any time soon.

If the NDP wants to prove to Canadians that it is indeed the government in waiting, and that it's visibly different from the Conservatives, then we should all expect it to commit to taking action on this issue. Will the NDP, at the very least, commit to reforming CIFTA to exclude tariff-free imports of illegal Israeli settlement products? Will the NDP, at the very least, promise to label products originating from the illegal Israeli settlements so that Canadian consumers will no longer be deceived?

If the NDP cannot even make these bare-minimum commitments, which have already been embraced by most of our allies in the Western World, then we can expect that they will not differ from the Conservative government in their complicity with Israel's illegal behaviour. So far they have been silent on the expanded and modernized CIFTA. It remains to be seen whether this silence will continue until the upcoming federal election.

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