11/15/2012 05:08 EST | Updated 01/15/2013 05:12 EST

Canada-Israel Defence Pact Put To The Test By Escalating Violence

OTTAWA - The rain of rockets, and talk of an Israeli military incursion into Gaza, presents the Harper government with the first significant test of its newly negotiated defence partnership with Israel.

But Defence Minister Peter MacKay cautioned Thursday that Canada wants to see cooler heads prevail in the escalating conflict.

Over the last two years, officials in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government have been given private assurances that Ottawa was behind them. MacKay went so far as to say in 2011 that "a threat to Israel is a threat to Canada."

The two countries have signed a memorandum of understanding covering defence and industrial initiatives, as well as information-sharing.

The agreement is non-binding, unlike the NATO charter which requires member states to come to each other's defence. Netanyahu has long said Israel will manage its own defence, and MacKay played down the potential impact of the agreement in the current crisis.

"We're very far away from any such decision-making," he said in an interview, prior to the start of the Halifax International Security Summit.

"What we want to continue to do is appeal for calm, appeal for diplomacy, discussions."

MacKay described the bilateral defence relationship as strong and came down firmly on the side of Israel, noting the country "feels surrounded" and the rocket fire killed three people in the community of Kiryat Malachi, south of Tel Aviv. Another 52 have been injured in the bombardment.

At least 15 Palestinians have been killed and another 60 wounded in retaliatory strikes. Israel claims seven of the dead were "known to have been involved in terrorist terrorist or hostile military activity."

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke by telephone Thursday with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman.

Baird affirmed Israel's right to defend itself from a "terrorist act," spokesman Rick Roth said in an email.

"The minister was saddened to hear that more than one million Israelis have been forced into shelters today. Baird concluded by telling Minister Lieberman that Israel is in our thoughts and prayers."

Baird's office declined to say whether he urged Israel to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.

"I think that everyone recognizes that the loss of any innocent life is extremely unfortunate in these situations. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely and will make appropriate representations when needed," said Roth.

The Israeli embassy in Ottawa, in talking points issued Thursday, said its forces were targeting Hamas "and other terrorist organizations and goes to great lengths" to minimize harm to civilians.

"Israel regrets any injury to civilians and places responsibility squarely on Hamas, which uses the residents of Gaza as human shields," it said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair urged both sides to "exercise restraint and respect international humanitarian law obligations to protect civilians at all times. Escalation would be dangerous and detrimental to prospects for long-term peace and stability in the region."

MacKay said the potential spillover of violence, or even the threat of it, has set the world on edge.

"The volatility affects everyone," he said. "The ripple effects can have grave consequences and we have to continue to appeal for calm."

Israeli politicians and officials who had been slated to attend the Halifax security forum, including former foreign minister and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, have pulled out because the escalating violence at home.

MacKay said it's unfortunate because the conference has in the past allowed some leaders, such as Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the opportunity to explore common ground with Palestinians "away from the pressure-cooker" of the Middle East and away from the public spotlight.

He wondered how much of the instability was being generated by the fact Israel is embroiled in an election campaign.

"The fact that Israel is in an election while these attacks are occurring — it could be attributed to a sense of vulnerability," he said.

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