Palestinians are "taken aback" that Canada has fallen in step with the Bush administration and cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority following the election of Hamas, says prominent Palestinian human rights activist Hanan Ashrawi.
She is the former professor of English at Birzeit University (1973-'95) who became a leading Palestinian negotiator in the early 1990s and was named education minister in 1996 but quit two years later to protest Yasser Arafat's corruption and cronyism.
She is now an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
On a tour of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto this week, she was welcomed to the House of Commons Tuesday with a prolonged ovation.
In meetings with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, Opposition leader Bill Graham and the NDP's Jack Layton, she spoke of the financial and humanitarian crisis facing the Palestinians.
No friend of Hamas, she stressed the need to respect the democratic will of the Palestinians. She called on Canada to host an international conference to help revive the peace process.
I asked her how the Palestinians view the Harper government's decision to freeze funding.
"It was quite surprising, because Canada has not been seen as an adjunct to the U.S. policy.
"Canada has historically tried to maintain an independent policy and has been viewed in the region as a non-colonial power. It enjoyed some credibility. But now people are quite surprised and taken aback that Canada would fall in step with the American policy, particularly this (Bush) government's."
She urged Canada "not to contribute to the crisis but rather to deal with the Palestinians in a more even-handed way, to focus on the occupation itself because that's the cause of all the problems and not Palestinian responses to the occupation, and to accept the results of democracy ...
"These elections were free and fair, as far as the conditions allowed. But there's nothing free and fair under occupation, because an occupation itself taints the results. People are traumatized, they are pained, they are captive, there is no freedom of movement and there's a constant escalation of violence, and there is no hope.
"When you are in such a state, you're not going to choose people who are mild and moderate.
"But now that we have Hamas in power, you have to respect the results of the election. You cannot say, `I want elections only if you can guarantee an outcome that I'd like.' This is a recipe for disaster. It totally undermines democracy."
It also makes the Palestinians "feel that they are being punished for exercising their democratic right. They feel there is a double standard and hypocrisy on the issue of democracy."
Ashrawi also accused the United States and others of promoting an undemocratic "personalization of politics in Palestine," around President Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen.
"When Arafat was president, they boycotted him, ostracized him and made him irrelevant and tried to take away all his powers and give them to prime minister Abu Mazen. Now that Abu Mazen is president, everybody is trying to take back the powers from the prime minister and give them to the president."
Asked how the tug of war between Abbas and Hamas might unfold, Ashrawi said:
"It's really alarming. The conditions are degenerating rapidly. I hate to see us move toward civil war. There are sane voices trying to prevent this but very clearly there is a confrontation. A political confrontation is legitimate but a violent confrontation is not acceptable at all.
"But a more dangerous aspect is the unilateralism" of the Kadima-led Israeli government.
However, haven't the Israelis concluded that unilateralism is their way to peace?
"War may be unilateral but peace is never unilateral. You need a partner for peace ... By dictating to the weaker side and by creating facts on the ground, by annexing land, by aggravating those conditions that lead to violence and extremism, you are not going to get peace. You may be able to impose some quiet for a while by force of arms but you are putting in place all the ingredients of a longstanding and bloody conflict."
Palestinians themselves need "to put our own house in order. We need a national dialogue to agree to a program, which is not subject to either extremism or violence. We need a code of conduct of not resorting to violence in any way."
Is there a danger of violence?
"Of course. Palestinians are under siege. The economy has collapsed. Their livelihood is destroyed. There is no prospect of a peace process. There is no relief. People are in despair ...
"We need to provide a way out. That's why a part of the solution is to have a peace process that's working to give people hope.
"We need to have not just a humanitarian plan. We need to have real economic assistance and a developmental plan, because when people are hungry, they are going to lash out.
"It is a Palestinian issue, an Arab issue, a regional issue and an international issue."
Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursdays and Sundays.
© 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited