Former U.S. president Jimmy Cartersays the decision byCanada and other nations to withhold money from the Hamas-led Palestinian government is "a crime."

Israel and western donors such as Canadahave demanded Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept past peace agreements. Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction despite its stated offer of a long-term truce, rejects the conditions.

"It's a crime against the people of Palestine," Carter told CBC News in an exclusive interviewfrom New York.

"For Canada and others to punish the Palestinian people because they voted for their candidates of choice, I think is literally a crime."

The statesman and prolific author defended his harsh criticism of Israeli policy in his latest book, saying he hopes to erode the "impenetrable wall" that blocks the U.S. public from seeing the plight of Palestinians.

'Apartheid' questioned

Jewish groups have launched petitions criticizing Carter's use of the word "apartheid" — the system of legal racial separation once used in South Africa — to describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"There is in many ways a much more serious deprivation of human rights among the Palestinians because of this ill-advised policy than even there was in South Africa," he told CBC News.

"I deplore the Palestinian suicide bombings as much or more than anything than I do what Israel has done against the Palestinian people. It's horrible on both sides and should be eliminated. But you have to look at the facts."

Hesaid that by the time Hamas was elected in January, the Palestinian authority had already been brought to bankruptcy and couldn't pay police officers, firefighters and government employees.

Carteralsosaid the Israeli response to the capturing of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollahlast summer was "excessive beyond what was needed."

Carter, who has led efforts to monitor several elections in the Palestinian Authority since leaving office, said bringing peace to the Middle East is the most important commitment in his public life.

His top-selling book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has been criticized by pro-Israel groups and led to the resignation, announced this week, of Kenneth Stein, a Carter Center fellow and a longtime Carter adviser.

Carter's latest book has drawn stern rebukes from current Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean.

"With all due respect to former president Carter, he does not speak for the Democratic party on Israel," Pelosi said in a statement.

Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, said he intended the book to provoke debate on Israeli policy that has been stifled by the news media and others, who have been "almost unanimously silent," and lamented the lack of debate over Israeli policy in the U.S.

"It's almost a universal silence concerning anything that might be critical of current policies of the Israeli government," he said.

The book follows the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, starting with Carter's 1977-1980 presidency and the Camp David peace accord he negotiated between Israel and Egypt.

With files from the Associated Press