Lebanon PM chastises Ottawa on conflict

Lebanon's prime minister criticizes Canada's response to the Mideast conflict, as Canadian opposition MPs touring the region suggest Ottawa should rethink the way it deals with Hezbollah.

Lebanon's prime minister criticized Canada's response to the conflict in the Middle East on Monday, as Canadian opposition MPs touring the region suggested Ottawa should rethink the way it deals with the militant group Hezbollah.

Liberal MP Boris Wrzesnewskyj, New Democrat MP Peggy Nash and Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani are on a fact-finding mission to southern Lebanon as Israeli troops continue to withdraw from the region following 34 days of conflict.

The area was heavily bombed during Israel's air assault, which was sparked by a cross-border raid by Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants on July 12.Most attacks byIsrael and Hezbollah ended with aUN-brokered ceasefire on Aug. 14.

On Monday, the MPs met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper's initial assertion that Israel's actions during the conflict were justified and a "measured" response.

"I disagree, because the whole world, even those who are … supporting Israel … they said this is a disproportionate action," said Siniora. "So this is not a measured response at all."

Wrzesnewskyj, who represents a Toronto riding,said the visit has shown him how integrated Hezbollah is into Lebanese society. In the interest of peace, he said Canada should reconsider how it deals with groups on its list of banned organizations, which includes Hezbollah.

In a phone interview with CBC News on Sunday night, Wrzesnewskyj stressed that he considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but saidhe isconcerned thatOttawa's list of terror groups doesn't differentiate between the militant and political wings of the party.

"Hezbollah has a political wing, they have members of parliament, two [cabinet] ministers," said Wrzesnewskyj.

"You want to encourage the politicians of this military organization, you want to encourage the political wing, so that the centre of gravity shifts to them."

Wrzesnewskyj compared the situation in Lebanon to the decades of sectarian violence by the Irish Republican Army.

"If there wasn't a possibility for London to negotiate with Sinn Fein [the IRA's political party], we'd still have bombings in Northern Ireland," he said.

Canada's legislation should be amended to allow contact with the political arms of banned organizations, he said.

Banning Hezbollah 'not helpful,' Nash says

Wrzesnewskyj's comments were echoed by Nash, who is also from Toronto. She said many Lebanese regard Hezbollah as resistance fighters.

"It's just not helpful to label them a terrorist organization," said Nash.

"If the political parties can figure out a way to work with Hezbollah and try to get along internally, then we should perhaps take a cue from that."

On Monday, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day was critical of their comments, and said the government had no plans to change its position.

"I can't think of a suggestion that would be more harmful to a possible peace and to the hopes of peace than to encourage Hezbollah," said Day.

Mourani, of the Bloc Québécois, wouldn't say whether she favours taking Hezbollah off the list or not.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro withdrew from the fact-finding mission at the last minute, citing security concerns.

The tour was arranged by the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, which criticized Harper for failing to demand an immediate ceasefire to end the conflict.

The council's executive director, Mazen Chouaib, said the trip was intended to give the MPs another view on what happened in Lebanon.

"Our politicians are getting the talking points from the Israel lobby," he said.

Illegal to work with Hezbollah

In 2002, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government placed Hezbollah on its list of banned terrorist entities following weeks of intense lobbying by the Canadian Alliance party and Jewish groups. The ban included Hezbollah's military and social wings.

Under that designation, it is illegal for people in Canada to work with or donate money to Hezbollah. Canadian authorities can seize any assets linked to the organization.

Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham was foreign affairs minister when Hezbollah was added to the Canadian list. He initially argued that Hezbollah's social arm was a legitimate charity and functioned independently of the military wing.

Graham later reversed his position, citing media reports that quoted Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah urging Palestinians to expand suicide bombings worldwide.

Hezbollah protested Ottawa's move, claiming it was the victim of a propaganda campaign. A subsequent investigation by CBC-TV couldn't confirm Nasrallah made the remarks.

With files from the Canadian Press