Certain minimal standards are expected of a national leader in what is known as the “civilized world.”

One of those standards would seem to be that, when massive numbers of defenceless civilians are being killed, a national leader should call for the killing to stop.

Questions about responsibility, blame, punishment, repercussions, etc., can always follow. But surely the first order of business — the one with moral urgency — is to halt the killing of innocent people.

So it’s quite extraordinary, as well as appalling, that our prime minister has steadfastly declined to join other world leaders in calling for a halt to Israel’s bombing of Gaza, which has killed more than 200 people and left more than 1,500 injured.

Instead, Stephen Harper asserted over the weekend that “Canada is unequivocally behind Israel” — a ringing endorsement uttered not long after Israeli bombs ripped through a house in Gaza, killing five children and 13 other members of an extended family, and also destroyed a centre for the disabled, killing two.

The message from Harper seemed to be: Let the killing continue!

Of course, Harper is correct in saying Israel has a right to defend itself. And the militant group Hamas is criminally responsible for launching hundreds of rockets into Israel in the past week with the intent of causing death and destruction, killing one Israeli so far.

But the lopsided nature of the death toll (200:1) highlights the enormous power imbalance between the two sides — one equipped with home-made rockets and no air defence, and the other fielding the most sophisticated laser-guided missiles and a state-of-the-art defence system, backed up by nuclear weapons.

Harper insists that Israel goes to great lengths to avoid killing civilians. But Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador, noted on CBC TV’s Power and Politics on Tuesday that international law prohibits Israel from, for instance, attacking a military target if it is located in a densely populated building.

Harper maintains that Israel notifies residents of its impending attacks, but Heinbecker points out that there is essentially nowhere to flee to safety in Gaza — a tiny, poverty-stricken strip of land where some 1.8 million people live crowded together, trapped on all sides.

What is striking about Harper’s intensely one-sided approach is the way he resolutely avoids dealing with the central fact of this decades-old conflict: that millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been living under Israeli military occupation for more than 45 years, and that Israel has effectively annexed what used to be their land, building settlements on it that now accommodate more than 600,000 Israelis.

Harper’s refusal to take any of this into consideration flies in the face of Canada’s long-standing position on the Mideast conflict — a position that still appears on the Canadian government’s website.

Officially, according to the website, Canada does not condone Israel’s military occupation and supports UN resolution 242 calling for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. While you’d never know it from listening to Harper, Canada still “supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state.”

Canada’s official website further states that “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention” and that the “settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

Of course, these positions, updated on the website last January, were developed under earlier Canadian governments that recognized the land issue as integral to a peaceful solution.

The Harper government hasn’t yet had the nerve to renounce these positions, apparently fearful of drawing fresh attention to its abandonment of Canada’s tradition of support for the UN and our role as peacekeepers — traditions many Canadians still revere.

By keeping his focus exclusively on the current bombing (and only on the bombing by Hamas), Harper helps divert attention from the real story behind the conflict: the relentless takeover of Palestinian land.

In statements that have received little notice (at least here in Canada), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week indicated that Israel has no intention of ever giving up control of the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live. In other words, the military occupation will continue. Israel’s official “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005 has resulted in tighter, not looser, Israeli military control over the territory.

Canadians are often asked to imagine the plight of Israelis, who must endure indiscriminate rocket attacks. But we’re rarely asked to imagine the plight of Palestinians, who not only endure far more devastating attacks with no place to hide, but also watch as their land is slowly but inexorably taken over — with the apparent support of seemingly fair-minded people, like the Canadians.

Of course, most ordinary Canadians know little about all this. They’re caught up in their daily lives, and trust their government to represent their values and speak for them in world matters.

Under the Harper government, that trust couldn’t be more flagrantly abused.

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star. She was the New Democrat candidate in Toronto Centre in 2013. She is the author of seven controversial best-sellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths and It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...