OTTAWA — The Israeli ambassador to Canada came under fire last week after publicly disclosing that a Hamas official had allegedly tried to recruit a Canadian citizen of Palestinian origin to assist in terrorist attacks in North America.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry called in Israeli Ambassador Chaim Divon to protest comments he made about Israel’s arrest of Jamal Akkal, a 23-year-old Canadian from Windsor, Ontario. Canadian authorities said such comments could undermine Akkal’s chance for a fair trial.
Divon had said that Akkal received weapons training as part of an effort to establish a Hamas terror cell that would strike targets in Canada and the United States.
Israeli authorities allege that Akkal was also instructed to collect money in Canadian mosques to finance a mission to assassinate a senior Israeli official visiting the United States and to attack members of the American and Canadian Jewish communities. Akkal was arrested in Gaza on November 1 while crossing into Egypt. His lawyer denies the allegations.
If true, the alleged plot would mark a bold shift in tactics by Hamas, which to date has confined its attacks to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Following Divon’s initial announcement concerning the case, a spokesman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry, Raymond Doiron, was quoted saying that the Israeli envoy would be “reprimanded” for publicly airing allegations against a Canadian citizen whose case was still before a court.
Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham subsequently had what he described as a “frank exchange” with Divon over the issues of due process and diplomatic protocol. But the Graham also attempted to dispel the impression that he was rebuking Divon. Jewish communal leaders in Canada are hoping that Graham’s attempt to downplay the controversy represents a shift to a more conciliatory policy toward Israel.
Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, said the minister’s “toning down” of the issue doesn’t compensate for Canada’s continuous refusal to vote against anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations. But, he added, the “major flip-flop” may have been a signal to Canada’s new prime minister, Paul Martin, that Graham was now willing to cut Israel more diplomatic slack in general. Martin, who assumed office last week after leading a rebellion against his predecessor, fellow Liberal Jean Chretien, surprised some observers by retaining Graham as foreign minister.
While the differences between the Canadian and Israeli legal systems contributed to the recent diplomatic squabble, Jewish leaders in Canada interpreted it as further proof of the Canadian foreign service’s alleged pro-Arab bias. They are hoping that, under Martin’s leadership, the political echelon will restrain the foreign service’s alleged anti-Israel bias.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry’s dismay over the Israeli diplomat’s comments reflected the fact that jury trials are the norm in Canada, where it is assumed that public comments made before a trial could prejudice a jury. “Government officials should refrain from any public comment while a court is sitting,” Doiron said. “If they are too talkative, it can lead to a defense motion for a mistrial.”
Israeli officials, however, contend that because trial by judge is the norm in the Jewish state, where Akkal will be tried, a fair trial is not jeopardized by such comments.
Akkal, a Canadian citizen since 1999, has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder. An Israeli military court extended the investigation until this week, when he was due to reappear in court. Akkal’s family has said he had gone to Gaza to become engaged. But according to a statement released by the Israeli Embassy in Canada, since Akkal’s arrest the suspect has confessed that he was recruited by the military wing of Hamas and attended the training sessions.
Akkal’s lawyer said the Palestinian his client met was a friend and neighbor of his family, not the “senior Hamas official” portrayed by Israel. When the man asked Akkal to do him a “favor,” he did not specify what it would be, and Akkal was noncommital, the lawyer said. The lawyer admitted that Akkal had fired a gun eight times, but only in an act of “youthful exuberance,” not as part of a terrorist training session.
The only evidence against Akkal, his lawyer said, is a confession that Israeli security forces extracted from him after 20 days of sleep deprivation. The lawyer plans to argue that the confession is inadmissible because it was obtained under duress.