_ with files from Melissa Leong, CanWest News Service;
BENT JBAIL, Lebanon - It would aid the cause of peace if Canada dropped Hezbollah from its list of banned terrorist organizations, two Canadian MPs on a fact-finding mission to Lebanon said yesterday.
When asked if he was in favour of Hezbollah being taken off the terror list, Etobicoke Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj said: "Yes, I would be."
He likened the situation in the Middle East to that of Northern Ireland, where "if there wasn't the possibility for London to negotiate with the IRA, you'd still have bombings."
"Hezbollah has a political wing. They have members of parliament. They have two cabinet ministers. You want to encourage politicians in this military organization so that the centre of gravity shifts to them."
New Democrat Peggy Nash, who represents the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park, said her discussions in Lebanon had led her to believe "that it is just not helpful to label them a terrorist organization."
"If the political parties in Lebanon who may disagree with Hezbollah, and be opposed to them and their philosophy, can figure out a way to work with Hezbollah and try to get along internally, then perhaps we should take a cue from that."
Both MPs said they would bring that message back to their caucuses, and eventually to the House of Commons, when they return to Canada this week.
Their visit came as Israeli armoured forces continued to withdraw from southern Lebanon yesterday, 36 hours after an Israeli commando raid in northern Lebanon threatened the UN-brokered ceasefire.
Maria Moureni, the Bloc Quebecois MP for Ahuntsic, is also a member of the Canadian delegation on a week-long tour of Syria, Lebanon and Egypt organized by the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
Asked her opinion of Hezbollah or its terrorist status in Canada, Ms. Moureni replied: "According to the government of Canada, Hezbollah is a terrorist group."
Stockwell Day, the Minister of Public Safety, said last night that the government would "in no way drop [Hezbollah's] terrorist designation."
"If that statement was made [by opposition members], I can't think of anything that could be more damaging to the hope of peace than to encourage the very group, Hezbollah, that is intent on the genocide of the Jewish people and the annihilation of Israel."
A government official added that engaging in talks with Hezbollah and "elevating them to negotiating status" would also encourage the organization.
A spokesman for interim Liberal leader Bill Graham's office said the party still believes that Hezbollah "belongs on the list of terrorist organizations."
Reached late last night and asked about his statement that he was in favour of Hezbollah's removal from the terror list, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj said his main concern was that international parties not be discouraged from negotiating peace with them.
"It's quite clear Hezbollah is a terrorist organization -- the way it's conducted itself, it has shot rockets into civilian areas, that's a war crime -- but what we have to do is change the legislation [that discourages communication] so we can sit down and try to bring about negotiated, non-violent solutions."
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 in Beirut and staged a series of suicide bombings that killed hundreds. Its political manifesto calls for the removal of Western influences from the Middle East, the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon.
When Canada, under the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations in 2002, it noted the "Party of God" engages in car bombings, hijackings and kidnappings in Israel and Western countries. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has encouraged terrorist attacks against Americans and Jews as "moral" and "Islamic."
While acknowledging the Liberals put Hezbollah on the terror list, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj said: "When you realize that a mistake has been made that does not provide for a solution, you don't entrench your decision."
Earlier yesterday, after being taken to the ruins of a house in Qana, where 28 members of the same extended family died in an Israeli air raid, Ms. Moureni, who is of Lebanese descent, criticized Stephen Harper for supporting Israel during the war.
"This is Canada's shame," Ms. Moureni said. "Mr. Harper has given us a rather negative international image. We can see here that the attacks were [far] from being measured. The devastation is incredible."
As he met with Lebanese in towns such as Qana and Bent Jbail, which were badly hit during the war, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj repeatedly denounced Mr. Harper's support for Israel.
"We are deeply ashamed that our Prime Minister had some incredibly irresponsible comments to make at the beginning of the war," Mr. Wrzesnewskyj told a group of Lebanese who had lost many relatives during the conflict.
The NDP's Ms. Nash said Mr. Harper "had misread the amount of devastation that took place. What I am picking up here is that the time has come for a negotiated settlement, and it would be useful if Canada was a voice for negotiation. Canada's response was disappointing and bewildered people here.
"I feel just as badly for those who have suffered in Israel. It shows how futile war is."
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, who represents Peterborough, Ont., pulled out of the trip at the last moment, citing security concerns.
Ms. Wrzesnewskyj said he hoped to pay a visit to Israel before the end of the month. An NDP colleague was slated to visit Israel, Ms. Nash said.
Meanwhile, after a Cabinet meeting yesterday in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government rejected the inclusion of UN peacekeepers from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Such a policy may make the work of those struggling to put together a force of 15,000 blue helmets to police the ceasefire more difficult. The only countries to volunteer a significant number of troops so far are the Muslim nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. European countries such as France had indicated a willingness to participate in the force, but have been very slow to make concrete commitments because of concerns about the rules of engagement.
At a news conference Sunday in Beirut, Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr said anyone in Lebanon violating the ceasefire would be considered collaborators with Israel and dealt with "decisively" by Lebanese forces deploying to the south of the country.
Take Hezbollah off list
MPs: Liberal, NDP politicians in Lebanon say terrorist label discourages negotiations