Is Canada passing information on its citizens to Israel?

(EI illustration)

On 7 April, Freda Guttman, a 76-year-old Jewish Montrealer, received a visit from agents of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). She slammed the door on them so it’s not clear if the visit was related to her role in Tadamon!, a Middle East solidarity collective, or her friendship with Canadian activist (and occasional contributor to The Electronic Intifada) Stefan Christoff. A tall, mild-mannered 29-year-old, Christoff has been one of Montreal’s most effective grassroots activists for the past decade. Involved with various issues recently he’s devoted himself to Palestinian solidarity work, including the highly successful Artists Against Apartheid (AAA) campaign. Over the past three years AAA has organized a dozen concerts and in February they brought together 500 Quebec artists in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which supporters of Israel view as a major threat.

In the past eight months at least seven of Christoff’s friends have been visited by CSIS agents. These unannounced visits usually take place early in the morning. The agents ask questions about Christoff’s trips to the Middle East or AAA and in some instances, they’ve feigned concern for the Palestinian cause, implying Christoff’s radical activist roots might hurt it.

The CSIS’s interest in Guttman and Christoff represents a departure for the agency in targeting Palestinian solidarity activists. During the 1990s as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were engaged in negotiations many Palestinian Canadians accused the CSIS of intimidating opponents of the Oslo accords. The CSIS allegedly offered cash in exchange for information on those opposed to the PLO’s compromise. A Washington Report on Middle East Affairs article published in 1994 after the initial peace accord was signed, explained that “CSIS is carrying out a political agenda by targeting only those who are aligned with non-Fatah groups of the PLO — those who oppose the accord signed by the PLO. More than 20 PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] supporters have come forward alleging that they have been interrogated by CSIS.” In contrast, both Guttman and Christoff are white and are not affiliated with a Palestinian political party.

As a national intelligence organization shrouded in secrecy, it is hard to know if CSIS has been mandated to target Palestine solidarity activists. In the current political climate, however, it’s not surprising that CSIS officials view anyone defending Palestinian rights as a threat.

The ardently pro-Israel Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly equated expressions of support for Palestinian rights with extremism. In March 2009, Ottawa barred British parliamentarian George Galloway from Canada for delivering humanitarian aid to Hamas officials who were the elected administration in the Gaza Strip. At the start of this year the Conservative government attempted to pass a condemnation of Israeli Apartheid Week in Parliament. Six weeks ago, Harper accused Libby Davies, Member of Parliament for the New Democratic Party (NDP), of making “extremist” statements because she gave halting support to the BDS campaign and said Israel had been occupying Palestinian territories since 1948. Demanding Davies be fired as the NDP’s deputy leader, Harper told the House of Commons, “She made statements that could have been made by Hamas, Hizballah,” which Canada considers terrorist organizations.

The Conservatives have also strengthened Canadian intelligence cooperation with Israel. In early 2008 Ottawa signed a wide-ranging “border management and security” agreement with Israel, even though the two countries do not share a border. The agreement is rather vague, but includes sharing information, cooperating on illegal immigration, cooperating on law enforcement, etc. This agreement is an attempt to formalize some aspects of the CSIS’s relationship with the Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence agency.

Canadian-Israeli intelligence relations date to the 1970s if not earlier. Norman Spector, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, has admitted that there was a CSIS operative working for him at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv (“Mossad’s Use of Canadian Passports: Two Reports,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1998). He also acknowledged, as quoted in Paul McGeough’s 2009 book Kill Khaled, that there was “very close cooperation” between the Canadian and Israeli spy agencies (p.222).

This relationship is also active inside Canada. In his 1990 book Official Secrets: The story behind the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Richard Cléroux noted that “Mossad agents are located in every major [Canadian] city, working closely with CSIS, to protect El Al aircraft and airline installations and watching PLO political activities, especially those of Arab and Iranian students (p.278). Israelis are CSIS’s prime source of information on a number of suspected terrorists and spies.” The CSIS also passes information to Mossad. Spy Wars (p.250) describes how CSIS “told him [an unnamed Palestinian] explicitly they were gathering information for the CIA and Mossad.”

According to former Ambassador Spector, as reported in Washington Report in 1998, the Mossad’s relationship to CSIS “goes beyond information sharing. There are joint operations.” Although Spector did not elaborate, it is public knowledge that Mossad agents have used Canadian passports to carry out numerous foreign assassinations. “A member of an Israeli hit squad that mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter in Norway in 1973 had posed as a Canadian,” reported the Canadian Jewish News.

Until 1997, the repeated use of Canadian cover by Israeli agents received little attention. That changed when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to a Hamas offer for a 30-year truce (relayed by Jordan’s King Hussein) by trying to kill Khalid Meshal, then chairman of Hamas’ political bureau. The Israeli agents, who were captured after dropping poison in Meshal’s ear, entered Jordan on Canadian passports.

Spector claimed CSIS and Mossad agents met days before the attempt to assassinate Meshal. He said Ottawa wanted to cover up Israel’s use of fake Canadian passports. “Canadian authorities knew, in general, that passports were being used by Mossad,” Spector noted. “It was known to people at the embassy and they essentially turned a blind eye to it.” According to Spector, CSIS supported Mossad missions in exchange for intelligence. “Israeli operational agents have been given to understand that the use of Canadian passports is the quid pro quo [for information on Arab immigrants].”

While Ottawa officially protested the Meshal incident, it apparently didn’t affect the Mossad-CSIS relationship. A Canadian working for Mossad, Jonathan Ross explained in his 2008 book The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad that the CSIS “was sympathetic, and it was business as usual with them despite the diplomatic flap. During a liaison exchange by our [Mossad] counterterrorism officers to Canada soon after the affair broke, many CSIS members mentioned that their only regret in the whole affair was that we didn’t succeed [in assassinating Meshal].”

The close ties between Canadian and Israeli intelligence agencies — strengthened with the recent border security agreement — means that some of the information CSIS collects on pro-Palestinian Canadians is probably passed on to their Israeli counterparts. In 2003, Stefan Christoff was barred by Israel’s interior ministry from entering the occupied Palestinian territories. Was that decision based upon information from CSIS?

As Palestinian solidarity activism further challenges Canada’s pro-Israeli establishment, CSIS harassment will likely increase. The way to deal with these threats is to expose them and to build a broad movement that makes them ineffective.

Yves Engler’s most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. He will be on tour in Ontario with the book in early October. To help organize an event or for more info visit