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Defence Minister Peter MacKay fields questions at the end of the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nov. 18, 2012.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Peter MacKay urged all players in the Middle East conflict to show restraint and end the violence, dodging questions as to whether the Prime Minister or other senior officials in his government have had any direct discussions with leaders in the region.

Instead, he reiterated the government position that Israel has the right to defend itself, noting that over the weekend between 500 and 600 rockets have "rained down on their population."

"Israel is a very troubling scenario," he added. "A country has the right to defend itself. A country has the right to exist and part of that existence means protecting your population, which is what Israel is desperately trying to do."

U.S. President Barack Obama said this weekend, according to a Reuters report, that he has been in regular touch with leaders from Egypt and Turkey to encourage them to try to bring an end to the firing of rockets by Hamas and other Islamist militants.

The Defence Minister, meanwhile, was speaking at the wrap-up press conference of the three-day Halifax International Security Forum that brought together about 300 top military and government officials as well as academics and journalists.

In a separate interview with The Globe and Mail, he also expressed concern about a potential ground invasion in Gaza . Israel has called up large numbers or reservists, raising international concerns it could launch a ground assault in Gaza.

"We hold our collective breath were that to happen," he said. "I think we still have to make appeals now for calm. Everybody is trying to send a message that would be the last resort."

And he believes there is "still hope that they can step back from one another – when the Egyptian prime minister went to Gaza, there was a ceasefire. So it all starts with a ceasefire, and hopefully it can end with a ceasefire."

The Harper government has made it clear that it supported Israel when it chose to launch airstrikes on Gaza in response to rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory. Mr. MacKay said questions about whether Israel's airstrike response was a "proportional" response to the rocket fire cannot be a matter for second-guessing now.

"It's always easy in retrospect to measure to a nicety what that means, in terms of proportionality. The ultimate goal, of course, in defending yourself, is preventing harm to yourself, to the people," he said.

"It's difficult to measure in the moment, is how I would describe it. Israel has to try to make that calculation to the best of its ability."

In addition to concerns about Israel, forum participants heard Sunday appeals from Afghan leaders to not to abandon the country or the region post-2014 when troops will come home.

The Defence Minister, who was recently in Afghanistan, said he came away "feeling perhaps a slight bit of more optimisi\m in a realistic sense than I have for some time." He noted he visited several of Canada's training sites. Although, he said he is under no illusions that everything is going perfectly, the Afghans have a "very capable force" of over 350,000 members, divided between the army and police. This was the goal set by NATO. He mentioned again, too, the government's commitment of $110-million a year from 2014 to 2017 for development programs and projects.

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