Published October 12, 2023

Canada committing $10M in humanitarian aid for Israel, Gaza as Canadian flights leave

Canadian Military flight Israel - CP

By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Canada is giving an initial $10 million in aid for urgent needs in Israel and the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday, while refusing to say whether he agrees with a United Nations warning that Israel is violating international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, the first airlift of Canadians out of Israel was completed earlier Thursday, with 128 citizens, permanent residents or their relatives landing in Athens on a military flight from Tel Aviv.

A second flight with just over 150 passengers was taxiing for departure from Tel Aviv on Thursday afternoon. 

Trudeau was speaking five days after a brazen attack Hamas launched from Gaza that killed hundreds of civilians and led Israel to declare a war against that group. 

"The situation on the ground is volatile," Trudeau told reporters in Yellowknife.

The federal government held a technical briefing for reporters on Thursday. Global Affairs Canada provided the briefing on the condition that officials not be named.

The officials said a fourth Canadian has been reported missing in the past day, up from three.

On Wednesday, officials saidabout 700 people with a connection to Canada who are in Israel have asked for help to leave that country since violence broke out on Saturday.

On Thursday, the same officials said that Canada is aware of hundreds of people in the affected region, but not all of them have asked for flights. That includes roughly 800 people in Israel, 180 in the West Bank and 100 in Gaza.

Another roughly 520 people are in the region, but Global Affairs Canada does not know whether they are in Israel or either of the Palestinian territories.

The officials noted that these figures represent the number of registered Canadian citizens in each area. But they said the actual number of Canadians in a geographical area is often three times as large as the number of people who have registered. 

The federal government says each of its military flights can take up to 150 passengers, and officials noted that they "believe" the second flight out of Israel contained three more people than the official capacity. 

Canada does not usually provide military air transportation when commercial flights are still operating, but the government says people have been asking for help because it's difficult to get tickets. 

The Royal Canadian Air Force anticipates continuing two daily flights from Tel Aviv to Athens on Friday and likely Saturday, with a surge capacity to increase the frequency if demand rises and flying conditions remain accessible.

Officials say flights the government facilitated with Air Canada should start leaving from Athens on Friday afternoon, with passengers paying for the commercial leg of the trip but not their airlift from Tel Aviv. The flights from Athens would land at Toronto Pearson International Airport, the officials said.

The officials said Thursday afternoon that they have seen a rise in demand for flights out of Israel in the past day, which they argue indicates that commercial options are not sufficient, particularly due to cancellations.

They said an eventual decline in this demand from Canadians would indicate the airlift is no longer needed.

Israel is conducting airstrikes in Gaza in retaliation for the deadly weekend assault by militants from Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing power in 2007. Hundreds of Israelis were massacred on Saturday, including in their homes and at an outdoor music festival.

The Associated Press reports at least 2,700 people have died, on both sides of the conflict.

Israel has cut access to water and power in the Gaza Strip. The UN warned on Tuesday that this violates international humanitarian law, since it blocks access to the essentials of life.

Humanitarian groups say Israel is blocking them from providing food, electricity, water and medical supplies to the territory, on top of Hamas' own restrictions.

Canadian officials said Thursday that they are aware of "over 100 people now in Gaza" who have asked for help to leave the territory, up from Wednesday's count of 70. They said that Canada's ambassador in Israel has asked for the country's help in getting citizens out.

Canadian officials added that part of the aid Trudeau announced Thursday would go towards an eventual humanitarian convoy into Gaza, if a corridor opens up.

On Thursday, Washington publicly urged Israel to allow for such a move. It said it is in touch with countries who speak with Hamas, asking them to push for the same.

Trudeau refused to say Thursday whether he believes Israel is following international law in its current siege, when reporters asked him about it multiple times. 

He instead said Canada is "working very hard" with peer countries to try protecting lives, and said "barbarity" from Hamas, which Canada lists as a terrorist organization, has caused the carnage.

"We continue to look for ways to support civilians, both Palestinians and Israelis, and ensure that as many civilians as possible are kept safe during this terrible conflict that is the responsibility and the fault of the terrorist organization known as Hamas."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it is asking both Hamas and Israeli officials to allow for humanitarian access to Gaza, saying it is a neutral party that can provide the essentials of life and facilitate communication between hostages and family members.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat had said Wednesday that Israel wants countries to continue voicing support for the country's right to defend itself, while working to keep other states, such as Lebanon and Syria, from being drawn into a wider war.

In a briefing provided to Canadian journalists on the condition they not be named, Israeli government officials added on Thursday that this request applies to Canada, adding that Israel is not asking Canada for any additional military or diplomatic help.

Trudeau appealed for Canadians to remain calm amid tense demonstrations in Canada related to the war. 

"We must always stand united as Canadians. This is something that is core to Canada; we take care of each other even in the most difficult of times and we support each other, always."

Canadian officials said they did not have an estimate of the cost of the ongoing airlift from Israel.

They pushed back on a Wednesday statement by Haiat, who said that Israel was not negotiating with Hamas. The comments followed Ottawa's announcement that it deployed officials to help Israel's chief hostage negotiators.

The Canadian officials noted the U.S. has made a similar deployment, and said Ottawa wants to have as much of its own support on the ground as possible if there are negotiations that can help free any Canadians who might be held hostage.

Haiat said Canadians are among those being held hostage, but Ottawa said confirming this could make it harder to free anyone being held.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.

— With files from Sarah Ritchie.

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