Published November 20, 2023

'Harrowing and heartbreaking': Liberal, Conservative MPs show solidarity with Israel

By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

A small group of Liberal and Conservative MPs are in Israel as part of what they say is a bipartisan trip to show solidarity with the country as it grieves a gruesome attack by Hamas and comes under scrutiny for deaths in the Gaza Strip.

"Israel is definitely not the same Israel as before the terrorist attacks," Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said in an interview from Jerusalem.

"I thought it was important for me to come, to better understand and be able to explain to my colleagues what the Israeli perspective is on what happened on Oct. 7 and on the war with Hamas."

The group started the trip on Monday, meeting with survivors of the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people in Israel and took roughly 240 people hostage.

Housefather said that before they head home Wednesday evening, his fellow MPs will also meet with the co-chairs of the Canada-Israel parliamentary friendship group and some government officials. They'll also likely travel to areas affected by the Oct. 7 attacks.

The trip was organized by an informal coalition of Jewish federations across Canada, which sent another 43 people to take part in the trip alongside the five MPs.

Liberal MP Marco Mendicino said in an email that the group has heard "harrowing and heartbreaking" stories about Oct. 7, including from families who rushed into bunkers during the attacks or suddenly lost contact with loved ones on WhatsApp, a popular instant messaging application.

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman posted a photo of herself in Israel alongside fellow Tory MPs Michelle Rempel Garner and Marty Morantz. 

Lantsman posted on social media that the MPs are there to bear witness "and to express our solidarity with the Israeli people." None of the Conservatives responded to an interview request, but caucus spokesman Sebastian Skamski echoed Lantsman's statement.

"The terrorist attacks committed by Hamas represent the single worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust and Canada must continue to stand with Israel and the Jewish people," he wrote.

After the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel declared war on Hamas, began an airstrike campaign and cut off food, fuel, water and supplies to the Gaza Strip, which is home to 2.3 million Palestinians. 

The territory's health officials say more than 12,700 people have been killed in the retaliation campaign so far, two-thirds of them women and children. Another 2,700 people are reported missing. 

The United Nations reports that more of its humanitarian workers have been killed in the six-week conflict than any other war, and says Israel is violating humanitarian law.

Housefather noted the suffering of civilians in Gaza, but he said Canadians might not realize the extent to which Israelis continue to grapple with the aftermath of the attacks that kicked off the war.

Thousands of people have been displaced from communities close to Israel's borders, air-raid sirens occur constantly and many schools are closed. Universities have delayed the fall academic term until late December, because the Israeli military has called up so many young people.

The Liberal MP said the country's hotels are deserted, and people are on edge. 

Hamas attacked multiple collective farming communities, each known as a kibbutz. Housefather said those places tend to be home to left-leaning people who are fiercely critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

But he said even people with that political background tend to be "in solidarity" with the government's position on the war.

"There's no call that I see from anyone in Israeli society, on the centre, on the left or on the right, to stop this until Hamas is eradicated in Gaza," Housefather said.

"The eradication of Hamas, I think, is a prerequisite to discussing a two-state solution."

He added that the idea of a ceasefire is "a complete non-starter" among Israelis. 

The Liberal government has gotten calls from MPs in various parties, including their own, for Canada to follow France and Ireland in calling for a halt to the fighting. Israel has argued that such pauses would only allow Hamas to rearm and kill more Israelis.

"Hearing from, today, people who survived the attack at the kibbutz and also people whose children were murdered at the kibbutz was an important first step to understanding the situation better from the perspective of the average Israeli," Housefather added.

He said that many Israelis express feeling like they have the ability to protect themselves against Hamas, which Canada recognizes as a terrorist group, in a way that Jewish people were not able to do over centuries of pogroms and the Holocaust. 

He said it's a reality he never understood, and one that many Canadians are probably missing.

"They're saying, 'Yes, we care about the people that are being killed; we don't want civilians to be killed in Gaza. We are deeply pained by the death of any person that is not a terrorist,'" he said.

"But what they're saying is, 'If we don't destroy the terrorists, then they will kill us tomorrow.' And that's the lesson they learned from Oct. 7."

Housefather said his group will meet with Israeli Arabs but there are no plans to meet Palestinians. He said this is because there is no access to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and the territories are not safe to enter. There are no Palestinian officials in Jerusalem for the MPs to meet, he said. 

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said that 84 people with ties to Canada made it out of the Gaza Strip into Egypt on Sunday.

The list of foreign nationals cleared to make the trip on Sunday, as published by Gaza's General Authority for Crossings and Borders, had included 135 people with a connection to Canada.

The most recent update from Global Affairs Canada, provided on Friday, said 376 Canadians, permanent residents and their relatives had previously been able to leave the Palestinian territory through the Rafah crossing.

Global Affairs continued to report that as of Friday, it was aware of one Canadian who is missing. 

Washington is now hinting that Canadians are among those believed to be held hostage by Hamas — a detail that Ottawa has not confirmed. 

In a summary of a call on Saturday between Joly and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, his office noted that they discussed the need to "secure the release of hostages, including U.S. and Canadian citizens."

Global Affairs Canada said on Nov. 10 that it deployed an envoy "to seek the release of Canadian hostages abroad, including in the Middle East."

But Joly has said her department won't confirm if Canadians are among the hostages, because doing so could complicate rescue efforts.

On Monday, heavy fighting broke out around the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza, which has housed thousands of patients and displaced people for weeks.

The fighting comes a day after the World Health Organization evacuated 31 premature babies from Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, the territory's largest, where they were among more than 250 critically ill or wounded patients stranded there days after Israeli forces entered the compound.

Israel says Hamas uses civilians and hospitals as shields, while critics say Israel's siege and relentless aerial bombardment amounts to collective punishment of Palestinians.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Amr Nabil

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

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