Trudeau under pressure over response to Israel-Hamas war

By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged divergent views, and common fears, among his Liberal MPs over the Israel-Hamas war on Friday, when he also faced an unfriendly crowd during a visit to a mosque.

Some Liberal MPs are joining calls by Muslim groups for Canada to push for a ceasefire in the region, while major Canadian Jewish groups have demanded Trudeau retract an earlier comment they view as lending credence to the claim by Hamas that Israel was responsible for an attack on a hospital in Gaza City.

“Everyone is hurt and hurting, everyone is grieving, everyone is scared of what this means,” Trudeau told reporters Friday in Brampton, Ont., when asked if his caucus is at odds over how the Liberals should respond.

Israel declared war against Hamas after the militant group killed 1,400 Israelis in a brazen attack on Oct. 7. Hamas, which Canada considers a terrorist organization, has control over the Gaza Strip.

Tensions have risen across the Middle East asIsrael has retaliated with airstrikes andcut off the Palestinian territory’s access to water, food and electricity. The United Nations says this violates international humanitarian law.

Liberal MPs have expressed a range of views on the conflict, with several calling for a ceasefire over the past week. The federal New Democrats, who entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the minority Liberal government last year, are also calling for a ceasefire.

Toronto-area Liberal MP Salma Zahid, who is chair of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group, said Friday that she worked with 33 MPs to send a letter to the prime minister that laid out certain demands.

The letter was signed by 23 backbench Liberal MPs, eight NDP MPs and both Green Party MPs. It asks Canada to join the call for an immediate ceasefire, help facilitate the opening of a humanitarian corridor and stand up for international law.

“International law is clear that innocent civilians and all those not taking part in the fighting must on no account be attacked and must be spared and protected,” the letter said.

On Thursday, a dozen Muslim, Jewish and Arab MPs from the Liberal caucus met Thursday to discuss the conflict.

“While we may not always agree on events in the Middle East, we do agree that all communities must and deserve to feel safe in Canada,” some of the MPs posted on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

On Friday, Trudeau attended a mosque in the Etobicoke area of Toronto, a visit the Prime Minister’s Office did not tell the media about in advance and which as of Friday evening had still not appeared on his public itinerary.

A Global News reporter posted a video to X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, that depicts a brief moment during the visit, in which some people gathered in the mosque are heard saying “shame” and urging a facilitator not to let Trudeau speak at the podium. The video shows Trudeau addressing the dozens gathered, thanking them for allowing him to “pray alongside you in this difficult time.”

Another video posted online by Liberal MP Shafqat Ali shows the group sitting quietly as Trudeau discusses advocacy to protect civilians in Gaza and the importance of respecting neighbours in tough times.

Another video posted by the reporter on social media showed some protesters gathered outside the mosque as Trudeau left, calling on the prime minister to push for a ceasefire.

Omar Farouk, president of the mosque, confirmed Trudeau was there but did not offer further comment about how it went.

The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Trudeau attended the International Muslims Organization of Toronto on Friday. In a written statement, spokesman Mohammad Hussain said Trudeau went “to show his support to those impacted in the Muslim community from the horrific events in the Middle East.”

Trudeau has also faced growing pressure to state his position on who was responsible for Tuesday’s deadly blast at a hospital in Gaza, which officials in the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory had quickly blamed on an Israeli airstrike.

Asked about it by a reporter on Tuesday, Trudeau would not answer, instead telling a reporter in French the incident was “not legal.”

Israel’s military has denied it was involved, and the White House has since said a U.S. intelligence assessment found Israel was not to blame.

B’nai Brith Canada, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs have all asked Trudeau to clarify his stance, arguing initial comments “can only be interpreted as giving credence to the false narrative of the Hamas terror group.”

Asked again about attribution for the attack on Friday, Trudeau reiterated that he is still trying to figure out the facts. “We are working with our allies internationally to make sure that we can determine exactly what happened.”

Trudeau would also not directly say whether his caucus is divided over how Canada should respond to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“Canadians of all backgrounds, who are represented in Parliament, are reflecting the very real fears and concerns that everyone has,” he said.

“Our jobs as parliamentarians is, yes, to speak for our communities … (but also) to reassure everyone that this is Canada, and here our differences must and will remain a source of strength.”

Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, warned earlier this week that Canada’s solidarity with Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas would be “tested” in the days ahead, saying everyone should “resist the temptation to call for a ceasefire.”

Israel has vowed to “destroy” Hamas. Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, also said during a speech he gave Wednesday night in Ottawa that Hamas “has to be destroyed,” as reported by the Toronto Star.

Trudeau would not say whether his government shares that specific position. Instead, Trudeau noted Canada has long deemed Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and called for civilians to be protected and hostages returned.

“Hamas’s actions are absolutely indefensible and Israel has the full right to defend itself in accordance with international law,” he said.

Trudeau also said Canada remains committed to a two-state solution to the escalating Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Canada remains firm and steadfast in our commitment to a two-state solution. The world and the region need a peaceful, safe, prosperous, viable Palestinian state alongside a peaceful, prosperous, democratic, safe Israeli state — Israel,” he said.

For decades, Ottawa has called for negotiations that would result in a sovereign Palestinian state existing alongside Israel, using the borders that existed in 1967, before a war and settlements led to Israeli control over Palestinian territories. Canada has long considered the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Hamas seized control of that territory two years later. Since then, Israel and Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south, have restricted the flow of goods and people, citing Hamas importing weapons. Palestinians have argued the blockade is collective punishment by Israel.

Those restrictions have been ramped up to what Israel calls a “total siege” on water, food and electricity entering Gaza, with few exceptions.

On Friday, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant shared a plan that seemed to suggest that Israel did not intend to resume long-term control over Gaza. But Gallant did not say who Israel expected to run Gaza if Hamas is toppled.

Trudeau has not said what plan Canada would like to see for Gaza once Israel finishes its operations.

“We will of course continue to deal with things as they come up and we will have those conversations when the time comes,” he said.

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

— With files from The Associated Press and Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.