Around 70 Canadians are stuck in the Gaza Strip and have asked for help, federal government officials said Wednesday, but the Canadian government has no way of reaching them without a humanitarian corridor.
For Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families seeking to leave Israel as violent clashes continue, military flights from Tel Aviv to Athens could begin as early as Thursday evening local time.
Officials who spoke with reporters on background Wednesday afternoon said approximately 1,000 Canadian citizens and permanent residents in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank have asked for consular help and about 700 of them want to get on a flight out.
The government has taken the highly unusual step of offering military flights even though the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was still open.
Speaking earlier Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said the government felt it needed to step in because many commercial flights were cancelled or delayed.
“Usually when there are still commercial flights, we don’t do assisted departure,” Joly said.
“This is quite rare.”
The war, sparked after Hamas conducted surprise attacks across the barrier between Israel and Gaza on Saturday, has already claimed at least 2,300 lives.
Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday afternoon there were 4,227 Canadians registered in Israel and another 475 in the West Bank and Gaza combined, and that the department has responded to 1,990 enquiries since the conflict started last Saturday.
Government officials said about 250 people in the two Palestinian territories have asked for consular help, including the 70 in Gaza.
But without the creation of a humanitarian corridor, which would likely require intervention by the United Nations, there is nothing the Canadian government can do as long as Gaza remains cut off.
Israel is conducting airstrikes in Gaza in retaliation for the weekend assault, and has cut access to water and power in what its officials describe as a total siege. The UN warned on Tuesday that this violates international humanitarian law, since it blocks access to the essentials of life.
The territory’s only power plant ran out of fuel and shut down Wednesday, while hospitals were struggling to treat the injured with dwindling medical supplies.
Joly repeated calls for all parties to support international humanitarian law, but would not say whether she opposes Israel’s actions in Gaza.
“We call upon all parties, also, to be able to provide humanitarian access to Palestinian civilians,” she said Wednesday.
Joly said Canada aims to work with the UN if there is an evacuation from Gaza, adding there was no such information yet and she would be in touch with her counterpart in Jordan to discuss options for people in the West Bank.
Foreign ministers of countries in the Arab League called for an immediate ceasefire Wednesday, along with an end to the killing of civilians on both sides, the release of all detainees and an end to Israel’s siege on Gaza.
Canada lists Hamas as a terrorist group and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asserted that Israel has a right to defend itself.
Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman noted that Canadais offering flights out of Israel days after countries with fewer resources started evacuations.
“There’s really no further information about when; it says just ‘in the coming days’ or ‘by the end of the week,’ and we’re four days into this,” she said.
Lantsman noted a spring 2022 parliamentary report on the botched evacuation of Kabul showed weaknesses in Canada’s ability to launch emergency airlifts.
“They should have had a plan ready. Canada needs to do this in advance; there aren’t assets in the region like some of our other G7 partners,” she said.
Lantsman did not have any suggestions for how Canada could best support the 70 citizens stuck in Gaza, and did not address whether Ottawa ought to oppose Israel’s siege of that territory.
“There are many, many Canadians that are stranded in Israel as well, and it doesn’t seem that they’re being helped either,” she said.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said Wednesday morning the first Polaris plane was already on its way to Athens.
Officials said the planes can accommodate about 150 passengers each, and could get around 400 to 450 people out of Israel per day.
The Canadian government is also working with Air Canada to add extra flights at the lowest cost possible from Athens to Canada, in another unusual move that differs from past policy in such situations.
When Canada helped evacuate people from Sudan in April, it would only offer assistance to a “safe third country,” Kenya. The government did not provide help with arranging flights to Canada because there were commercial options, officials said, though they acknowledged there are commercial flights available from Athens.
Officials urged Canadians in the region to register with Global Affairs in order to get information on the airlift.
David Wallach, a Calgary businessman who moved to Canada from Israel 25 years ago, was in Tel Aviv for a family holiday when the conflict began.
Wallach said he hopes to be on a flight this week, along with his wife, his daughter and her boyfriend.
“We tried to get out. Air Canada was one of the first airlines to cancel all their flights to Tel Aviv,” he said in a phone interview.
“We tried a few times to find routes. But it’s a little bit different for us because we have family here. Not so much if you’re a Canadian tourist.”
Wallach, who is 64, said this is his sixth war. The first was when he was eight years old, and he later served in the military and the reserves.
“Nothing changes,” he said, pausing as an Israeli fighter jet flew overhead. “It’s so loud. There’s so much activity in the air.”
Friends and family have confirmed the deaths of three Canadian citizens in Israel: 22-year-old Ben Mizrachi from Vancouver, 33-year-old Alexandre Look from Montreal and Adi Vital-Kaploun, who had deep ties in Ottawa.
Global Affairs Canada refused to provide official confirmation of the deaths, but said it was aware of two Canadians who were killed and a third who was presumed dead.
Joly would not confirm whether any Canadians are being held hostage in Gaza, where militants are holding an estimated 150 people snatched from Israel, but she said three people are missing.
“This is a standing approach we take in any hostage negotiation. We don’t confirm. Why? Because we don’t want to increase the value of that person in the eyes of their tyrants,” Joly said.
She said Canadian officials have been in contact with the chief negotiators of hostages in Israel, and is sending a team of experts to help.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told foreign journalists in a videoconference that it’s unlikely his country sought that assistance.
“We are still at war. We are counting our bodies. We are still fighting terrorists in our territory,” he said. “This is not the time for negotiation … We will get to that once we finish the military operation.”
Haiat added that a high-level visit of U.S. Congress members to Israel and President Joe Biden’s statement of “unbreakable” support for the country amounts to “exactly the message that we want to hear” from other countries.
The hostages include “a lot of double nationalities, including Americans, Argentinians, Australians, Canadians … and many others,” Haiat said, adding that his ministry would release more information as it comes available.
Meanwhile, Joly said she “won’t speculate” about whether Ottawa will need to evacuate citizens from Lebanon if that country ends up involved in the conflict. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas and has fired rockets into Israel, stoking fears of a wider war.
Joly said Wednesday morning she aimed to be in contact with Lebanese officials later in the day.
In Israel, Wallach said the mood was one of anger.
“Very angry to the point that they want revenge. They don’t want to just to win the war, they want revenge which is a dangerous situation,” he said.
“We’re not angry with the Palestinian people. Out of 2.2 million people who live in Gaza, my guess is about 80 to 90 per cent just want to have a roof over their heads, food for their kids, a decent job and live a quiet life.”
Wallach said he’s grateful that Canada is sending evacuation flights but he wishes political leaders had been stronger in condemning the atrocities that have occurred.