July 17th, 2024

Under pressure to clear Israel in hospital blast, Trudeau says he needs more time

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press on October 19, 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada is working with allies to determine "exactly what happened" in the blast at a hospital in Gaza earlier this week that has become a flashpoint in the Israel-Hamas war. Trudeau arrives at the Canada-CARICOM summit in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct.18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced growing pressure Thursday to state Canada’s position on who was responsible for a blast at a hospital in Gaza City, but he would only say Canada must take the “necessary time” to examine what happened before drawing any conclusions.

The blast at the al-Ahli Hospital has become a flashpoint in the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, the deadliest of the five Gaza wars for both sides.

In Canada, the explosion has led to criticism of Trudeau, as three prominent Jewish groups and the Opposition Conservatives demand he publicly clear Israel of involvement.

On Tuesday, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry announced that a Gaza hospital where hundreds of Palestinians had been sheltering had been hit by an Israeli airstrike, leaving hundreds dead.

In the wake of that news, Trudeau stopped to speak briefly to reporters on his way into question period in the House of Commons. In French, a reporter asked him about the blast, referring to it in the question as an Israeli airstrike on Gaza.

Trudeau said in French that it was “not legal,” then saying in English that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to hit a hospital.

Following his remarks, Israel’s military denied involvement and said it was instead the result of a misfire by a group of Palestinian militants. By that evening, Trudeau posted an updated statement on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, saying he was “horrified” by the deaths. He added “that we must determine what happened” and called for accountability.

By Wednesday, Israel’s military had released a flurry of images that it described as its own intelligence and that it said showed it was not responsible for the strike. That day, during a visit to Israel, United States President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it appeared the hospital blast was perpetrated “by the other team, not you.”

Biden cited data from the U.S. Defense Department that he said showed the blast was not likely a strike by Israel’s military. The White House also said that a U.S. intelligence assessment found Israel was not to blame.

With the U.S. backing Israel’s telling of what happened, Iddo Moed, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, told The Canadian Press in an interview that he hoped Canada would offer a “similar response,” saying that Israel had provided an “abundance of evidence.”

Trudeau next addressed the issue Thursday afternoon, saying that Canada would be taking the “necessary time” to probe the blast. In response to a question about whether he had seen any evidence himself, he told reporters in French that “certain preliminary elements” had come to his attention.

“The thing with this horrific situation in the Middle East is it is not just happening over there,” he said at a press conference Thursday wrapping up a summit with Caribbean leaders.

“It’s having an impact, a deep, direct, personal impact, on individuals, on families, on communities here in Canada.”

The prime minister went on to say that everyone can agree that the deaths of innocent civilians at the hospital in Gaza “never should have happened.”

“But we are taking the necessary time to look carefully at everything, and rapidly, of course, before we draw any final conclusions about what happened.”

His comment did nothing to alleviate concerns from three Jewish Canadian groups, who say Trudeau’s responses so far are lending credence to what they call a narrative pushed by Hamas-controlled officials.

Though Trudeau did not directly blame Israel for the hospital blast earlier this week, groups are asking that he not only clarify but retract his earlier words.

B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said in a statement that what has been provided “has already satisfied U.S. President Joe Biden.”

“So where is the holdup?”

In separate statements, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs both said it was “deeply disappointing” that despite Biden’s position, Canada “continues to give weight” to Hamas’ allegation.

Canada has listed Hamas as a terrorist entity in Canada since 2002.

Over the past two days, the Conservatives have also raised concerns about Trudeau’s comments on the hospital explosion. Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic in Parliament, pressed the government on Thursday about why it had not “clarified the record” as the United States did.

Meanwhile, more backbench members of Trudeau’s government are calling for a ceasefire, as is the federal NDP – something Ottawa has not yet done, or indicated that it might.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly pointed to Trudeau’s comments when asked about the concerns from Jewish groups, saying that Canada is in close contact with its allies on the issue.

“What happened in Gaza is completely devastating,” she told reporters Thursday. “Not only is it devastating but we’ve been clear: Israeli lives and Palestinian lives are important. Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians are equal and must be protected at all times.”

The latest conflict began when Hamas launched surprise attacks on Oct. 7, with militants killing hundreds in their homes and at an outdoor music festival in southern Israel. The Jewish state declared war in response and has been raining airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Health Ministry says nearly 3,800 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, while more than 1,400 people in Israel are dead, most of them civilians killed during the deadly Hamas incursion that began the conflict.

Canadian officials are still working to try and find a way to get upwards of 400 Canadians and their families out of the Gaza Strip, which is blockaded at its two land borders with Israel and Egypt.

“We need to make sure Canadians get out of Gaza,” said Joly.

Israel announced during Biden’s visit that it approved a plan that would allow Egypt to deliver some supplies into Gaza, which is home to more than two million people.

Even before the latest war broke out, the Gaza Strip was one of the most densely populated and impoverished regions in the world. International aid organizations have warned that the region is close to collapse as Israel has cut off access to its electricity, fuel and food.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced in Israel’s campaign of retaliation. The Israeli military issued an evacuation order for a million people, telling them to leave their homes in the territory’s north and head south towards the Egyptian border as Israel prepares a ground offensive.

Global Affairs Canada says that so far, around 1,400 Canadians, permanent residents and their families have been taken out of Israel on Canadian-arranged flights from Tel Aviv to Athens.

And Ottawa says that over the past two days, it has arranged for 12 more Canadians in the West Bank to be bused to neighbouring Jordan.

While officials continue to get Canadians out of Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank – which Israel has occupied since 1967 and where it has established numerous settlements – the government is warning Canadians to avoid all travel to neighbouring Lebanon. It is asking those in the country to leave while commercials flights remain available.

Canada and its allies remain concerned that the Israel-Hamas war could expand regionally, a fear underscored by clashes happening between Hezbollah and the Israeli military across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct.19, 2023.

– With files from The Associated Press.

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