Families confirm 3 Canadians dead; Global Affairs aware of 3 others missing
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Wednesday that military flights to evacuate Canadians from Israel to Athens will begin this week.
Meanwhile, Ottawa is working on a way to get Canadians who can't make it to Tel Aviv out of Gaza and the West Bank, possibly through Jordan.
Speaking to reporters, Joly said she is also working through diplomatic channels to try to prevent an escalation of the conflict.
Families have identified three Canadians killed in Israel. Joly confirmed two were killed and a third is presumed dead. Three other Canadians are missing in the region, according to Global Affairs Canada.
Joly said the government is following the reports of the missing Canadians, and is providing support for their families and is in contact with local authorities.
Joly refused to disclose whether Canadians are among those who have been taken hostage by Hamas.
"I will not confirm whether Canada has any hostages because I don't want to increase the value and put their lives in danger," Joly said.
She said Canadian hostage experts are heading to Israel to provide their expertise.
While Global Affairs has been reluctant to name the Canadians who have died, Joly said she has spoken with members of Montrealer Alexandre Look's family.
"I had the occasion to speak with the family of Alexandre Look yesterday and I have to say it was one of the most difficult calls that I have had to make in my life," Joly told reporters.
"My heart is with his family and the families of the others. My thoughts are with their loved ones and their community."
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Joly's comments come after the Palestinian militant group Hamas staged an attack on Israel last weekend, firing rockets, killing civilians and taking hostages.
The attack prompted Israel to declare war on Hamas with attacks of its own. Israel has also ordered what it has described as a complete siege of Gaza, blocking everything from electricity and fuel to food and water from entering.
Questions have been raised about the speed of Ottawa's response to the crisis and reports that Canadians in the region had difficulty reaching Global Affairs staff and getting answers.
Joly said it took time to assess the situation and make arrangements, which were only finalized Tuesday night.
Arranging flights out
The Canadian Armed Forces are sending two CC-150 Airbus planes to the region to evacuate Canadians from Israel to Athens, where Air Canada has a hub. Global Affairs is sending staff from Europe to Athens and Tel Aviv to help Canadians arriving on those flights and is deploying its Standing Rapid Deployment Team to the region to provide emergency response, coordination, consular assistance and logistical support.
In a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon, Global Affairs said its missions will remain open "until security conditions do not allow for it."
The evacuation assistance will be open to Canadian citizens, their spouses and children, as well as Canadian permanent residents, their spouses and children. Officials said Canadians will not be charged for the flights.
The government is negotiating with Air Canada to determine the cost of flights from Athens back to Canada, senior officials said in a later briefing for reporters. It has not yet been determined whether those flights will go to Toronto or Montreal.
Senior government officials said the flights may also carry citizens of allied countries if there are empty seats.
Joly said it is unusual for the government to provide evacuation flights while commercial flights are still available. However, the government was getting reports of Canadians trying to leave the region whose commercial flights were cancelled, and the backlog of people unable to get out of the region was growing.
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Joly urged Canadians in the region to register with Global Affairs, She said they should register if they want to leave the region on one of the Canadian Armed Forces flights.
"We will act and take decisions based on the number of Canadians that have registered," she said. "But at one point government flights will be over and Canadians will have then to take their decisions on what will happen next."
As of late Wednesday afternoon, 4,227 Canadians were registered in Israel and 475 were registered in the West Bank and Gaza. The federal government says it doesn't have a breakdown of how many are in Gaza.
Senior officials said the government has received 1,990 inquiries since the conflict began and has been in contact with around 1,000 Canadians in the area; about 70 per cent of them have indicated they want help to leave the region.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said the military began planning for a possible evacuation as soon as the conflict erupted, but only received the formal request for flights Tuesday.
Among the factors the military has to consider are security, the assets the military has available, getting overflight clearance, landing slots and co-ordinating with Canada's allies in the region.
"No mission is more important than protecting Canadians here at home or overseas," said Eyre.
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Canadians who can't get to Tel Aviv — such as those in the West Bank and Gaza — likely will require a different route out, Joly said. One option is to get people from the West Bank to Jordan, where they could access commercial flights back to Canada. Canada has been discussing that option with the Jordanian government.
As for Gaza, Joly said Canada normally would work with the United Nations on an evacuation, but Canada does not have any information about a UN evacuation.
In the technical briefing, officials acknowledged the difficulties involved in getting Canadians out of Gaza with Israel controlling all access to the area. While the government is trying to put support people in place, one official admitted that when it comes to getting Canadians out of Gaza, "we don't have an option at this time."
Joly said Canada will continue its humanitarian aid to Gaza and urged all of the parties in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and allow humanitarian access to Gaza.
"The humanitarian situation in Gaza was dire before this weekend and this will only deteriorate the situation further … This will get worse before it gets better," she said.
Asked about the prospect of having to evacuate Canadians out of Lebanon, Joly said the higher priority is de-escalating the situation. She said she will be speaking with Lebanese officials later today.
Joly said the assisted departure for Canadians in Israel is the second Canada has had to organize in six months. Earlier this year, the government had to organize the evacuation of Canadians from Sudan after fighting erupted there.
Canada has to prepare for the prospect of more Canadians getting caught in international conflicts, said Joly.
"We'll have to be ready to do more because the world is getting (to be) a much more difficult place to live in," she said. "We're living in an international security crisis and with this Middle East conflict that has just started, we know that we have to be ready."
Eyre made a sobering prediction, suggesting the assisted departure from Israel won't be the last.
"There's going to be more in the future as the world security situations continues to deteriorate," he said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
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