Canada supports 'humanitarian pauses' in Israel-Hamas conflict, Trudeau says

OTTAWA — Canada supports the idea of "humanitarian pauses" in the latest Israel-Hamas war to allow aid into the Gaza Strip, and to help civilians and foreign nationals get out, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

"Our priority throughout this needs to be the continued protection of innocent civilians, the liberation of the hostages," Trudeau said Tuesday after a three-hour cabinet meeting in Ottawa.

"That's why we're engaged closely with our allies on trying to build humanitarian corridors, get aid in, get civilians and foreign nationals out of Gaza. I think there's a lot of conversations going on now about the need for humanitarian pauses and I think that's something that … Canada supports."

Just before the cabinet meeting, Defence Minister Bill Blair told reporter that Hamas is a terrorist entity that would not abide by any calls for a ceasefire.

"I have no expectation that a terrorist organization would respect international law or any call for a ceasefire," Blair said.

Calls for a temporary ceasefire, however, referred to by some as a "humanitarian pause," have grown in recent days as humanitarian organizations warn of a major crisis in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people who have been facing shortages of food, water and fuel.

The latest conflict began when hundreds of militants from Hamas, which Canada has listed as a terrorist entity since 2002, staged an attack on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 people in southern Israel, including hundreds at an outdoor music festival and families living in agricultural co-operatives known as kibbutzim. More than 200 people were also taken hostage.

The federal government says six Canadians died in that attack in Israel and two remain missing.

Israel retaliated with airstrikes and by cutting off supply chains into Gaza, including power lines, that were already limited due to restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south, since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.

The Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, says that more than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed in the war, including about 2,300 minors.

On Tuesday, the secretary-general of the United Nations called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to deliver desperately needed food, water, medicine and fuel. During the UN Security Council's monthly meeting on the wider, decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Antonio Guterres appealed "to all to pull back from the brink before the violence claims even more lives and spreads even farther.''

The United States vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian pause on Oct. 18, partly because it hoped on-the-ground diplomacy would solve the problem faster, and partly because the resolution, put forward by Brazil, did not mention the right of Israel to defend itself.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council "humanitarian pauses must be considered." And at Tuesday's White House press briefing, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. believes that a "general ceasefire" benefits Hamas, but that a humanitarian pause is "not the same."

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, who has been travelling in the Middle East since the weekend to work through diplomatic channels on the conflict, followed Trudeau's comment with a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"A civilian is a civilian," she wrote Tuesday. “We need more humanitarian aid entering Gaza, and for Canadians to be able to exit. For this reason, we are calling for humanitarian pauses on hostilities to be considered."

In a written statement, Joly’s spokeswoman Emily Williams said there are ongoing diplomatic conversations about humanitarian pauses but also noted that Canada's position is that Hamas must "immediately release all hostages." Canadians and all other foreign nationals must be allowed to leave Gaza if they want to do so, she said.

The Conservatives are also behind the idea.

Last week, the party's foreign affairs critic, Michael Chong, told the House of Commons that Canada should "resist the temptation to call for a ceasefire."

On Tuesday, after Trudeau made his own remarks on the idea, Chong issued a written statement to support "temporary pauses"

"Conservatives support efforts to allow Canadian citizens and other foreign nationals to be able to safely exit Gaza and return to their country of citizenship," he said.

"Those efforts, by necessity, require temporary pauses in military activity to ensure the safety of those involved."

The Bloc Québécois had on Monday urged the Liberals to support humanitarian pauses. Leader Yves-François Blanchet thanked Trudeau for doing so on Tuesday.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had on Monday requested a private meeting with Trudeau to discuss the need for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

The first aid convoys began to flow into Gaza last weekend, but have been very small with very limited amounts of food, water, fuel and medical supplies. With both Hamas and Israel firing at each other, any attempt to deliver aid is also dangerous.

The United Nations agency providing relief work in Gaza said that 35 of its aid workers have been killed since the latest conflict began. Many of them were teachers.

Calls for a ceasefire grew last week after an explosion at Gaza City hospital.

The Gaza Health Ministry initially blamed the blast on an Israeli airstrike, but Israel denied being involved. The United States, France and Canada have all since said that their independent analysis of evidence showed the rocket that hit the hospital was fired from within Gaza, not from Israel.

On Tuesday, Blair called the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas "a horrific terrorist attack."

"I think (Israel has) a right to defend themselves against that terror threat," he told reporters on his way into the cabinet meeting. "And quite frankly, Hamas has to be eliminated as a threat, not just to Israel but to the world."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to continue the battle until Hamas has been "destroyed", which he repeated on Tuesday when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Tel Aviv.

"We are doing everything we need to do to destroy Hamas in Gaza," Netanyahu said.

"We will dismantle its terror machine, we will dismantle its political structure, we will make every effort to release our hostages and we will make every effort to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm's way."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press