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Joly calls for de-escalation of Israel-Hamas conflict but doesn't say ceasefire

Minister of National Defence Bill Blair stands at the rear of a new ambulance variant to the armoured combat support vehicle fleet at Garrison Petawawa, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Blair is expected to face further questions today about the evidence Canada has showing a rocket blast at a hospital in Gaza City originated within the Gaza Strip THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Canada would like to see a "de-escalation" in the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and new talks toward a long-term peace in the region, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday.

But she stopped short of calling for a ceasefire despite growing pressure from within Canada, and her own party, to do so.

"I think it's important that we send a clear message of de-escalation, but also that we are able to talk about peace and stability," she said from the United Arab Emirates, where she was meeting with her counterparts on the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis.

Joly did not specify what a de-escalation looks like to Canada and never used the word ceasefire.

European foreign ministers endorsed what they're deeming a "humanitarian pause" in the conflict Monday, enough time to allow additional aid into the Gaza Strip, where more than one million people have been displaced. Israel has limited access to electricity, food and water, creating a growing humanitarian nightmare.

Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe asked in question period Monday if Canada would make a similar call. Speaking in French he said it's not realistic to ask Israel for a ceasefire as long as it remains under threat from Hamas.

But he said a temporary pause to allow in aid and provide passage for those who want to leave is a reasonable request.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, who was at the Cairo Peace Summit with Joly in Egypt on Saturday, didn't indicate if Canada would join Europe, responding in French to say that humanitarian corridors must remain open.

Three small shipments of aid have now entered Gaza since Saturday, bringing some fuel, food and medical supplies. But Israel accuses Hamas of intercepting most aid and there have been very few openings for goods to enter Gaza.

Calls for a ceasefire have been adding up over the last week, particularly since a deadly strike at a hospital in Gaza City on Oct. 17. On Saturday, Defence Minister Bill Blair said Canadian military intelligence concluded, based on evidence of the blast damage at the hospital and the flight pattern of the incoming munition, that the rocket was more likely fired from within Gaza, not from Israel.

That finding concurred with earlier statements by Israel, the United States and France.

The blast happened nine days after a renewed conflict in the region was sparked by an assault by Hamas militants in Israel and a response by Israel in the Gaza Strip.

Israel says more than 1,400 people were killed in the original Hamas attack on Oct. 7, at least 4,500 were injured and more than 200 people were taken hostage. Palestinian authorities say more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in the days since.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday two elderly Israeli women, who had been abducted by Hamas militants from their kibbutz in Israel on Oct. 7, were released Monday. That followed the release of an American woman and her adult daughter over the weekend.

Six Canadians were killed in the Hamas attack and two more remain missing. Joly said Canada will not confirm if those two people are among the remaining hostages, but Canada has called for the immediate release of all hostages.

Canada immediately threw its support behind Israel following the attack but has also called for civilian lives in Gaza to be protected and international law to be upheld.

Last week more than 30 MPs, including 23 Liberals, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to push for a ceasefire, citing violations of international law against civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Some other Liberal MPs have said a ceasefire is complicated. Last week Winnipeg Liberal MP Ben Carr said a ceasefire is what all want eventually, but Hamas remains an existential threat to Israel and Israel has a right to defend itself against that threat.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was not among the eight NDP MPs who signed the letter, but on Monday he wrote to Trudeau asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the issue.

Trudeau spoke Sunday with leaders from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy. An official summary of that conversation did not mention a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause.

It said the leaders "reiterated their support for Israel and its right to defend itself against terrorism and called for adherence to international humanitarian law including the protection of civilians." 

Joly also said Monday there are concerns about the conflict expanding and that Canada believes long-term peace in the region requires renewed talks toward a two-state solution.

That refers to a negotiated agreement that would see an independent Israel and Palestinian state sharing the land both sides have laid historical claims to for decades. A two-state solution nearly came to be in the mid 1990s, but it fell apart amid Hamas suicide bombings and following the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish extremist who opposed Rabin's peace process.

Joly said Canada has a role to play to renewing those conversations and that is one of the reasons she is currently in the Middle East.

For several days now Joly has told Canadians in Lebanon that they need to leave while commercial flights are still available, a message she reiterated Monday.

Canada has airlifted 1,600 people from Israel and the final military flight left Tel Aviv Monday.

Blair said Canada has deployed military resources and staff from the immigration department and Global Affairs Canada into Lebanon and Cyprus in case further evacuation becomes necessary.

"I can tell you just being proactive and out of an abundance of caution, we remember well our previous experience in 2006," Blair said.

He is referring to the difficulty getting Canadians out during a month-long battle between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon 17 years ago.

About 15,000 Canadians have told Global Affairs they are in Lebanon currently.

The risk of escalation increased even in the last 24 hours, with further clashes between Israel and Hezbollah along the Israeli-Lebanon border, and Israeli airstrikes in the occupied West Bank, Syria and Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a radical militant group backed by Iran. Canada listed it as a terrorist entity in December 2002, just a few weeks after Canada put Hamas on its terrorist group list as well.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Canada had not provided details on the evidence it used to make its determination.

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