Hamas hostage deal ‘progress’ but long-term peace needs ‘many more steps’: Trudeau

Hamas hostage deal 'progress' but long-term peace needs 'many more steps': Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the second day of the Canada-EU summit in St. John’s on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained unmoved on Friday in rejecting demands for Canada to call for a full ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, but said a deal this week to temporarily halt hostilities so some hostages can be released is a sign of progress.

“I continue to call for a need for lasting peace in the region, including a two-state solution,” Trudeau said at a news conference in St. John’s, N.L.

“We’ve been calling for weeks for a significant humanitarian pause. It is progress that we have that right now. But there are many more steps we’re going to have to take on together.”

Hamas, which Canada deems a terrorist organization, has so far freed 24 people, including 13 Israeli women and children, 10 people from Thailand and one person from the Philippines.

Israel confirmed on Friday that it released 39 Palestinian prisoners in line with the truce deal.

Hamas and militants from the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad captured about 240 hostages when militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people, including hundreds of civilians.

An official at Global Affairs Canada confirmed to the Senate foreign affairs committee this week that one Canadian woman is still missing.

The department did not immediately respond when asked for details about the woman, or whether she is a hostage who might now be slated for release. Ottawa has previously said it would not confirm whether any Canadians are being held hostage, for fear that doing so would make it harder to get them to safety.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs praised the release of the hostages, and said it is praying that all of them safely return. “We are relieved they are now back in Israel,” the Canadian advocacy group wrote on X, previously known as Twitter.

The pause in fighting is a respite for those displaced or injured amid Israel’s retaliation campaign in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where local health authorities say 13,300 Palestinians have been killed and another 6,000 people are missing.

With the truce deal, increased shipments of fuel and supplies have gone into Gaza — though still only enough to put a dent in the needs of the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza who have endured weeks of Israeli bombardment, according to aid groups.

Israel has agreed to allow the delivery of 130,000 litres of fuel a day into the besieged territory for humanitarian needs for the duration of the truce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will press ahead with the war after it expires.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group reportedly holds 40 of the hostages, and its leader Ziad Nakhaleh said Friday that Israeli soldiers who are held hostage will only be released in exchange for all the Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Trudeau did not specify on Friday why he does not support a ceasefire.

Last month, Defence Minister Bill Blair said he did not expect that Hamas would respect one, saying Oct. 24 that the organization must “be eliminated as a threat, not just to Israel, but to the world.”

On Parliament Hill, groups supporting Palestinians are continuing to call for a ceasefire, saying there needs to be time to build housing for the 1.7 million people the United Nations says have been displaced in Gaza.

Fahamia Koudra, a board member of Human Concern International, said her colleagues in the region have seen an uptick in deaths from dehydration and vaccine-preventable illnesses.

“Winter is coming and there is no sanitation or water,” she said at a news conference Friday morning.

“A four-day pause is not even enough to retrieve bodies from the rubble,” she said. “Without a ceasefire, mass casualties will exponentially increase without the desperately needed supplies and (with) devastated infrastructure.”

At a Thursday news conference on Parliament Hill, Ottawa resident Hany Elbatnigi recounted horrifying scenes from Gaza. He left the territory on Nov. 7.

“I won the lottery of life. I was one of the lucky ones to leave for safety to Cairo,” he said.

“I left behind the smell of death, the horrifying sounds of explosion and the sight of dogs eating the flesh of the dead bodies.”

Elbatnigi said his family left home after Israeli military airstrikes bombarded his neighbourhood. They stayed in homes crammed with dozens of people for days at a time, progressively moving south toward the Egyptian border.

He said 71 members of his extended family have been killed in Gaza, with him learning Wednesday that his niece and her two children died.

“Too many of them were barely taller than my waist,” he said.

Elbatnigi lamented Canada’s strident support of Israel during its war, and the communication from consular officials.

“There was very little information provided and even less help,” he said. “Instead, there were many public statements that Canada supported Israeli attacks while my family and I were still in harm’s way.”

Elbatnigi said he is pushing officials to get his injured sister out of Gaza, and for an end to the hostilities.

“I cannot help them, but the least I can do is to ask my government to call for a ceasefire. The people of Gaza deserve to be lucky like me.”

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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

— With files from The Associated Press.

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