Canada breaks with long-standing Israel stance at UN in voting for Gaza ceasefire

Canada breaks with long-standing Israel stance at UN in voting for Gaza ceasefire
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an interview in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. Trudeau says Israel and Hamas must work toward

Canada voted in favour of a non-binding resolution at the United Nations on Tuesday that calls for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, in a move that broke with years of Canadian policy and shocked Jewish groups.

The vote at the UN General Assembly represents a shift in Canada’s long-standing position of siding with Israel on major resolutions at the international body and arguing the Jewish state is unfairly called out in global forums.

The Liberals say the carnage in the Gaza Strip led Canada to change tack.

“We must recognize that what is unfolding before our eyes will only enhance the cycle of violence,” Foreign Affairs Minister MĂ©lanie Joly said Tuesday on Parliament Hill.

“This will not lead to the durable defeat of Hamas, which is necessary, and the threat that it poses to Israel. With the future of Israelis and Palestinians in mind, Canada is joining the international call for humanitarian ceasefire.”

Canada has stated from the beginning that Israel has the right to defend itself, Joly said. “And how Israel defends itself matters. It matters for the future of both Israelis and Palestinians, and it matters for the future of the region,” she added.

The latest war between Israel and Hamas began after the armed group’s militants launched a surprise attack in Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, including hundreds of civilians, and taking about 240 people hostage.

Israel retaliated with airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and cutting off its access to many essential supplies. Local authorities say more than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed.

“Thousands of children are now orphans,” Joly said Tuesday.

“Countless Palestinian civilians in Gaza are suffering without water, food, fuel or medicine and their homes have been reduced to rubble.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims called the UN vote a “milestone” that needs to translate into “the reality of action and deeds.”

Yet the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said it was “disgusted and frankly shocked” by Canada’s stance, given that the motion does not explicitly call out Hamas for its crimes or urge the group to surrender.

“Canada’s decision to support the resolution will undoubtedly lead to further hate being directed towards Jews here in Canada,” the group’s head Shimon Koffler Fogel said in a statement.

Hamas “cannot be rewarded and left unaccountable,” said the group, which represents Jewish federations across Canada.

Canada had lent its support to a U.S. amendment to the resolution Tuesday that would have explicitly condemned Hamas, but the amendment did not reach the support of two-thirds of the assembly that would have been required to adopt it.

UN ambassador Bob Rae told the assembly that Canada supports a humanitarian ceasefire, because it is a necessary step in calling for an end to the “continuous” suffering of Palestinian civilians.

“We are alarmed at the diminishing safe space for civilians in Gaza,” he said, while noting Canada’s support for the unsuccessful amendment to the motion.

“The ongoing humanitarian crisis has weighed heavily in Canada’s decision to support this resolution.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said earlier Tuesday that Israel and Hamas must work toward “a sustainable ceasefire.” That would start with another multi-day truce like one last month that allowed the flow of humanitarian aid and the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

Earlier Tuesday, Trudeau had issued a joint statement with his Australian and New Zealand counterparts, outlining a series of stances on the war.

The statement called for Hamas to release the hostages from its “heinous” attack, and said the group is responsible for sexual violence and “using Palestinian civilians as human shields.”

The leaders called for “safe and unimpeded humanitarian access” to the Gaza Strip and for Israel to stop its siege of the territory.

The statement said Hamas cannot be allowed to govern Gaza, while adding that Israel cannot reoccupy the territory or displace Palestinians.

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to Joly, said prior to the UN vote that Canada is trying to put pressure on both parties, while adding that Hamas needs to surrender.

“Ceasefires are always negotiated. So Canada has to push, has to prod,” he told reporters.

“I think the three countries hit the right tone, to move it one step further,” he said of the statement.

Trudeau also said he had a “long and detailed conversation” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, hours ahead of the UN vote.

In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, Trudeau had said there is no perfect balance for his government to strike in this conflict, given the heightened emotions.

“This line does not exist,” he said in French. “There is too much pain … to be able to find a mythical fine line of a balanced position.”

Trudeau added in that Monday interview that Ottawa’s stance on the conflict has a limited effect in the region, so his government has focused on pushing for humanitarian aid and a viable two-state solution.

“It is about time the Liberals call for a ceasefire. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have advocated for weeks for the Liberals to shift their position,” said NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson, adding that meaningful action must now follow.

“It’s up to the Liberals to explain whether they are calling on Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire today or whether this is just lip service towards Liberal donors fleeing the party because of the government’s lack of moral courage.”

The Conservatives would not directly speak to Canada’s vote at the United Nations.

“We call for an immediate end to the conflict by having Hamas turn over hostages and all weapons and surrendering unconditionally,” a spokesman for the party said. “That will allow for perpetrators to be held accountable, civilian rebuilding and talks towards a permanent peace to the benefit of all.”

Deputy Conservative leader Melissa Lantsman accused the Liberals of “gaslighting for votes” in a social media post, saying the move was “the complete opposite of that statement in the afternoon.”

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, a strident supporter of Israel, said on social media that he disagreed with his government’s vote: “Any cessation of hostilities requires Hamas to release all hostages and lay down arms and surrender. Hamas, a terrorist organization, is entirely responsible for starting a war.”

Advocates for Israeli hostages still held in Gaza were on Parliament Hill earlier in the day to press the government to impose sanctions on individual members of Hamas.

The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights has presented a 119-page document that asks the Liberals to sanction specific people affiliated with Hamas, which Canada has deemed a terrorist organization since 2002.

That designation is not enough, the group is arguing, noting that countries like the United Kingdom have also sanctioned individuals.

Irwin Cotler, the founder of the advocacy group and a former Liberal justice minister, said the release of hostages needs to be a “stand-alone obligation” on both legal and moral bases, “unrelated to wherever you may stand on the political issues.”

The document lists 44 people it claims to be key to be affiliated with Hamas, some of whom have been sanctioned by Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

A dense crowd of hundreds of protesters, many of them holding up Palestinian flags, marched outside a convention centre in Ottawa where Trudeau was scheduled to give a speech to a Liberal caucus holiday party on Tuesday evening.

A woman with a megaphone criticized the prime minister, saying he thinks it’s “enough” to call for a ceasefire, but Canada still sides with Israel. Protesters chanted, “shame, shame, Trudeau” as they walked by the venue.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2023.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Anja Karadeglija. 

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