I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 77 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Today's meeting is being held in public and is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the Standing Orders. Therefore, members are attending in person in the room and remotely by using the Zoom application.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of members and witnesses.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. For those participating by video conference, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike, and please do mute yourselves when you are not speaking. For those in the room, your microphone will be controlled by the proceedings and verification officer. You may speak in the official language of your choice.
Although this room is equipped with a powerful audio system, feedback events can occur. These can be extremely harmful to interpreters and cause serious injuries. The most common cause of sound feedback is an earpiece worn too close to a microphone.
I will remind you that all comments should be addressed through the chair.
With regard to a speaking list, the committee clerk and I will do the very best we possibly can to maintain a consolidated order of speaking for all members, whether they are participating virtually or in person.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the committee will proceed to a briefing on the situation in Israel and Gaza. I would now like to welcome our witnesses.
From the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, we are grateful to have with us Ms. Julie Sunday, assistant deputy minister, consular, security and emergency management; Ms. Ann Flanagan Whalen, director general, North Africa, Israel, West Bank/Gaza; and Mr. Sébastien Beaulieu, director general, emergency management and security division.
In addition, from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, we have with us Ms. Jennifer MacIntyre, assistant deputy minister, international affairs and crisis response.
Should everyone be agreeable, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will be allotted 10 minutes for its opening statement. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration has been invited, and they are here to answer any questions that may be posed by the members.
We will start off with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
You have 10 minutes for your opening statement.
Good morning, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
Thank you for the invitation to brief the committee today on recent events in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Developments are moving quite quickly. I will focus on how the conflict is evolving and on Canadian approaches, but I will avoid discussing hypothetical and future-oriented scenarios.
On October 7, 2023, the terrorist group Hamas launched a large-scale terrorist attack against Israel. Hamas brutally killed over 1,300 Israelis and kidnapped over 100 civilians. The attack shook Israel to the core. Canada and the whole world were stunned by the severity of the atrocities committed by Hamas against innocent men, women and children. We condemn these actions.
Israel and Hamas have been at war since October 7. Hamas has continued to indiscriminately launch rockets into Israeli territory. Israeli defence forces undertook a vast campaign of air strikes in the Gaza Strip, in expectation of a terrorist invasion. Israel's objective is to paralyze Hamas once and for all and prevent a new attack of this kind from ever happening again.
Canada is continuing to meet its commitments to its partners in the region and around the world.
We have underscored the fact that we support Israel's right under international law to defend itself against the terrorist acts of Hamas.
Moreover, as we have already stated publicly and privately, it's essential for Israel to be able to defend itself in compliance with rules established by international humanitarian law. The first such rule is the protection of civilians.
The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza remains a significant concern for the Government of Canada. It is estimated that nearly 1.4 million Palestinians, including civilians, have been displaced from their homes in the past two weeks. There were reports, which we cannot independently verify, of more than 4,000 Palestinians killed, including civilians and children. It is imperative that humanitarian access be established so that life-saving assistance reaches civilians who need it most. The decision by Egypt and Israel to allow for initial deliveries of humanitarian assistance over the weekend is a positive first step, but it is clear that more must be done. Canadian officials will continue to call on all parties to ensure access of humanitarian aid to vulnerable Palestinians.
Canada remains one of the largest contributors of humanitarian and development assistance to vulnerable Palestinians, with an average spend of $55 million Canadian per year. Following 's announcement on October 21, Canada's contributions to address the current crisis in Gaza stand at $60 million Canadian.
All of our funding to support Palestinians goes through trusted partner organizations, such as UN agencies. We will support their efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance while ensuring that none of the funding goes into the hands of Hamas. Canada exercises enhanced due diligence for all humanitarian and development assistance funding for Palestinians. This effort includes systematic screening and strong anti-terrorism provisions in our funding agreements.
It is critical here that we emphasize that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, nor their legitimate aspirations. Hamas is a listed terrorist entity. It has brutally murdered innocent civilians, has chosen to invade Israel and has taken hostages in total violation of all international laws and norms.
Turning briefly to the broader region, it is essential that this conflict not become regionalized and spread to neighbouring areas. In this respect, Iran's rhetoric and support of Hamas, statements by the terrorist group Hezbollah, and the launching of rockets into and towards Israel and American forces by actors affiliated with Iran in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen are all deeply concerning.
Canadian representatives at all levels are continuing to engage with our partners in the region and around the world in dealing with the situation.
Canada remains determined to enforce international law and to support the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security.
Canada will continue to support the right of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to live in peace and security. We will continue to support a two-state solution as the only viable means to achieve this outcome.
I will be speaking to you today about the consular services being provided to Canadians affected by this crisis.
Since the onset of the crisis, our missions on the ground in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and more widely throughout the region, have been providing consular services to Canadians. The emergency watch and response centre here in Ottawa operates 24-7 and has responded to over 8,448 inquiries since the beginning of the conflict on October 7.
We immediately surged this team to be able to effectively respond to needs and have had a large team of officers taking calls. For example, in a 24-hour period, we have approximately 100 responders working. We have also deployed approximately 30 members of the standing rapid deployment team to reinforce our missions in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Athens, Cairo and Beirut, as well as in Cyprus.
These officers are being sent on an emergency basis from Ottawa and our missions in Europe and the region. They are all highly qualified and have been making themselves available for these assignments. We are grateful to them for their efforts, which are often carried out under extremely difficult conditions.
To ensure clear and timely communications during this crisis, we've set up a dedicated web page on GAC's external website. It includes the most up-to-date information. and we've been encouraging everyone to seek details there.
The travel advice and advisory web pages for Israel, Gaza and West Bank, as well as neighbouring countries, are being continually reviewed and updated as needed. For Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the overall travel advice is to avoid non-essential travel due to the unpredictable security situation.
In addition, there are regional advisories to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and to borders with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip.
Canadians in that region and neighbouring areas need to register with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service to receive updates.
At the moment, there are approximately 6,000 registered Canadians in Israel, and over 450 registered in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Of these, we are currently assisting 900 Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and their families. Through various forms of communication, including the Registration of Canadians Abroad service, we are in direct contact with those who have been affected.
Global Affairs is providing support to six Canadian families following deaths in the current hostilities, and to the families of two other Canadians who are reported missing.
The Government of Canada's first priority is always the safety and security of its citizens. For this reason, we have not been commenting on or releasing any information that may compromise the ongoing efforts to return these Canadians to safety.
Regarding assisted departures from the region, Global Affairs Canada officials continue to be in regular contact with Canadian citizens and permanent residents who've requested help in leaving Israel, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
I'll begin with an update on assisted departures from Israel.
We have thus far helped over 1,600 Canadians, permanent residents and members of their families to leave Israel. By the end of today 19 Canadian Armed Forces flights will have left Tel Aviv for Athens.
As was communicated by on Saturday evening, we have been closely monitoring the demand for flights out of Tel Aviv. Now that many Canadians have successfully left Israel, the demand is decreasing and commercial options are becoming increasingly available. Therefore, the last scheduled assisted-departure flight from Tel Aviv is taking place today. Canadian Armed Forces aircraft will remain in the region on standby to rapidly respond should conditions change.
For the Gaza Strip, the situation remains extremely fluid, and the Rafah border crossing remains closed to foreign nationals seeking to leave.
We are going to continue to communicate directly with Canadians who want to leave the region. We know that they are facing extremely difficult conditions, and we are doing everything we can to support them.
We continue to work around the clock to secure a window for Canadians to exit Gaza. We continue to communicate directly with Canadians, giving them the latest information as it becomes available. We are working hard with our allies, with the UN and governments in the region to ensure that Canadians will be able to take advantage of this window.
We are encouraged that some humanitarian convoys have entered through the crossing. It's an important first step toward the eventual movement of foreign nationals out of the area. Our mission in Cairo continues to engage with Egyptian authorities to ensure that any Canadians can pass through the Rafah crossing and will be transported to Cairo and onward to Canada.
For the assisted-departure options from the West Bank, we've been assisting the departure by land of Canadians, permanent residents and their family members from the West Bank into Jordan. Our mission in Ramallah continues to be in direct contact with all Canadians in the West Bank who are seeking support to leave.
While we are prioritizing Canadians for assisted departures, we are also supporting permanent residents and working to ensure that family units are not separated. When determining the eligibility for assisted departures, we follow the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which defines “family members”. All people looking for this assistance who are in touch with our call centre are made aware of who is eligible under the IRPA.
In the process of preparing for these assisted departures, we have been prioritizing documented and travel-ready passengers, stranded tourists and our most vulnerable clients. Canadians are not being charged for the assisted-departure flights from Israel to Athens or transit from the West Bank into Jordan. However, onward travel and accommodation are at the individual's personal expense.
Finally, I would like to speak briefly about the situation in Lebanon. There continues to be insecurity at the southern border with Israel and, as we saw with protests and violence in Beirut last week, the situation in Lebanon continues to be unstable.
We have now changed our travel advice to advise against all travel to Lebanon. We've amplified this message through social media and direct messages to registered Canadians in Lebanon. Our best advice is that Canadians should not travel to Lebanon for any reason.
For those Canadians who are already in Lebanon, we strongly advise that they seek commercial options to leave as soon as possible.
Whole-of-government planning is actively taking place to prepare for all scenarios. We have also pre-positioned our standing rapid deployment team officers in the region, and the department has stood up an emergency response team specifically focused on contingency planning for Lebanon.
Thank you very much. We'll be pleased to take your questions.
Thank you for that question.
The government is also concerned about the impact of this conflict on innocent civilians, including children, and about protecting them. Our priority is to keep people informed of what we can do. With a contribution of $60 million so far, we are among the major contributors.
We are still working with reliable partners to obtain aid, particularly for women, families and children. That's a part of our humanitarian aid philosophy. We are working with organizations that will be providing assistance to these people. Given the context of this conflict, that is clearly a difficult task.
There are a number of proposals out there: ceasefire, humanitarian corridor, safe zones—a range of things. The Government of Canada is advocating humanitarian access at this point. We will continue to call upon all parties to respect international humanitarian law and to ensure that this aid can be delivered.
There are a great many enjeux working their way out in the region right now in terms of access for humanitarian assistance to go in through the Rafah crossing and for access out for internationals through the Rafah crossing. Some of the parties are putting those two things next to one another and putting on conditions one way or the other.
As of this morning, the first 34 trucks of humanitarian assistance have passed through the Rafah border. It is important that it be delivered, and we will continue to deliver that message.
I will stop there.
I'll be happy to take other questions.
Thank you all very much for being here. I know how difficult this has been and I know about the work you've all been doing on consular support on this very difficult issue in a very difficult time, so thank you for the work you've been doing. I deeply appreciate it. I know Canadian citizens also appreciate it very much.
Obviously, we are all devastated by the terrorist attacks by Hamas on innocent civilians, including children. So many Canadians have been traumatized and are in mourning, and now so many Muslim and Palestinian Canadians are also feeling deep grief and fear as a result of the siege of Gaza.
There are eight families in my community of Edmonton who have lost loved ones in the past two weeks. Together, they've lost 95 family members, and those are just the families I know of in Edmonton. Across Canada, there are hundreds of families who are mourning the loss of their loved ones in Gaza and are terrified because of the ongoing bombing.
So far, the NDP is the only party that has called for a ceasefire.
I need to start with one very basic question. Do you, as representatives of the Government of Canada, believe that the collective punishment of Palestinians is, in fact, making Israelis safer?
Thank you to the witnesses for being here today.
I would like to start by stating and recognizing clearly that a person is a person is a person. I'm sure that this is a value that guides Global Affairs. All of us around this table recognize the common humanity we all have. We hope for a peaceful tomorrow, when everybody can live in true peace and dignity throughout the world, including in the Middle East, in Israel, in the West Bank and in Gaza.
We also recognize that there was a dramatic escalation of violence on October 7. What Hamas did terrorized Israeli civilians. We mourn the loss of each and every life—the 1,400 who died. We want to see the hostages who are currently being held freed. We also mourn the loss of life that is occurring right now as we speak, hour by hour, within Gaza and other parts of the region.
I'd like to focus on humanitarian aid.
Thus far, Canada has committed $60 million in humanitarian aid. We were the first within the international community to say that we will be there to help people who are facing a humanitarian crisis within Gaza. We were the first country to do so.
There has been a major challenge in terms of actually getting that aid to the people who need it. Can you tell us what the impediments are to getting the aid into Gaza?
There are multiple complications, in the sense of.... Ramallah is one part of the West Bank, and certainly we moved quickly. The first bus of Canadians and also some Australians out of Ramallah happened for those were individuals who were in that area because we were able to move really quickly.
There are Canadians across the West Bank, so we've been working to support them. There are challenges because of checkpoints and other issues. We've been working closely with a group called COGAT, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. It's an Israeli group, because we have to be sure that we are alerting them of our movements so that they're able to support us. They, of course, liaise with the IDF.
We also work closely with our colleagues at the UN who are responsible for security. We have very good relationships with them. They are on the ground. We are sharing information all the time to be able to ensure that Canadians can move effectively in the West Bank. We have transported people from Bethlehem to the border with Jordan, where we have our mission there collecting people.
One additional complexity in the case of the West Bank is that we also have IRCC officials with us on site in Ramallah so that they are able to do approvals of family members. That can take a bit of extra time, but we've been doing that really quickly. We've been able to move even mixed families across the border with Jordan, and that's something that is great. In the early days, we needed to do our homework to ensure we were able to do that safely without creating issues for people. We wanted to ensure their security and safety across that whole movement, which was and is quite complex.
We now understand it quite well, which is why our allies are asking us for advice on how to do that.
I find myself emotional on this issue. I thank you for your professionalism.
I have three things I'd like to accomplish.
The first is thanking the officials. As most people know, I was very involved in repatriation during COVID, and we learned a lot of lessons. You have acted brilliantly. I want, on our behalf, or at least on my behalf, to thank you publicly for the incredible leadership you've provided in helping not only Canadians but also the world. Thank you, Ms. Sunday and team, particularly. I know you co-opted hundreds of people from other parts of the department, and they haven't slept. I took two days off this weekend and didn't look at the news, because I needed a break. You don't get a break.
I also thank the diplomatic teams in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, as well as in Jordan, Egypt and everywhere, else for their professionalism in perhaps the worst crisis we have seen since 9/11, probably. It's a disaster. Thank you.
The second thing I want to focus on are your comments, Ms. Flanagan, about Iran.
It seems to me that this rogue state has a band around it that is potentially engaged in this, whether it is directly with Hamas—which it appears to be, but I don't know—or with Hezbollah in perhaps causing instability in Lebanon, which we are watching very closely, or with action in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Is there any intelligence you can provide to this committee on what we're watching? I don't want you to be hypothetical. What do we know? It seems to me that this, again, is elevating our concerns about Iran.
There are a couple of questions there.
Mr. Randy Hoback: Yes.
Ms. Ann Flanagan Whalen: On the assistance from Canadians, we are aware that individual Canadians have been making contributions through the Red Cross and through others that have appealed. We know that in the Jewish stakeholder community in Canada, a variety of different appeals have moved forward. I saw a report this morning that there's $100 million in assistance that has been gathered by Canadians who feel an affinity with Israel.
Individual Canadians are making those determinations and beginning to step forward. The question of the matching funds has not been broached at this point, but certainly Canada has been front and centre in terms of government-level contributions to make sure that the assistance gets to those who need it most, especially in Gaza.
The longer-term question you raise about livelihoods is one that in the Palestinian territories we've been deeply engaged in. We do work with trusted partners on livelihoods, including for women in particular. We have been deeply engaged in that. I envisage that we will continue to be engaged in that. We have a very good baseline of development support that Canada provides to Palestinians each year. It is $55 million, which is the envelope we typically work with each year.
Apart from this immediate crisis and the immediate catastrophe that we're trying to deal with right now, we do have a longer-term commitment to working with the Palestinian people, including on questions related to livelihood and economic opportunity.