Skip to content

Canada limited in preventing wider Mideast crisis, amid humanitarian plight: experts

OTTAWA — Experts say Canada has limited options as it works diplomatic channels to try preventing clashes in Israel and Palestinian territories from escalating into a wider, regional war, as conditions deteriorate in the Gaza Strip.
Experts say Canada has limited options as it works diplomatic channels to try preventing clashes in Israel and Palestinian territories from escalating into a wider, regional war. Israeli soldiers take position near the Israeli Gaza border, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Oren Ziv

OTTAWA — Experts say Canada has limited options as it works diplomatic channels to try preventing clashes in Israel and Palestinian territories from escalating into a wider, regional war, as conditions deteriorate in the Gaza Strip.

"Most governments now are focused on condemning Hamas's actions and underlining Israel's right to defend itself," said University of Ottawa professor Costanza Musu.

"It will be hard, very hard, in the next days when we see the mounting casualties on the Palestinian side, to tread the line between that support and the concern for the impending humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza."

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has said she's in touch with counterparts in the region, as the fallout from Hamas's brazen, surprise attacks on Israeli civilians on Saturday threatens to engulf multiple countries. 

The war has already killed at least 1,800 people in the areas bordering southwest Israel and in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where Israel launched a major retaliatory assault.

The armed wing of Hamas claims it has taken some 100 Israeli hostages, and it is threatening to kill one every time Israel's military bombs civilian targets in the Gaza Strip without warning. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which took part in Hamas's Saturday operation, claims to hold another 30 Israelis. 

Meanwhile, the militant group Hezbollah, in neighbouring Lebanon, has seized on the chaos, clashing with Israeli forces along the Lebanon-Israel border on the opposite side of the country. 

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, has praised Hamas for its Saturday attacks. The fighting has stoked fears the group will try invading Israel.

Joly has said that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that it must abide by international law.

The United Nations warned Tuesday that Israel's total siege on Gaza violates international humanitarian law, since it blocks access to the essentials of life.

Musu, who specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noted that countries such as Egypt and Qatar have offered to mediate talks between Israel and Hamas. But she argued those governments are acting out of their own geopolitical interests, rather than seeking an end to the bloodshed.

Canada has limited sway when it comes to mitigating the conflict, she said, or preventing it from spreading to other countries. That's in part because Ottawa is perceived as a staunch supporter of Israel.

The Canadian government's official policy is to advocate for a two-state solution to the protracted conflict. 

Yet Musu noted that both Conservative and Liberal governments have limited their criticism of the Israeli government even when it acts against that stated goal, making public statements that are less critical than those of other countries, including European allies.

That has been the case, for example, in response to Israel's expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a territory sought by the Palestinians for a future state.

In the Gaza Strip, since Hamas took control in 2007, Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade, with Israel providing limited electricity to the territory and heavily restricting travel in and out. 

"We have had a bit of a disconnect between that official position and the rhetoric coming from Ottawa," Musu said.

"What does Canada, even as a not necessarily impartial mediator, have to offer? Right now, it's not much."

Douglas Scott Proudfoot, the top Canadian envoy to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah from 2016 to 2019, said that Ottawa is not perceived as a serious player in the Middle East. 

He said that's in part because Canada has cut off dialogue with many of Israel's opponents, including Hamas, which Ottawa lists as a terrorist group.

"Diplomacy is not talking with the people you like; it's about talking to the ones you don't like," he said.

Proudfoot said Canada makes good humanitarian efforts and funds dialogue projects that are important for laying the groundwork for peace. He said it's not a bad idea for Joly to phone her counterparts and urge countries to avoid getting drawn into a destabilizing war.

But he said Ottawa doesn't have much sway with Israel, Hamas or countries in the Middle East because it has little influence in the region.

"We're just a fanboy" of Israel's, he said. "Because we have no credibility with the other side, we can't really do anything that is of help to anybody there, except on the margins."

The NDP has called for Canada to bolster support for international law by aiding the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice "to investigate war crimes by all military actors in Israel-Palestine."

In July, Ottawa asked the ICJ to not proceed with providing an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, despite a UN General Assembly motion calling for the legal opinion. 

Ottawa has argued the move would undermine attempts to get Israelis and Palestinians to directly negotiate a lasting peace.

Musu said it would be hard to get prosecutions on either side of the conflict, since Israel and Hamas are not members of the global courts. She noted that Israel puts an emphasis on its own military tribunals prosecuting war crimes, in an effort to prevent international bodies from stepping in.

Countries supporting Israel, such as Canada, will soon be confronted with a dire situation in Gaza, Musu said. 

Israel is urging people to leave the territory, but the border with Israel is sealed off and Egypt is heavily restricting its own border with the territory. The UN is reporting that at least 200,000 residents have been displaced from their homes.

"You could say that effectively Gaza residents are trapped inside," Musu said. "In the next days we will witness the tragedy happening inside Gaza."

The humanitarian group Save the Children is calling for all players in the region to stop fighting, even at interim intervals, so that civilians can be sent essential medicines and food.

The group's director for Palestinian territories, Jason Lee, said children in both Israel and Gaza are traumatized after witnessing explosions and artillery fire, and they can't process those memories if they're continually ducking for cover from airstrikes.

"In order to protect all children, we must stop this endless cycle of violence," said Lee.

"Children live in constant fear. Now, children are resilient … but in order for children to recover, we have to keep them safe. You have to remove the triggers and you must let them heal."

He noted that it is against international law for Hamas to hold Israeli children hostage, and for Israel to block humanitarian workers from providing civilians in Gaza with the essentials of life. 

Lee told reporters Tuesday from Jerusalem that it's clear a "humanitarian catastrophe" is looming, on a scale that nobody is adequately prepared to deal with. 

"The events that have unfolded in the last four days are horrific. But my fear is what is to come," he said. "The rights of children apply to all children."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

What's next?

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks