The situation in the Gaza Strip is “heartbreaking,” Canada’s deputy prime minister said Wednesday, the day after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for urging Israel to stop “the killing of women and children, of babies” inthe besieged Palestinian territory.
“I think everyone would agree that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is heartbreaking. It’s really difficult to see the images of what’s happening,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Wednesday in Mascouche, Que.
Freeland, who is also the federal finance minister, had been asked to respond to Netanyahu calling out Trudeau on Tuesday evening. His comments on social media came hours after Trudeau urged Israel’s government to “exercise maximum restraint” in its war against Hamas, which has included regular airstrikes in Gaza.
“I have been clear that the price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians. Even wars have rules,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Vancouver.
“We’re hearing the testimonies of doctors, family members, survivors, kids who have lost their parents,” said Trudeau. “The world is witnessing this. The killing of women and children, of babies.”
Israel began its latest war against Hamas, which Canada has listed as a terrorist entity since 2002, after its militants killed 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7. That included hundreds of civilians in their homes, in collective farming communities known as kibbutzim and at an outdoor music festival. Another 240 people were taken hostage.
Israel’s retaliation has included airstrikes and a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, as well as cutting off access to supplies in the territory, which had already been under a years-long blockade by both Israel and Egypt.
On Wednesday, two more people with ties to Canada made it out of Gaza. Global Affairs Canada says it has helped 358 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their relatives exit the war-torn territory, while another nine have managed to reach Egypt by other means.
Ottawa says another 386 people connected to Canada are trying to get out of Gaza.
The 2.3 million people who live in the territory are struggling to survive without electricity or running water and are rationing food. The health ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory says the war has now killed more than 11,200 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children.
Trudeau’s comments prompted a strong response from Netanyahu on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“While Israel is doing everything to keep civilians out of harm’s way, Hamas is doing everything to keep them in harm’s way,” he wrote Tuesday evening.
“It is Hamas, not Israel, that should be held accountable for committing a double war crime — targeting civilians while hiding behind civilians.”
On Wednesday, Yair Lapid, the opposition leader in Israel, also criticized Trudeau for his remarks.
“Prime Minister Trudeau, Israel is defending itself in difficult conditions against a brutal terrorist organization while trying to rescue babies, children, women and men who are being held hostage,” Lapid wrote on X.
“If Canada ever found itself under a sustained and brutal attack like the one we face now, you would find Israel by your side,” he added. “We expect the same support.”
University of Ottawa professor Costanza Musu said Netanyahu’s criticism of Trudeau seemed to echo remarks he’d directed to other leaders who have been critical of Israel’s military actions.
For example, French President Emmanuel Macron has criticized Israel for the killing of babies and elderly people in Gaza, which Netanyahu said was factually and morally wrong.
“Any kind of criticism that comes his way is rebuked equally,” said Musu, who specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It would be directed at any leader that were to suggest that Israel is responsible entirely for what’s happening now.”
Trudeau had referred specifically to the Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza, as Israeli troops surrounded the facility and it ran out of fuel.
On Wednesday, Israeli troops stormed into the hospital, searching for traces of Hamas inside and beneath the facility. Israel faced pressure to prove its claim that Hamas had turned the hospital into a command centre and used patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its militants. Israel released video late Wednesday of weapons it said it found in one building, but so far its search showed no signs of tunnels or a sophisticated command centre, and Hamas and Gaza health officials deny that militants operate there.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Trudeau had also said that Hamas needs to stop using Palestinians as human shields and release all hostages “immediately and unconditionally.”
He pushed for the violence to end “so that Palestinians can get access to life-saving medical services, food, fuel and water, so that all hostages can be released, so that all Canadians and other nationals can leave Gaza.”
Musu said criticism of Israel’s actions around the hospital would be particularly sensitive to Netanyahu’s government, given Israel’s assertion that it is important to Hamas.
She said the Israeli government is aware that military operations near a hospital will be controversial, but from its point of view, targeting what it believes is Hamas infrastructure is the only way to prevent terrorist attacks on its own citizens.
“The government of Israel is in a situation in which it views the operation in Gaza as something that not only cannot be avoided, but also cannot be stopped,” Musu said.
She noted that Netanyahu is facing “a huge amount of pressure” because of the security failure of the Hamas attack, particularly from the families of hostages who are still in captivity.
On Wednesday, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau was being fair in what he said about Israel.
“There should obviously be a full respect for international law and there are deep concerns about that not being followed, and so that’s a fair criticism,” he told reporters in Toronto on Wednesday.
Singh also repeated his demands that Trudeau call for a ceasefire, arguing that it would boost Canada’s credibility on the world stage.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s office has not responded to an interview request. But deputy leader Melissa Lantsman decried Singh’s comments as “disgusting” in an Instagram post on Wednesday.
Former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, who now leads a Jewish rights group called the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, did not weigh in on Netanyahu’s comments.
But he wrote on X that Trudeau’s remarks were “reckless accusations” that didn’t accurately portray what Israel is trying to do in the Gaza Strip.
“Jews like me, reeling from weeks of surging antisemitism, got the message loud and clear, and will worry that they have the potential to further fan the flames of Jew-hatred that we are facing,” Levitt wrote.
Trudeau has faced increased pressure domestically from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, refugee settlement agencies and MPs — including some Liberals — to call for a ceasefire, in a bid to safely evacuate civilians and deliver humanitarian aid.
Instead, Trudeau has called for “a sustained humanitarian pause” in the bombardments. Israeli officials say a ceasefire would only allow Hamas to prepare more attacks.