As TV footage from protests in the Gaza Strip flashed before his eyes, Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Canadian-Palestinian doctor based in Toronto, knew he had to act.
On that Friday alone in mid-May, the Israeli army shot dead 60 Palestinians taking part in the March of Great Return demonstrations near the fence with Israel. More than 2,770 others were wounded.
Abuelaish, who grew up in Gaza and lost three young daughters to Israeli shelling in 2009, knew the aftermath would be devastating for the thousands of wounded demonstrators faced with inadequate medical treatment in the besieged enclave.
Searching for ways to help, Abuelaish thought of a campaign he launched back in 2014 to bring 100 injured children from Gaza to Canada for urgent treatment following a 51-day Israeli assault that left some 3,400 minors wounded.
At the time, the Heal100Kids initiative gained widespread support, including by Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, members of parliament and leaders of both federal opposition parties.
An online petition garnered 45,000 signatures, while physicians agreed to donate their time and expertise to provide treatment. Travel and accommodation costs were to be covered by community fundraising.
Abuelaish was in disbelief – the campaign was humanitarian, not political. After his numerous attempts to meet with Canadian officials were left unanswered, the campaign was shelved, Abuelaish said.
Among the politicians that did support his initiative, however, was Justin Trudeau, who was running back then for Canada’s top elected office as the charismatic leader of the federal Liberal Party.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) August 4, 2014
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) August 5, 2014
Fast forward four years, and with Trudeau now being the prime minister of Canada, Abuelaish was hopeful this time that the Heal 100 Kids campaign would finally become a reality.
He first sent an email to Chrystia Freeland, minister of foreign affairs, on May 16 in which he urged Trudeau’s government to follow through with the Heal100Kids campaign the prime minister had previously backed.
“I am hopeful to receive a positive answer and achieve what the previous government antagonised,” Abuelaish wrote in the email.
With no response, Abuelaish then emailed Trudeau’s office on July 1 with the same message. He says he has yet to receive an answer.
“Now that he’s in power, when he’s able to translate the words into action and to walk the talk, I didn’t receive a word from his office … this is not the person that people elected,” Abuelaish told Al Jazeera.
“I am surprised. What is the difference between Trudeau and Stephen Harper? At that time [in 2014], even Stephen Harper and the minister of foreign affairs at least responded.
“I’m not asking for a political decision. I am asking for humanitarian action because the Gaza Strip is endemic with wounded people and handicapped, disabled people who are in need of help here.”
Government spokespersons contacted by Al Jazeera for comment did not provide an answer as to whether Trudeau still supports the Heal100Kids initiative.
A spokesperson for Canada’s international development minister replied on June 27 in an email to Al Jazeera that “Canadian officials [with the previous government] engaged with [Abuelaish], but the proposal was never pursued by his organisation”.
The spokesperson added that in December 2016 Canadian officials provided Abuelaish with potential funding opportunities, but did not receive any applications from him.
Abuelaish explained that the spokesperson is referring to the Daughters for Life Foundation, a scholarship programme for young women founded by him – an entirely different initiative that has “nothing to do with what is happening in Gaza now”.
“This is an urgent humanitarian initiative; it’s not a project for funding … I’m not asking for a grant,” Abuelaish said.
“If they have the moral and ethical courage it’s time for them to say ‘yes’ to this human initiative without any delay, any justification, without any issues or blame games.
“If they are willing to make a difference and they believe in justice and equality between human beings and advocating for human rights, this is the test,” Abuelaish added.
“It’s time to humanise, not politicise.”
|Abuelaish, an infertility specialist and University of Toronto associate professor, poses with his children following a graduation ceremony in Toronto [Photo courtesy of Izzeldin Abuelaish]|
‘Stand by your statement’
The weekly Great March of Return demonstrations in the Gaza Strip began on March 30, calling for the right of return of refugees and their descendants to the lands from which they were forcibly expelled from in 1948.
As the weeks passed and the death toll continued to rise, many noticed Canada’s lack of statements about the events in Gaza.
It wasn’t until after Tarek Loubani, a Canadian emergency physician, was wounded by Israeli live fire during demonstrations on May 14 that the federal Liberal government broke their silence.
A haunting photo, Friday, May 11. Left: Mohammed Migdad, shot in the right ankle. Hassan Abusaada. Tarek Loubani, shot in left leg and right knee. Moumin Silmi. Youssef Almamlouk. Musa Abuhassanin, shot in the thorax and killed. Volunteer unknown. Photographer: shot and wounded pic.twitter.com/d82ZGrUJGP
— Tarek Loubani (@trklou) May 15, 2018
On May 16, Trudeau issued a statement saying the Canadian government was “appalled” that Loubani was among the wounded and called for an “immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground – including any incitement, violence, and the excessive use of force”.
“Canada stands ready to assist in such an endeavour. We will work closely with our international partners and through international institutions to address this serious situation,” Trudeau’s statement added.
It avoided mentioning how the Palestinian demonstrators were killed, but the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) issued a statement on the same day condemning the government for failing to mention Hamas.
CIJA requested an urgent meeting with Trudeau, which was granted on July 5.
Following the meeting, Shimon Koffler Fogel, CIJA’s chief executive officer, wrote on the group’s website that they had “stressed the importance of unequivocal Canadian support for Israel”.
“[Trudeau] expressed full confidence in Israel’s capacity and will to hold its troops to a high ethical standard, rather than be singled out for an inherently biased international investigation,” Fogel wrote.
“And he reaffirmed Canada’s support for Israel, and committed to be more vigilant in countering anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.”
All very cozy. So when will Canada denounce the illegal settlements? When will it advocate for the rights of Palestinians, including those under siege in Gaza? When will it adhere to its official policy on the MidEast? #cdnpoli #Palestine #Israel https://t.co/2VC2I42GWp
— Antonia Zerbisias (@AntoniaZ) July 6, 2018
Meanwhile, Liberal MP Marwan Tabarra, who hand delivered an open letter to Trudeau on June 20 calling him to “stand by” his statement and ensure that an investigation is launched, told Al Jazeera that he has yet to receive a response.
About 300 academics around Canada signed the letter, which was written by professors Hani Faris and Atif Kubursi.
“How many Palestinians need to die or be maimed for life before we wake up and take action against what is now being condemned by a number of international aid and human rights organisations as blatant violations of international law constituting war crimes?” the letter asked.
Asked by Al Jazeera as to how Trudeau plans to ensure an independent investigation is conducted, a spokesperson from the ministry of foreign affairs reiterated in an email on June 27 – this time, mentioning Hamas – that they have called for a “neutral and impartial investigative process”.
“As we’ve said before, we believe that it is imperative to establish the facts of what has happened on the ground, including reported incitement and violence by Hamas, which Canada lists as a recognised terrorist organisation,” the spokesperson wrote.
Only two days after Trudeau issued his statement calling for the launch of an independent probe into the Gaza killings, Canada opposed such an investigation at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva, in what was described by Canadian lawyer and journalist Dimitri Lascaris as “one of the swiftest and most cowardly flip-flops in Canadian political history”.
Canada’s permanent representative to the UN told the session the resolution was biased as it “singles out Israel, without any reference to other actors” and “clearly prejudges the outcome of such an investigation”.
Ultimately, the investigation was approved, with 29 UNHRC members voting in favour, two voting against and 14 abstaining.
MSF: Palestinian protesters face ‘injuries of unusual severity’
Similarly, Canada voted against a fact-finding investigation on health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories to be led by World Health Organisation experts at the World Health Assembly on May 24.
According to a 2017 EKOS poll, 61 percent of Canadians believe their government is biased towards Israel.
“Today, it looks as though supporting Israel, right or wrong, is a habit that’s hard for the Canadian government to kick, and it’s Palestinians that are paying the price,” Corey Balsam, spokesperson for Canada’s Independent Jewish Voices, an advocacy group supporting peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians, told Al Jazeera.
He added, however, that Canadian “public opinion is turning starkly in our favour”.
“I sense that the Trudeau government is starting to feel the people pressure. In the absence of a strong pro-justice lobby, it’s up to civil society groups like ours and individuals like Dr. Abuelaish … to hold the Trudeau government to its word,” said Balsam.
“We just can’t back down.”