OTTAWA — The Gaza Strip has become the hardest place to live on Earth, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Thursday, as 32 more people tied to Canada escaped the war-racked territory, and Israel's promise of a daily four-hour pause in military operations fuelled hope for faster evacuations.
"We're ready on the other side of the Egyptian border to assist and support Canadians that are evacuated," Joly told reporters in a teleconference from Vancouver.
Joly also said that Canada is in line with Washington in saying Palestinians cannot be forced out of the Gaza Strip, and that Israel must negotiate with Hamas to get its hostages out. They must also negotiate for an eventual peace, she said.
As of early Thursday, 107 people with a connection to Canada had departed the besieged territory through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, and received help from Canadian officials. Foreign nationals began leaving the Gaza Strip starting last week, but Canadians were first allowed out on Tuesday.
They are fleeing a worsening humanitarian situation and constant Israeli airstrikes. The bombardment is in retaliation for brazen Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants, who killed 1,400 Israelis and kidnapped 239 people.
Global Affairs Canada said late Thursday that another 550 people who are Canadians, permanent residents of Canada or their eligible family members are still hoping to leave the territory.
It also said it was aware of nine citizens crossing the Rafah border with a third party. It said it could not share more information because of privacy considerations. Third parties could include other countries or global organizations that are evacuating employees.
"We've been ready since the first days following the attacks on Israel to evacuate Canadians in Gaza," Joly said.
Global Affairs Canada said 32 people with links to Canada had been able to leave Gaza on Thursday, although 40 Canadian names had appeared on the day's list of approved evacuees.
The department did not explain why not everyone on the list had crossed. But officials say the situation at the border is volatile and chaotic, and that people are only asked to make their way to the crossing when it's clear they can get through. The crossing had been reported closed earlier in the day.
"We do not control the Rafah gate being open or not. We do not control, neither, who crosses and when," Joly said, noting that she is among the international officials who had been publicly urging Israel and Egypt to allow the crossings.
On Tuesday, 75 people with links to Canada were the first Canadian evacuees to leave the territory in the month since Israel declared war on Hamas, which Canada classifies as a terrorist organization.
No Canadians were able to cross via official means on Wednesday, with a U.S. State Department spokesperson saying the border had been closed because of a "security circumstance," offering little additional detail.
People coming from Gaza will be allowed to stay in Egypt for up to three days, and the Canadian government is providing them with accommodation and basic essentials during that time. The first evacuees reached Toronto early Thursday.
Later that day, the White House confirmed Israel had agreed to put in place a daily four-hour humanitarian pause on airstikes in northern Gaza.
U.S. President Joe Biden said that move came after he called on Israel to withhold bombardment for three or more days in the hopes that Hamas would release hostages, though he said there was "no possibility" of a ceasefire.
The Israelis have committed to announcing each four-hour window at least three hours in advance, said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Israel was also opening a second corridor for civilians to flee the areas that are the current focus of its military campaign against Hamas, Kirby said.
Joly said she hoped that the pauses would allow more Canadians to get out of Gaza, and for United Nations agencies funded by Ottawa to deliver essentials.
"We need, of course, more fuel, food and water to be sent to Gaza. The only organization able to concretely do this in Gaza in the field is the UN," she said.
A month of relentless bombardment has killed more than 10,800 Palestinians — nearly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
More than 2,300 others are believed to have been buried by strikes that in some cases have demolished entire city blocks, while American officials say the recent resumption of some water supplies and food shipments has yet to meet a huge demand for essentials.
"The situation is extremely worrying, and living in Gaza currently means living in the most difficult place to live in the world," Joly said in French.
Joly spoke with Canadian reporters for the first time since she joined G7 peers in Tokyo to demand that "all parties" permit "unimpeded humanitarian support" to enter Gaza, including through pauses in the fighting.
On Thursday, Joly went further, saying she endorses calls by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said Israel must not forcibly displace Palestinians, nor reoccupy Gaza, nor put the territory under siege.
Israel has demanded that Palestinians in the north of Gaza move to the territory's south, saying this will keep people safe as Israeli strikes target Hamas infrastructure. But the move has stoked concerns across the Arab world that Israel would attempt to take over Gaza in whole or in part, or try to permanently displace Palestinians.
Israel has insisted this is not its intent and has played down a proposal drafted by a government ministry to transfer the entire population of Gaza into Egypt and have large numbers resettled to countries like Canada.
Joly noted Thursday that Ottawa supports Palestinian self-determination. "We have never been in favour of any forced displacement. So this is abiding with our long-standing position," she said in English.
"We've always mentioned that civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinians, are equal and deserve to be protected."
Joly said she's hopeful the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank but was ousted from Gaza by Hamas, should retake its role in advancing Palestinian self-determination in both territories.
Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Israel to ensure that the newly agreed upon pauses in the fighting would last long enough for people to leave the area and for aid to arrive.
"We've been calling for weeks now for humanitarian pauses," he told a news conference.
"They need to be significant; they need to last long enough to get people out (and) to get supplies in. And we have to start using them to start thinking about what the medium term and long term is."
Trudeau said he's hopeful the latest developments can lead to deeper long-term discussions about a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live beside each other in peace.
Meanwhile, Joly also revealed that Canada's head of consular cases is in the Middle East trying to help secure the release of hostages being held by Hamas.
Julie Sunday, an assistant deputy minister who has conducted multiple public briefings on the evacuations, went from Israel to Egypt and will soon head for Qatar, a country that houses some senior Hamas leaders and has claimed credit for negotiating the release of some hostages.
Joly said she hopes the humanitarian pauses allow not just for hostages and foreigners to flee Gaza, but for further negotiations that could result in an eventual end to the carnage.
"This will allow a sort of détente, and therefore allow, I hope, even more negotiations at the negotiation table, where there are the Israelis, Hamas and Qatar present at the negotiation table as a moderator," Joly said in French.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2023.
— With files from Fakiha Baig in Toronto and The Associated Press.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press