Canadians with loved ones in Gaza, Israel watch with heartbreak as violence unfolds

·6 min read
Smoke and flames rise during Israeli air strikes, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues in Gaza City, May 14, 2021.  (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters - image credit)
Smoke and flames rise during Israeli air strikes, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues in Gaza City, May 14, 2021. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters - image credit)

As another day of violence unfolds in Gaza and Israel, many with loved ones in the region are watching with anxiety and heartbreak, unable to look away as the threat of a ground war looms.

The end of Ramadan, which was supposed to have been a time of celebration marked by Eid festivities, became a sombre day for Sabrine Azraq's family in Toronto — their hearts heavy as image after image of destruction emerged from the region.

"There is very little to celebrate when we know what is happening. There's a heavy cloud over us," Azraq told CBC News. "People are very afraid of what is to come."

With her mother's entire family in the West Bank, Azraq and her relatives have been unable to avoid their phones and televisions.

"We're trying to watch live as many videos as possible to see what is going on. We are heartbroken," she said.

Israel on Friday unleashed a heavy barrage of artillery fire and airstrikes, as the threat of a ground invasion in Gaza grew. The aim, said Israeli military spokesperson Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, is "to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties."

Sabrine Azraq, shown with her father in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, says she and her relatives in Toronto have been unable to avoid their phones and televisions since the latest violence broke out. Her mother's entire family lives in the West Bank.
Sabrine Azraq, shown with her father in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, says she and her relatives in Toronto have been unable to avoid their phones and televisions since the latest violence broke out. Her mother's entire family lives in the West Bank.(CBC)

Palestinian militants in Gaza, meanwhile, have fired some 1,800 rockets toward Israel in this latest round of conflict that began when Israeli settlers tried to displace dozens of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and Israeli security forces descended on Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound last Friday.

The fighting has so far killed 119 Palestinians, including 31 children. Seven Israelis have also been killed, including a six-year-old boy and a soldier.

A message of common humanity

It's an all-too-familiar pattern for Rabbi Joshua Corber at Beit Rayim Synagogue and School in Richmond Hill, Ont., who has family members and many friends in Israel.

"They can't sleep, they worry for their children, they get red alert messages on their phone.... So some of them are afraid to take a shower because they only have 90 seconds to get to a shelter," Corber told CBC News.

Watching the events from afar, he said: "It's a mixture of sadness and exasperation."

When speaking to his congregation, Corber said, he's been trying to emphasize a message of common humanity.

Rabbi Joshua Corber of Beit Rayim Synagogue and School in Richmond Hill, Ont., says watching the events from afar brings 'a mixture of sadness and exasperation.'
Rabbi Joshua Corber of Beit Rayim Synagogue and School in Richmond Hill, Ont., says watching the events from afar brings 'a mixture of sadness and exasperation.' (CBC)

"What I've told my community is that I'm holding space in my heart for suffering and the grief that's being experienced in Israel," he said. "And I've been asserting to my congregation that while critique of Israel is necessary ... critique of Israel in and of itself is not tantamount to antisemitism."

"One can feel empathy and compassion for the grief and the suffering for Palestinians, and that does not diminish our love and support for our friends in Israel."

'Overwhelming' sentiment for division to end

Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli-Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker, grew up in Israel and spent most of her professional life there. She has spent the last several days watching the news and texting non-stop with family and friends in the region, some Israeli, some Palestinian.

"How is this not stopping? ... How is it still going on? That rage, that fear that this is being done in our name — I think that that's the feeling," Tarachansky told CBC News. "That's what I'm hearing over the phone.

"I know from talking to family and friends ... that it feels like the walls are caving in," she said.

Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli-Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker, grew up in Israel and spent most of her professional life there. 'It's incredible to see how people are able to maintain their humanity in the middle of this insanity,' she says.
Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli-Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker, grew up in Israel and spent most of her professional life there. 'It's incredible to see how people are able to maintain their humanity in the middle of this insanity,' she says. (CBC)

It's a feeling Tarachansky says is driven not only by Israel's actions in Gaza or the rocket-fire from Hamas hitting various parts of Israel, but also by the racist sentiments among some in Israel, which she says some politicians have allowed to fester to the point that they've gained legitimacy.

Ugly clashes have broken out among Jewish and Arab Israelis — in particular in the central city of Lod — despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam on Wednesday, Jewish nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him, leaving him unconscious and seriously injured.

But often missing from the media's portrayal of the situation, Tarachansky says, is an "overwhelming" sentiment in Israel — coming not just from activists and those in solidarity with Palestinians, but from ordinary people such as nurses, academics and even some police — to see an end to the division and violence.

'I refuse to be an enemy'

"It's incredible to see how people are able to maintain their humanity in the middle of this insanity," Tarachansky said.

"And to say, 'No, I refuse to be an enemy. I refuse to go into the little box that someone else has created for me and stay there.' I do see that there are people on the other side, and I'm going to do everything in my power so that our children don't have to sit in bomb shelters and don't have to fear the sky."

The Canadian government has called for an "immediate de-escalation of tensions and an end to the violence." The "indiscriminate" barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas is "absolutely unacceptable," it said.

The statement also says Canada is "deeply disturbed" by the violence in Jerusalem, including in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque, and "gravely concerned" by the expansion of settlements, demolitions and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

Sabrine Azraq says she's also frustrated that Canadians only seem to pay attention when scenes of violence erupt in the region, adding that not enough is done to push for peace when those images aren't filling screens.

She and Tarachansky say they want to see Canada stop the sale of arms to Israel — a demand made by New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh on Wednesday amid the escalating violence.

"You can't support peace on both sides when you're arming and training and supporting and financing one side of the conflict," Tarachansky said.

For his part, Rabbi Corber says as someone who has lived in Israel, he believes it's vital for Canadians to remember the goodness in both the Israeli and Palestinian people.

"It's just important to remember that everybody is human."

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