The federal government will begin airlifting Canadian citizens out of Israel in a day or two – nearly a week after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians – with officials saying the first flights could begin Thursday evening or as late as Friday.
Some Canadians have been frustrated by a lack of answers from Ottawa in recent days and have taken matters into their own hands by chartering private flights to safety.
The first of these flights, a privately organized Dash 8 charter, took off from a small airport in the Israeli city of Haifa on Wednesday, carrying 27 passengers, mostly Canadians. It arrived an hour later in Larnaca, Cyprus. Two more flights, with as many as 267 passengers, are being privately arranged in the next two days.
Although there are commercial flights operating out of Israel, many international airlines, including Air Canada, have suspended flights to and from the Mideast country and some others have been delayed, cancelled or sold out.
About 35,000 Canadians live in Israel on a permanent basis, but many have remained there throughout past conflicts.
Ottawa said about 4,220 Canadian citizens and permanent residents had registered their presence in Israel with the Department of Global Affairs. About 480 had done so from Gaza and the West Bank. The federal government has not clearly laid out how it will help Canadians in the West Bank or Gaza.
Antonella Kamien, a 32-year-old Canadian who was boarding Wednesday’s flight from Haifa with her father and her five-year-old son, said she had phoned the Canadian embassy twice in the past two days to seek help but could get nothing beyond a vague promise.
“That’s no help. During war times, we need certainty. We have enough uncertainty,” she said. “I said to them, ‘Other countries are bringing planes to evacuate their citizens from Israel, and where is Canada?’ “
Ottawa’s evacuation efforts will see Canadian Armed Forces aircraft shuttle Canadians, permanent residents and their children and spouses from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to Athens. From there, federal officials have arranged for Air Canada aircraft to take passengers back to Canada at their own expense.
The government flights from Tel Aviv could begin as early as Thursday night local time but are more likely to begin Friday, two senior officials told reporters at a background briefing in Ottawa Wednesday. The flights each have a capacity of 150 passengers.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the officials because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly cautioned Canadians in Israel to make a decision soon on whether they want to leave because, she said, the Canadian government flights will not continue indefinitely.
“At one point, government flights will be over,” the minister told reporters.
Canada is also sending a team of experts in hostage negotiations to help Israel as it grapples with the dozens taken hostage by Hamas, Ms. Joly said.
But Ms. Joly wouldn’t confirm whether three reportedly missing Canadians are among the hostages taken by Hamas because of the risk, she explained, that it would put them at greater danger. However, at a separate briefing provided by the Israeli government, officials said Canadians were among the hostages.
At the Wednesday government briefing, senior officials said about 1,000 people have contacted the Department of Global Affairs for assistance and they estimated roughly 70 per cent, or 700, were looking for an evacuation flight.
The Air Canada flights from Athens will head to Toronto and Montreal but details are not yet available.
Ms. Kamien, who flew to Cyprus Wednesday, had lived in Israel for the past eight years. She decided to leave when Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 Israelis in a cross-border assault on the weekend.
“It’s not something that anyone should live with,” she told The Globe. “I’m terrified especially because I have a child, and I want to protect him as much as possible.”
Ms. Kamien and other Canadians said they found out about Wednesday’s evacuation flight only by a fluke, after someone had spotted posts on social media mentioning it. They were unable to get onto commercial flights that were cancelled or sold out.
Stephen Arbib, a Toronto business executive who runs a disaster-zone logistics company, paid for the private evacuation flights from Haifa this week. “We did this privately because of the frustration that people were having,” he told The Globe.
“People were reaching out to us very quickly. It’s been an interesting few sleepless nights.”
Ben Shain, a 36-year-old high-tech sales and marketing worker from Toronto who has lived in Israel for the past six years, decided to get onto the evacuation flight on Wednesday after a Hamas rocket had smashed into buildings about 100 metres from his apartment in Tel Aviv a few days earlier.
He said he is feeling a growing unease and anxiety. “We’re only about 80 kilometres north of this action, and that’s too close for me to an active war zone, to be honest.”
After registering with the Canadian embassy earlier this week, Mr. Shain said he heard nothing from the mission. “I don’t know when the Canadian government is going to actually get those planes over here. I don’t particularly have much faith in their ability to do it fast.”
Ms. Joly said she’s looking at options for Canadians in the West Bank to head to Jordan, where they could board commercial flights. As for Gaza, she said, there are no plans at the moment. About 1,200 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli air strikes after the Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Saturday. Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by Canada.
“Should the United Nations work on an evacuation, we would be working with them,” she said of Gaza. “But at this point, there has been no information coming from the UN regarding evacuation as we speak, but we keep our options open.”
The Foreign Affairs Minister acknowledged that Canada’s decision to airlift Canadians and permanent residents is unusual given that commercial flights are still operating out of Israel. “This is quite rare,” she said.
Ms. Joly said the unreliability of commercial flights prompted Ottawa to act.
“There were so many cancellations and also flights that were just indefinitely delayed, and people were not getting a real answer whether they would be rebooked. It created a big backlog,” she said. “Options were becoming much more limited.”
Canadian Jess Burke is stranded in Israel after she and her wife got married north of Tel Aviv a week ago. They’re now in Jerusalem, which they hoped would be safer, and further away from rocket fire.
They have booked dozens of flights this week but the majority of them have been almost immediately cancelled by the airlines, said Ms. Burke, who is also a director with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a Canadian-based advocacy group.
One flight they were booked on did go ahead, but she said the rocket fire around Tel Aviv was too intense to safely get to the airport.
Amid their rush to get out of Israel, she said attempts to reach the Canadian embassy over the weekend were fruitless. Until Wednesday, she said the information received through the government’s SOS e-mail was largely unhelpful and included advice not to travel to Israel. Since the government’s promise to evacuate Canadians, she said they have received conflicting information from government officials about when the airlift will begin.
Without any guarantees, Ms. Burke said she and her wife will keep their booking for a commercial flight on Saturday, but will still try and get on an earlier government-organized flight.
“I remain disappointed that they didn’t mobilize aircraft to at least get us to Cyprus or Greece sooner,” Ms. Burke said.
George Mior, a Canadian tourist travelling in Israel with his wife, said he’s disappointed in both the Canadian government’s response and that of Air Canada. He said there has been unclear and unhelpful information from both and he expected better. He said that even now, he has not received details from the federal government about the evacuation flights, when they will start and how he can get on them.
“They’re not telling me anything,” he said.
Without that information, he said he will stick with a commercial flight booking that they were able to get from Tel Aviv to Dubai.