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Important to understand 'why this pressure cooker exploded': Canadians on Israel-Hamas war

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When the air raid sirens began to sound in Jerusalem on Saturday, it didn't occur to Joshua Loewen to start looking for the fastest way out of Israel and back to Canada.

Instead, Loewen — who has trained in paramedicine and who begins his first job as a paramedic in Abbotsford, B.C., in November — focused on how he could help the people around him.

"People started to try and figure out how to leave, and I just felt that I didn't need to leave yet," Loewen told CTVNews.ca over WhatsApp on Wednesday. "I had found peace with where I was and what I was doing. I felt a growing kind of reason to be here, to be able to help people when they need it."

The 27-year-old is among 4,249 Canadians registered in Israel. An additional 476 Canadians are registered in Gaza and the West Bank. There are many stories, like his, of civilians caught on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war.

Loewen was in Jerusalem — five days into a three-week trip to take in the sights, history and culture of Israel — when fighters from Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza on Saturday.

The Israeli government declared war on Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the Government of Canada, shortly afterward. So far, 2,200 lives have been claimed on both sides in a conflict that is expected to escalate. Among the dead are two Canadians, while a third is presumed dead.

The first day of the conflict, the day he woke to the sound of air raid sirens, Loewen and the other guests at his hostel made five or six trips down to the hostel's safety bunker. Between trips to the bunker, they gathered and shared as much information as they could about what was happening.

Canadian Joshua Loewen, 27, is pictured while on vacation in Israel in October 2023. Loewen was in Jerusalem when fighters from terror group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza on Saturday. (Joshua Loewen)

"We were looking on the news and we saw that Hamas had infiltrated and was firing rockets and that war had been declared," he said.

"And by noon, the last of the air raid sirens of the day ended and we were just kind of in tension the rest of the day trying to come to terms with what was happening. Rumours were flying and people were worried."

The stress took a heavy toll on some of the other guests at the hostel. One elderly woman fell coming up the steps from the bomb shelter, threw up, and became very distressed. Loewen checked her vital signs, comforted her and made sure she was eating and drinking. She turned out not to need any medical attention, but he kept an eye on her for a few days.

"She's been up and down throughout the week just finding it very difficult to eat, finding it difficult to sleep or get enough fluids sometimes," he said.

Another guest at the hostel suffers from a condition called stress conversion disorder, "so when she gets a build up of stress, when a lot is going on, her brain just kind of flips a switch and she goes unconscious," Loewen explained.

When this happens, Loewen waits with her until she regains consciousness and makes sure she has everything she needs. Mostly, he just helps keep people calm and offers a reassuring presence for people who are not feeling well but don't necessarily need emergency medical attention. 

Israelis look at the damage caused by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Loewen knows there's risk associated with staying in a country at war, and he's waiting to learn more about the Canadian government's plan to repatriate Canadians in Israel. But until that information comes, he's going to keep doing what he's been doing.

"It's not that I didn't know that I was in danger here. Just a couple of days ago, there was a rocket that struck Jerusalem 20 kilometres south of my position, injuring nine people," he said.

"And I also know that if that were to happen here, I'd be able to help. And that doesn't mean I'm going to stick around forever…but in a situation that seems so out of control I've realized that the only thing I can do is just be who I am, where I am.

'EVERY LIFE MATTERS': PALESTINIAN-CANADIAN CALLS FOR PEACE

For Grace Batchoun, whose family was among the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled from their homes or were expelled during the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian war, watching the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas has been heartbreaking and felt like a reminder of the past.

“(I feel) very overwhelmed, very angry, really upset at all the carnage and the bloodshed,” the Palestinian-Canadian told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Wednesday.

Batchoun, who lives in Montreal, has family members in the West Bank and friends in Gaza.

However, since the war erupted on Saturday, she said she hasn’t heard from a single one of them — Israel has cut off supplies of food, fuel, medicine and electricity into Gaza in its relation against Hamas.

“There is no electricity, there's no internet, there’s no phones,” she said. “We tried in the last few days and we just couldn't reach out to anyone.”

A Palestinian walks through the destruction by Israeli bombing in Gaza City on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Batchoun has been anxiously watching the war unfold, hoping a peaceful resolution will come soon. She’s one of several Canadians who are calling for an immediate cease-fire to end the violence and suffering on both sides.

“Violence is not going to bring the resolution. And that's why I'm so disappointed at our leaders for not asking for an immediate cease-fire, for not trying to interfere, to try to get the hostages out, to stop the bloodshed,” Batchoun said.

In a statement Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said, in part, that “Canada stands with Israel and fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself” in accordance with international law, while also noting “the humanitarian situation in Gaza was dire before this weekend” and that the war will “only deteriorate the situation further.”

“As I said yesterday, this will get worse before it gets better. My heart breaks for the deaths we have seen and share the anxiety about what will happen next,” she said.

“Canada will continue to support the humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians. Let me clear, Israeli and Palestinian civilians deserve to live in peace and safety with their human rights respected and with dignity. And Canada will always work with this in mind.”

Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Batchoun likened Palestinians living under Israeli occupation for several decades to a “pressure cooker,” adding that she doesn't approve of what Hamas has done, but that "it's important for people to understand why this pressure cooker has exploded.”

Since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, placing significant restrictions on the freedom of movement and other civil rights for Palestinians living in these regions.

Although Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza in 2005, the UN still considers Gaza to be under Israeli military occupation, given that Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the territory.

“We need to learn from history,” she said, adding that she hopes people all around the world recognize that violence has not worked for the past 75 years in the region and will not be the answer moving forward.

“I would like to challenge our government to see Palestinians as equal human beings. And if you condemn what's happening in Israel, you need to condemn what's happening in Gaza. Do not be selective with humanity. We're all equal human beings. And we all, every life matters.”

'NOT LIKE ANYTHING BEFORE'

In Israel's Hefer Valley, Alva Yaffe of Thornhill, Ont., is trying to get herself and her two young daughters back home to Canada as quickly as possible.

With every failed attempt to reach someone at the Government of Canada, her frustration mounts.

"The number isn't even working so I haven't been able to get a hold of anyone, and I'm desperately trying to get out of here," she told CTV News' Adrian Ghobrial. "I'm not able to get a hold of anyone and I don't really know what to do because there's no flights and I'm praying Canada will be able to get me and other families that are desperately trying to get out of here."

Joly announced on Tuesday that the federal government is planning to assist Canadians departing from Tel Aviv "in the coming days," using Canadian Armed Forces aircraft.

On Wednesday, she added that shuttles will take passengers from the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to Athens starting later this week. From Greece — a safe third country — an Air Canada plane and crew will bring Canadians back to this country.

For Yaffe, the shuttles can't come fast enough.

"This is actual war," she said. "This is not like anything before, and we want to be safe and we don't feel safe here and we feel safe in Canada." 

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