As the escalating violence involving Israel and Hamas continues in the Middle East, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said Tuesday he believes his role is to stand with all Edmontonians who are impacted by the crisis rather than to offer political statements on international affairs.
“I understand the trauma and the pain that community is going through,” he said of Edmonton’s Jewish community, acknowledging the “damage and the suffering that has been caused by Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel.”
Sohi said he knows many Jews are grappling with trauma and anxiety as they worry about the safety of their loved ones in Israel.
“I am also hearing the pain and trauma the Palestinian community is going through,” he said.
While he had already issued two statements on the situation in recent days, Sohi spoke to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, three days after Hamas militants crossed into Israel and gunned down civilians, prompting that country to launch airstrikes on Gaza and to try to prevent crucial supplies like food and fuel from entering the Palestinian territory.
“We felt we needed to provide a bit more clarity,” Sohi said when asked why he issued a second statement on the crisis and chose to address the media.
The violence between Israel and Hamas had led to at least 1,900 deaths on both sides of the conflict by Tuesday afternoon, according to The Associated Press. Israeli officials added Tuesday that they believe Hamas and other militant groups now hold about 150 Israeli hostages, including both civilians and soldiers.
The Israeli military said over 1,000 people have been killed in Israel, including 155 soldiers. Palestinian authorities said 900 people have been killed in Gaza and that over half of them were women and children.
Hamas continued to fire rockets into southern Israeli cities on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. The news agency noted that Israeli airstrikes on Gaza saw more buildings collapse and that local rescue officials said “large numbers” of people were trapped under the ruins of some of those buildings, making it difficult for emergency crews to access them.
Humanitarian groups have called for corridors to be allowed for aid to get into Gaza which was seeing its hospitals be overwhelmed with patients and dwindling supplies.
The United Nations’ World Health Organization said Tuesday that supplies it had pre-positioned for a number of Gaza hospitals have already run out because of so many wounded people. And officials with the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said equipment, fuel and medicine were running low at two hospitals it runs in Gaza.
The Associated Press reported Israel has prevented food, fuel and medicine from getting into Gaza, and that the only remaining access from Egypt was no longer an option as of Tuesday after airstrikes hit near the border crossing.
Over the weekend, Sohi issued his initial statement on the violence in the Middle East.
“When events unfold across the globe, they can have a deep impact on people who live in our city,” he posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “The attacks taking place in Israel and Gaza targeting innocent civilians are horrific.
“I know that many Edmontonians have friends and family in these areas, and I am extending my support and empathy to them. We stand with you and share in your hope for a just and lasting peace in the region.”
His post generated hundreds of responses on social media, some critical of his statement and some supportive.
Adam Zepp, the community relations committee co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, told Global News on Monday that he found Sohi’s statement to be “unacceptable.”
“I just think for an elected official in Canada to make a statement like that, it’s disgusting,” he said. “Anything that normalizes, that whitewashes, that forms any sort of equivalence – moral or otherwise – is extremely harmful.”
Sohi’s second statement specifically mentioned Hamas.
“The events unfolding in Israel and Gaza have a deep impact on the people who live in our city,” the second statement reads. “Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s counter offense has led to hundreds of innocent people across the region being killed or injured, and Edmontonians from those communities are worried, anxious and in mourning.
“As mayor of Edmonton, my role is to support them. I share their pain and mourn with them. I urge Edmontonians to continue to stand together and take care of one another.”
Stacey Leavitt-Wright, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, said her organization believes Sohi’s second statement is problematic.
“What he said today did not come out — quite frankly — any better,” she said Tuesday. “There’s a false moral equivalency there between Israel’s right to defend itself against the actions, and the actions themselves.”
She said she wants Canadians to “bear witness to the stories and the barbarism” and to condemn terrorism. When asked what message she would give to the Palestinians, she said she believes “they need to demand better leadership” in Palestinian territories.
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Sohi said he has spoken with the Jewish Federation of Edmonton and added he has a “strong, longstanding relationship” with the organization.
“I value the work it does,” he said.
Sohi suggested his second statement was crafted with the belief that it is not his “role as mayor to be opining my personal opinion on global affairs.”
“As mayor it is my responsibility to support both communities and stand with both communities,” he said. “We need to continue to show compassion to each other.
“I need to support everyone impacted by these horrific, horrific events taking place.”
Mousa Qasqas is a spokesperson for the Palestinian community in Edmonton and told Global News that he is concerned by messages delivered by many politicians offering unconditional support to Israel no matter what actions that country takes against Palestinians.
“Whenever someone like Amarjeet Sohi attempts to be balanced and say, ‘You know what? I care about innocent lives in Gaza, and Israel,’ all of a sudden, it’s, ‘No, you cannot defend innocent lives in Gaza, you can only defend innocent lives in Israel,” he said.
“I want to be clear, I condemn all terrorism — any violence against civilians … It’s ridiculous to me that people would think we’re in the camp that we would condone that.”
Qasqas said he believes some Palestinians are finding it more difficult to think of ways to address their grievances pertaining to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and blockades that hurt civilians’ quality of life.
Speaking broadly about the conflict and not specifically about the weekend’s attack, he said more people turn to armed resistance when they see initiatives like peaceful protests, boycotts, diplomacy and legal battles do not result in change.
“We have to stop this blanket (statement of), ‘Israel has the right to defend itself,’” Qasqas said, referring to Israeli airstrikes and efforts to cut off access to supplies for Palestinians. “People are really, really worried about what’s happening.
“They’re cutting off food, water and power … This is the context in which there’s so much worry in the Palestinian community.”
Sohi said he was told about a rally held by Edmonton’s Palestinian community on Sunday as well as a vigil held by the city’s Jewish community on Monday. He said he did not attend either event but said he has asked to be told about future community events.
“Unfortunately I had a family event last night — that’s the reason I was not able to attend (the Jewish community’s vigil),” he said. “But in hindsight, I should have been there last night standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community of Edmonton.”
Sohi said he offers his apology to the Jewish community for not attending Monday’s event.
–With files from Global News’ Sarah Reid and The Associated Press’ Josef Federman and Issam Adwan
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