Will Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau finally keep his word?

A few years ago Trudeau called for healing Palestinian children. Today, he appears to have forgotten his own words.

A woman feeds Palestinian infant injured in an Israeli missile attack on his house, which killed his mother and four siblings, in Gaza on May 15, 2021 [Reuters/Mohammed Salem]

These days, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish feels like a forgotten man.

From his Toronto home, he has watched with an exhausting mixture of frustration, grief and anger as Israel’s incessant persecution of Palestinians in occupied Palestine briefly pierced, once again, the complacent consciousness of Western political and media elites only after an eruption of violence.

And he has waited for those same complacent Western political and media elites – who once fêted the Palestinian-Canadian physician, teacher, humanitarian and, perhaps most importantly, father with flattery, awards and honours – to heed his pleas to stop Israel’s sinister designs and heal Palestine’s grievous wounds.

But few are returning his calls.

The TV hosts and newspaper writers who once told poignant stories about how Dr Abuelaish somehow transformed the Israeli army’s killing of three of his daughters and a niece during the 2009 invasion of Gaza into a life-affirming message of hope and reconciliation, have mostly abandoned him.

The politicians in Canada and abroad who once dubbed him the “Martin Luther King of the Middle East” and pinned baubles on Dr Abuelaish’s lapel in recognition of his work to vanquish hate by erecting bridges built on understanding and amity have abandoned him too.

Still, he has tried, largely in vain, to be heard amid the cacophonous terror and familiar horrors exacted on occupied Palestine by Israel over 11 unrelenting days.

On May 11, Dr Abuelaish issued a press release addressed to “government leaders and people around the world” which read, in part: “We can no longer accept silence in the face of atrocities against unarmed civilians…It is time to end the bloodshed; it is time to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

No one replied.

Earlier, Dr Abuelaish had approached the opinion page editors at The Globe and Mail and The Guardian newspapers, hoping they would publish his admonition that the world must longer remain “deaf and mute” to the historic injustices visited upon imprisoned Palestinians by Israel.

Again, no one replied.

“They do not want to join me in telling the truth,” Dr Abuelaish told me in an interview. “It is sad and hurtful because silence in times of injustice is an injustice. But I will never give up.”

True to his indefatigable nature and abiding sense of decency and humanity, Dr Abuelaish persists.

Born in the Jabalia refugee camp on the northern tip of the besieged Gaza Strip, Dr Abuelaish knows better than most the bitter, often lethal, costs that generations of Palestinians have had to endure – the consequence of Israeli apartheid.

Dr Abuelaish also knows, of course, better than most, that the children of occupied Palestine have paid the deepest, most indelible price for Israel’s long, brutal and systemic repression.

That is why after Israel’s malignant invasion of Gaza in 2014 claimed the lives of 551 Palestinian children and injured another 3,436 innocents – many of them permanently – Dr Abuelaish was determined to do something about it in order to pay homage to the memory of his dead, dismembered daughters, Bessan, Mayar, Aya, and niece, Noor.

Working mainly alone, Dr Abuelaish enlisted the cooperation of Canadian unions, nurses, doctors, hospitals and politicians, including Ontario’s then-premier and health minister, to organise Heal100Kids, a humanitarian initiative to get 100 maimed and traumatised Palestinian children from Gaza to Canada for special medical aid and treatment.

Scores of Canadians, moved by Dr Abuelaish’s obvious fidelity to trust over distrust, hope over despair, faith over resignation, love over hate, and peace over war, volunteered to open their homes and wallets to make sure damaged Palestinian kids were welcomed and cared for in Canada.

Among the apparently impressed and moved Canadians was then-Liberal Party opposition leader, Justin Trudeau, who publicly expressed his wholehearted backing of Dr Abuelaish’s plan on his official Twitter account.

In an August 3, 2014 tweet, Trudeau encouraged Canadians to join him in championing Heal100Kids. “Please add your name in support of bringing Palestinian children to receive medical treatment in Canada”, Trudeau wrote to his legion of followers.

Two days later, Trudeau penned another tweet, this time “applauding” then-Ontario health minister, Eric Hoskins and the province’s Liberal government “for their commitment to support the #Heal100Kids initiative.”

At the time, part of Trudeau’s forceful rhetorical approval of Heal100Kids was, no doubt, calculated to establish his caring credentials in contrast to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s shameful refusal to meet with Dr Abuelaish and denial of visas to broken Palestinian children and their families to come to Canada.

The former drama teacher is adept at playing the part of a kind, considerate leader and father.

It turns out that Trudeau’s endorsement of Heal100Kids was as cynical as it was hollow.

In an opinion piece published on May 22, 2018, Dr Abuelaish challenged now-Prime Minister Trudeau to keep his word and mobilise the resources and powers of his office to extend Canada’s hand in solidarity to Palestinian children in desperate need.

“It’s time to say yes, Prime Minister Trudeau. It’s time to help ease the pain and suffering of only 100 Palestinian children. It’s time for you, if I may, to walk the talk and make true the words that you wrote just a few years ago. It’s time to set politics and talk aside. It’s time to do something now and tangible. It’s time for a much-needed measure of kindness and decency, amid all the ugly human carnage. It’s time,” Dr Abuelaish wrote.

Trudeau’s response: three years of silence and inaction.

Like most Palestinians, Dr Abuelaish is a patient man. His patience has run dry. Today, he understands that the prime minister’s support for Heal100Kids appears as ephemeral as a puff of smoke.

“It was just words. It is a big lie,” Dr Abuelaish told me.

Indeed, it is.

To try to understand the motive behind the prime minister’s egregious volte-face, I contacted Trudeau’s press secretary, Alex Wellstead, earlier this week requesting an interview to discuss Dr Abuelaish and Heal100Kids.

This was Wellstead’s dismal, instructive answer: “I am unfamiliar with this initiative. Could you share more information and where this intersects with the federal government…”

Simply put: Wellstead, and, by extension, the prime minister, have forgotten all about Dr Abuelaish and Heal100Kids.

Later, Trudeau’s press secretary declined to be interviewed. “Have a good day,” he wrote in an email.

I can think of no more graphic indictment of this factitious prime minister and his government than their all too predictable amnesia about a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee’s herculean efforts to help Palestinian children recover – in mind, body and spirit – from the trauma of war.

Trudeau and company may want to forget, but the figures are appalling.

More than 60 Palestinian infants and children were killed and hundreds gravely injured and orphaned before a ceasefire was declared days ago. On Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the carnage this way: “If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza.”

Despite his searing sadness, Dr Abuelaish insists the international community has to compel Israel to end its illegal and debilitating occupation of Palestine – finally.

Prime Minister Trudeau should also, he says, agree to resurrect the Heal100Kids initiative as an overt sign of Canada’s goodwill towards and common humanity with beleaguered Palestinians.

“Mr Trudeau can, at last, translate his words into action and say: We are willing to revive this initiative and heal children who need to be healed,” Dr Abuelaish said. “It is his moral responsibility.”

The question remains: Will Justin Trudeau remember to act this time?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.