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London, Ont. residents worry about fate of loved ones from conflict in Middle East

London, Ont., resident Reem Sultan, seated in the centre wearing a blue jacket, is seen with her family at a beach in Gaza in an undated handout photo prior to the outbreak of the conflict between Hamas and Israel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Reem Sultan

As the conflict between Hamas and Israel presses on in the Middle East, some London, Ont., residents with families in Gaza say they are left terrified and in shock as they desperately attempt to help loved ones in need of aid in the sealed-off territory.

Reem Sultan, a pharmacist at St. Joseph’s Health Care, said it’s been a struggle to hold herself together as she continues to hear about the state of her homeland through the limited contact she’s had with family.

“Every night, they can’t sleep because of the bombs, and every night they are thinking this will be their last,” she said. “I’ve been physically ill with worry and fear.

“It’s been sheer hell.”

Click to play video: '‘Hell came to visit us’: New details emerge about Oct. 7 Hamas attack'
‘Hell came to visit us’: New details emerge about Oct. 7 Hamas attack

The Gaza Health Ministry said more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, which began on Oct. 7. The ministry’s toll includes more than 2,700 children and more than 1,500 women.

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According to the Israeli government, the fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack. Hamas is also holding at least 224 hostages in Gaza.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Wednesday that more than 750 people were killed over the preceding 24 hours, more than the 704 killed the previous day. The Associated Press said it couldn’t independently verify the death toll, and the ministry doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

About 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, with nearly half of them crowded into UN shelters, according to recent figures.

Despite Israel ordering them to evacuate to the south, saying those who remain might be considered “accomplices” of Hamas, hundreds of thousands remain in northern Gaza.

Sultan told Global News she’s “left in horror” as the conflict continues to escalate, recalling what she’s heard from loved ones on the ground in Gaza.

“Neighbours dead because the house was hit. There’s no water, electricity, food, medicine,” she said. “They went into UN schools for refuge, but even they are overpopulated…. I’m trying to reach them, but I haven’t been able to reach anybody.

“I’m just praying and constantly thinking, ‘How can I help my family?’”

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A photo of some of London, Ont., resident, Reem Sultan’s family members in Gaza prior to the recent conflict between the Hamas and Israel. Reem Sultan (supplied)

The UN warned on Wednesday that it’s on the verge of running out of fuel in the Gaza Strip, forcing it to sharply curtail relief efforts in the territory, which has also been under a complete siege since Hamas’s attack across southern Israel ignited the conflict earlier this month.

Stressing the depletion of the local market, Sultan said “it’s a very dire situation.”

“It is collective punishment and ethnic cleansing, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I cannot believe that 2.3 million people are subjected to this kind of punishment. How can you cut off electricity, water, food and medicine for all those people?

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“How can the world allow this to happen while innocent civilians, including my family, are being killed in Gaza, that have nothing to do with this?”

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Recently, Israel has let more than 60 trucks with aid enter from Egypt. But aid workers say that is insufficient and only a tiny fraction of what is needed.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross said earlier this week that it hopes to bring in eight trucks filled with vital medical supplies.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reconvened earlier this week to discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict, including calls for a ceasefire and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza.

UN representative from Canada Bob Rae said that “Oct. 7, 2023, is a day that will be forever emblazoned in our hearts.”

“Young women and men, nursing babies, mothers, fathers, and grandparents all killed with a cruelty that knew no limits,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Israel-Hamas conflict: ‘Oct. 7 is a day that will be forever emblazoned in our hearts,’ Canada’s UN rep says'
Israel-Hamas conflict: ‘Oct. 7 is a day that will be forever emblazoned in our hearts,’ Canada’s UN rep says

During the meeting, Munir Akram, Pakistan’s UN representative, blasted Israel’s Gaza offensive.

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“These Israeli attacks on civilians, civilian objects, and infrastructure, the blockade of food, water and fuel, as well as the forced transfer of people from the occupied territory, are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, and amount to war crimes,” Akram said.

Sultan said her family was first displaced from their home in Gaza in 1967, eventually moving to Canada in 1989. Prior to the war, she said that her family in Canada regularly sent money to support loved ones still in Gaza.

A photo of some of London, Ont., resident, Reem Sultan’s family members at a beach in Gaza prior to the recent conflict between the Hamas and Israel. Reem Sultan (supplied)

But now, she currently sees no way to help them leave the warzone.

She told Global News that some have died, while others continue to fear for their lives.

“Innocent Gazans keep dying, with a majority I’ve seen being children,” she said. “These are children like mine. These are kids with hopes and dreams, and as a mother, my heart is aching.

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“My neighbour’s child died in the collapse of the building,” she said through tears. “He was a beautiful kid with red hair…. It’s just complete sheer fear of the worst.”

Humanitarian organizations continue to plead for ways to bring aid into Gaza as they warn hospitals remain overwhelmed with dwindling supplies.

“I expect aid to be pouring into that area. I expect pressure on the Israeli government to lift its blockade of essential life into Gaza,” Sultan said.

“Three of my cousins work in hospitals, but they tell me it’s scary,” she continued. “There’s no more fuel for life support or for the ICU for premature babies…. It’s absolutely horrendous.”

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) condemned Israel’s repeated order for 22 hospitals in northern Gaza to be evacuated, describing it as a “death sentence” for the sick and injured.

But Sultan stressed that her thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been affected “on both sides.”

“Everyone deserves a chance to live,” she said. “They are human beings. They’re my uncle, my cousin, and my family.”

Rob Nagus, executive director of Jewish London, said that a number of his friends in Israel have also been displaced as a result of the war.

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“I was in utter shock and devastation,” he said, recalling his reaction to the news of the initial attack on Oct. 7.

“There’s been a huge disruption of everyday life…. It’s been a really challenging couple of weeks.”

For the local Jewish community, Nagus said “there’s a heightened state of anxiety for security.”

“We’ve witnessed a rise in antisemitism here in Canada, and here in London, over the past couple of years, and we know that anytime there’s a conflict overseas, it has a direct impact on our community,” he said.

Nagus highlighted the Hamas call for an international ‘Day of Rage’ against Jewish communities on Oct. 13, saying that while there was no reported threat in London, “that threat still lingers.”

“It was a very scary time, and I know that a lot of local Jewish parents here in London did not feel comfortable sending their kids to school that day,” he said.

To share and show support for those impacted by the war, Nagus said that Jewish London held a community gathering.

“It was a solemn event that was filled with players and wishes for peace in the region,” he said. “We’ve also witnessed some Palestinian rallies in town, one also being a vigil, which I don’t believe scares the Jewish community. But when you have a march downtown with some antisemitic signs, that stuff is alarming for the Jewish community.”

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A pro-Palestinian rally was held on Sunday that saw hundreds of demonstrators gather in Victoria Park and march through the city’s downtown.

The constituency office of Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos was also vandalized during the rally.

Nagus said that while the organizers were “diligent” and in constant contact with them, “some of the signs and messages in the reports we got back were still quite hateful.”

“As the war continues, we feel that it’s a scary time because we’re worrying about the safety of everyone in Israel and everyone in Gaza, but we also worry about our safety here, about the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia,” he said.

“The tension here in London, particularly if you have a direct connection to the conflict, is really palpable.”

Click to play video: 'Group of Palestinian and Jewish parents unite to call out Anti-Palestinian racism in TDSB'
Group of Palestinian and Jewish parents unite to call out Anti-Palestinian racism in TDSB

He added that “Oct. 7 will continue to live an infinite stay infamous day in Jewish history.”

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“For most of our Jewish community, we have not experienced anything like that in our lifetimes,” Nagus said. “In the sort of grand scale of the horrors and tragedies that have happened since Oct. 7, it’s about having our pain not only recognized, but listened to, and that we’re going to have support to ensure that these types of things never happen again.”

Both Nagus and Sultan said they’d like to see Canadian and local politicians show more support for Palestinian and Israeli civilians, issuing a joint call for peace and civility in Gaza, as well as London.

“Remember everybody that’s dying in your prayers, on both sides, and that this vicious cycle of violence ends, and that innocent civilians and children be protected,” Sultan said.

“Just to be mindful to not let geopolitical divisions have a negative impact on our society here in Canada,” Nagus added. “Everyone’s on heightened alert, everyone is scared, everyone is worried, and a little bit of empathy can go a long way.”

– with files from Global News’ Carolyn Kury de Castillo and Stewart Bell and The Associated Press.

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