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U.S., Joly seek clarity from Israel on Canadians taken into custody from Gaza Strip

American officials say they are still trying to sort out what caused the Israeli military to detain members of a Canadian-American family in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians sit by the destruction from the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hatem Ali

OTTAWA — American and Canadian officials say they are still trying to sort out what caused the Israeli military to take citizens from their home in the Gaza Strip.

"We fear, to be honest, for their lives," said Khalil Alagha, the brother-in-law of one of three missing Canadians. 

"Because we don't know whether they have been only detained, or something else."

Members of the Alagha family say Ahmed Alagha and his two sons were taken into custody by Israeli forces last week. 

Israel's military confirmed to The Canadian Press that it took at least two people into custody, but would not provide a total number or an on-the-record explanation Monday as to why they are being held. 

Ahmed was born in Kuwait, and moved to Toronto in the late 1990s. That's where his sons Borak, 18, and Hashem, 20, were born, his brother-in-law said Monday. The family eventually moved to the Middle East.

Earlier reports based on information from another family member said Ahmed was born in Canada and his sons were born in the U.S.

Khalil and his cousin, Yasmeen Elagha, both said that all three men have Canadian citizenship, and that they were kidnapped by Israeli forces early on Thursday. Elagha said Borak and Hashem are also American citizens.

Men of a neighbouring household were also taken away, the family said, along with other adult male relatives from a different household. About 20 people in total were taken, the cousins said. 

Elagha described them as hostages rather than detainees, saying the family has not been given information about the reason they were taken or where they are being held. 

The cousins both said that Borak and Hashem's three younger siblings, who are also Canadian citizens, along with their mother Samar, who has Canadian permanent residency, were not taken.

The two said Israeli forces entered the family home in the community of al-Muwasi, near the southern city of Khan Younis, at around 5 a.m. Gaza time on Thursday.

The three men, along with a mentally disabled uncle and two other adult male relatives, were taken away by the Israelis and remain missing.

Israeli soldiers tied up and blindfolded the women and children in the family and placed them outside the home. Neighbours later found and released them, Khalil said.

"They felt unsafe and vulnerable," he said, so the four left the community and crossed late Monday into Egypt. 

The three children had previously been approved to leave the territory, he said, while their mother Samar was in limbo. 

Khalil said the three men who were taken into Israeli military custody had been denied approval to leave the Gaza Strip under a process run by Egyptian and Israeli officials. 

It's been harder for Palestinian men of military age to get onto the list of foreigners allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, he added. 

He said he doesn't believe that his relatives support Hamas brutality. 

"I can guarantee you that's not the case," Khalil said, though he added that he doesn't know whether any relatives may have voted for Hamas in the last Gaza election in 2006.

"I have no information to indicate that they have any relation to Hamas," he said Monday during a call from his home in the U.K.

He said that Borak and Hashem told him when he visited Gaza last summer that they felt Hamas had misgoverned the territory, leading to widespread suffering and a situation in which both brothers would struggle to find good jobs after university.

Hashem works in engineering while Borak is studying information technology, Khalil said.

According to Khalil, Ahmed was born in Kuwait but left in the early 1990s, around the time of the First Gulf War, for Gaza. He lived briefly in the U.S. before moving to Toronto in the late 1990s, where he ran a restaurant with his wife Samar.

They left in the mid-2000s for a job in the property business in the United Arab Emirates, until after the 2008 global recession, when they moved to Gaza and remained there. Samar gave birth to all five children in Canada, Khalil said.

Khalil said his relatives in Gaza have heard some information through the grapevine that some of the 20 taken in the raid were brought to a hospital. He said he did not hear about it directly from health or humanitarian officials. 

Israel amended its Detention of Unlawful Combatants Law last December to bar detainees from meeting with lawyers for a month, and to allow prison heads to extend that period up to 75 days. 

The measure has been used by those captured in Gaza, including, reportedly, for an 82-year-old Gaza woman who has Alzheimer’s disease.

The Alagha family said it has had no information from Israeli, Canadian or American officials. 

But Khalil said a Canadian consular official in Ramallah has been empathetic and responsive to his questions, despite not having much help to offer.

"I felt that there was nothing in place — no procedures whatsoever to communicate with the Israelis, to see if they can push for it, or press for it, for them to leave," he said.

He added that he thought Canadian officials worked much harder to evacuate Israelis through military flights when the conflict started last October. 

"We felt that (our family members) are really second-rate citizens. We understand the situation. But I think that's the Canadian authorities have the power to push for it, to get their citizens out."

When asked Monday whether American consular officials have met with those who were detained, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said American officials "don't have clarity on the situation" and are seeking more information from the Israeli government.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she's raised the case with her Israeli counterpart as well as the Israeli military branch that operates in Gaza.

"This is of the utmost priority for us," she said Monday on Parliament Hill. 

She added that parliamentary secretary Pam Damoff "has been in contact with the family." 

Khalil and Yasmeen said they're handling all government communications from the family and had not heard from Damoff. Joly's office did not have an immediate response when asked whom Damoff has contacted.

Joly added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's requirement for Palestinians to evacuate the southern Gaza city of Rafah ahead of more military strikes makes no sense, since the entire territory is unsafe and neighbouring Egypt has reinforced its border.

"What the Netanyahu government is asking them to do, which is to leave again, is unacceptable, because they have nowhere to go. And so that’s why we need right now for the violence to stop."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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