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Ontario to help wounded kids from Gaza, Israel

TORONTO - Ontario is promising to provide medical treatment to children injured in the latest Israeli-Palestinian fighting amid pleas for help from the public and well-known humanitarians.

The province is willing to take the most serious cases from both Gaza and Israel if the children are unable to receive proper treatment at home but can make the journey to Canada, Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins said Tuesday.

Israeli and Palestinian authorities have indicated they're willing to co-operate with the effort, he said.

Five Ontario hospitals — including Toronto's famed Hospital for Sick Children — have offered to treat the kids, with some medical staff even offering to work for free. There's also a possibility that funds may be raised by the public to offset some of the costs, such as transport and accommodation, Hoskins said.

It was not known when the children might start arriving as details about transportation and entry to Canada still had to be worked out.

Hoskins said the province needed help from the federal government, such as for providing visas.

"It is a humanitarian initiative that I know is enjoying a lot of support right across the country," said Hoskins, who helped found War Child Canada before entering politics.

"It's one of those rare instances where we can make a modest but important difference."

Adam Hodge, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said the government was consulting with its partners to see how best to provide assistance to victims of the conflict.

"Make no mistake: There is only one party responsible for the suffering of the Palestinian people, and that is the international terrorist group Hamas," he wrote in an email. "Hamas's reckless aggression continues to put Palestinian lives at risk by impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza."

The initiative to fly injured children to Canada began when Izzeldin Abuelaish — a doctor and author who lost three daughters in the 2009 Gaza conflict — implored the Ontario and federal governments to accept them.

Abuelaish, now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, is a Palestinian doctor who was born and raised in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, according to the school's website. In 2010, he published an autobiography, "I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey."

The webpage describes him as someone who is "a passionate and eloquent proponent of peace between Palestinians and Israelis and has dedicated his life to using health as a vehicle for peace."

"Surely, wherever we are and whatever we believe, we can unite around the common cause of saving these children," he wrote in the Toronto Star last week.

"The smile of a healed wounded child is a smile of hope, a smile from the heart, whether it comes from a young Canadian, Palestinian, Israeli or American. I know this from my own bitter experience."

Abuelaish was not immediately available for comment.

Hoskins said he also received a request to help from longtime New Democrat Stephen Lewis, a former politician and Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.

The minister said he understands the devastating impact war can have on children, having worked for more than 20 years in conflict zones, including the Middle East.

"I certainly have a deep appreciation for the challenges," Hoskins said.

"My heart goes out to victims, particularly the youngest victims on any side of this conflict or any conflict for that matter. And I think that's also what Canadians are thinking at this moment in time."

An online petition at Change.org urging the province, Ottawa and hospitals to help Abuelaish in his efforts had collected more than 2,367 supporters Tuesday afternoon. Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the Ontario Federation of Labour have all voiced their support as well.

In an open letter, Mulcair appealed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to lend his and the government's support.

Abulelaish has "rejected the politics of hatred and revenge, and instead committed himself to reconciliation and love," Mulcair wrote.

"I sincerely hope you will join me in that support, and together with the provinces, this idea has the potential of becoming a truly pan-Canadian mobilization."

Nearly 1,900 Palestinians and 67 Israelis have died in the fighting that's been raging for almost a month.

Israel said it withdrew the last of its ground forces from Gaza on Tuesday as it and Hamas began a temporary ceasefire. Both sides halted cross-border attacks as the three-day truce took effect at 8 a.m.

There are plans for talks in Egypt on a broader deal for a long-term truce and the rebuilding of the battered, blockaded coastal territory.

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