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Protesters demonstrate across Canada as Israel-Hamas war rages

MONTREAL — As the latest war between Israel and Hamas intensified half a world away, demonstrators in cities across Canada chanted, marched and called for justice in rallies supporting opposing sides of the conflict on Sunday Pro-Palestinian protesto
People take part in a Pro-Palestine rally in Montreal on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — As the latest war between Israel and Hamas intensified half a world away, demonstrators in cities across Canada chanted, marched and called for justice in rallies supporting opposing sides of the conflict on Sunday

Pro-Palestinian protestors in dozens of cities demanded a halt to hostilities, while a rally in Toronto drew thousands calling for the release of Israeli hostages seized by Hamas during the attack that sparked the war. 

The shows of solidarity came amid growing calls for a ceasefire as the death toll rises in the Gaza Strip, where power outages, fuel shortages and shelling wreaked havoc on hospitals over the weekend and fierce clashes played out between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters.

In Montreal's Dorchester Square, a protest organized by the group Ceasefire Now expressed solidarity with residents of the Gaza Strip. Similar afternoon demonstrations unfolded in Toronto and cities ranging from Antigonish, N.S., to Yellowknife.

"I don't feel like Western countries see the value of kids in Gaza the same as any other country in the world," said Salma Ghersi, a 34-year-old Montrealer who said her husband is Palestinian.

"I feel like there's injustice."

Palestinian flags and banners wove through the crowd, which chanted “Free, free Palestine, justice now" at the now-weekly protest. Smoke cannisters issued plumes of red and green — Pan-Arab colours included in Palestine's flag — and police on bikes and horseback watched underneath a cloudy sky.

In Toronto, meanwhile, thousands of community members supporting Israel gathered at Christie Pits Park in a rally organized by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Maayan Shavit said her aunt was killed and her cousin kidnapped by Hamas militants in the attack on Israeli residents on Oct. 7, putting them among the roughly 1,200 people killed and 240 abducted that day.

The 45-year-old said she found the demonstration "electrifying" and "empowering."

"Now we know it's no longer my story, or the people that have a straight, immediate connection to the kubutzim," said Shavit, who has extended family in Kibbutz Be'eri, where at least 120 residents were killed. "They are all our families, and we miss them."

"It's very clear that there is no ceasefire without our kidnapped people," she said. 

Christie Pits holds historical significance for Jewish Canadians. It was the scene of a violent clash between Jews and Anglo-Canadians in the 1933 Christie Pits Riot, set off by a swastika flag unfurled by Nazi-inspired youth.

Daniel Held, chief program officer at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said the feeling of antisemitism fostered by that era is mounting once again.

"The sense of insecurity amongst the Jewish people as antisemitism is on the rise and we're seeing hate against our people is really scary," he said.

But further downtown, at a pro-Palestine rally at Nathan Phillips Square, Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss denounced Israel's ongoing invasion of Gaza City, which the Israeli military says it has now encircled.

“It’s a violent assault against the solidarity between Muslims, Christians and Jews," Weiss told the crowd in front of city hall.

"Palestinian freedom is our freedom too.”

Families said attending the pro-Palestinian rallies has become a weekly occurrence. Attendees chanted "end the siege of Gaza" and held signs reading, “Ceasefire now, stop genocide.”

Yassmin Hafez, 17, said crowds have grown in the last two weeks “as things have gotten more dire.”

“I feel it’s the least that I can do when you know that people are suffering and are dying."

The rallies come after a slew of hateful acts targetting Jews and Muslims since the outbreak of the most recent Israel-Hamas war, the latest of which took place on Sunday. A Jewish school in Montreal was hit by gunshots, one of two that were also targetted in overnight shootings just three days earlier.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has said the organization has been inundated with reports of racism, hate and violence against community members since Oct. 7.

Thousands of Canadians have immediate ties to the unfolding conflict, with friends and loved ones in the Middle East directly affected by the escalating violence. 

Hundreds of Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their family members have been waiting for weeks to flee the Gaza Strip, and on Sunday Global Affairs Canada said 234 of them were able to make their escape via the Rafah land crossing into Egypt. Those numbers come on top of the roughly 107 who crossed the border last week.

Canadians or those with ties to Canada are also among the hostages seized during Hamas' initial incursion.

Some 1.58 million Gazans — three-quarters of the population — have been displaced since war broke out, according to estimates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2023.

— With files from Nairah Ahmed in Toronto

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press