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'They're not freedom fighters': Trudeau, Poilievre speak at Jewish community centre after Hamas attack

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TORONTO -

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators spilled onto streets in several Canadian cities on Thanksgiving Day while the prime minister and Opposition leader spoke at a vigil at a Jewish community centre, following a weekend of deadly fighting in the Middle East.

Protesters gathered at Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto City Hall on Monday afternoon, many draped in or waving Palestinian flags as the crowd chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” in a demonstration that was denounced by the city's mayor.

One sign read, “Occupation is a crime, resistance is a response.”

The gathering came after Hamas militants out of Gaza launched an attack on Israel on Saturday, firing thousands of rockets and sending dozens of fighters to infiltrate the heavily fortified border by air, land and sea.

The attack has been called the deadliest on Israel in years, with the incursion and counteroffensive killing hundreds on both sides and injuring thousands more. In the war's third day, Israel was still finding bodies and tens of thousands fled their homes in the Gaza Strip as relentless airstrikes levelled buildings.

Global Affairs Canada said it was aware of reports of one Canadian who has died amid the fighting and two others who were missing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the attack at a vigil in Ottawa in the crowded Soloway Jewish Community Centre Monday evening. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and other local politicians also attended the event.

Trudeau appeared to reference pro-Palestinian rallies across Canada as he addressed the solemn crowd.

“Hamas terrorists aren't a resistance, they're not freedom fighters. They are terrorists, and no one in Canada should be supporting them, much less celebrating them,” he said.

Sheila Mattar, a 53-year-old Palestinian-Canadian, was hesitant to attend the Toronto demonstration because she feels it's taboo for Canadians to show support for Palestine.

She often refrains from talking about politics with friends, who don't even know she is half-Palestinian. Her father grew up in the city of Haifa, but his family was expelled from their house in 1948, and her grandfather was shot dead by the Israelis at his front door nearly two decades later, she said.

“I've lived with this my entire life and this is generational trauma, and I can't be on the sidelines anymore. I have to speak up, the atrocities have to end.”

As Palestinians like Mattar gathered, counter-protesters waved or wore Israeli flags, and police created barricades around them using bikes as they engaged in shouting matches with pro-Palestine protesters, who greatly outnumbered them.

Speakers reiterated that they were there not to spread hate against Jewish people, but to advocate for Palestinian liberation.

Hours before the protest, deputy Toronto police chief Lauren Pogue warned the public that there would be no tolerance for violence or hate crimes ahead of the expected large-scale demonstration, as well as another gathering in solidarity with Israel which took place later in the evening.

Politicians and police forces in Winnipeg and Vancouver made similar declarations ahead of demonstrations in those cities.

Toronto's Palestinian event went on despite the opposition of several councillors and the city's mayor, Olivia Chow.

Chow called the demonstration “deplorable” and “a glorification of this weekend's indiscriminate violence, including murder and kidnapping of women and children, by Hamas against Israeli civilians.“

Later Monday, Chow, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland stood on a stage in Toronto's North York neighbourhood where locals gathered to show their support for Israel, mourn those killed and pray for peace.

Approximately 250 police officers and other private security officials patrolled the public square where the event was held, and hundreds of people waved Israeli flags and cheered loudly as the politicians, one by one, expressed their “unequivocal” support for Israel's right to defend itself.

“We will always be an ally, we will always be a friend and, my friends, we wish you lasting peace and freedom,” Ford told the crowd.

Trudeau spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, where he “unequivocally condemned” Hamas' attacks and said he is “gravely concerned” about the atrocities that have unfolded.

Those statements irked Eman Amar, who attended the Toronto pro-Palestine rally and wants politicians to apologize for supporting Israel. The 21-year-old has seen little help given to Palestinians in the last 75 years.

“Now suddenly they're mad at Palestinians who are retaliating for their own rights and homes,” said Amar.

“Even though the government of Canada doesn't stand with them, Canadian people will stand with them.”

Hundreds of supporters of Palestine also rallied Monday in Vancouver, where a heavy police presence kept a watchful eye on the crowd.

Keinda Kliani, 16, was there with her family who came to Canada about five years ago.

“Our whole family lives in Gaza, which is currently being bombed by Israeli settlers,” she said. “We're protesting for the people that just died.”

But Rachel Goldberg, whose family lives in Tel Aviv and who showed up at the Vancouver rally with a small group of friends, despite being vastly outnumbered, said there was no reason for Hamas to bomb the city, “except to terrorize people.”

“You cannot tell me that you are fighting for freedom when you are kidnapping children, raping women, shooting the elderly at bus stops,” she said. “There is no military base in the middle of Tel Aviv.”

Calgary police said Monday that one person was taken into custody following rallies between local Israeli and Palestinian community groups. No charges have been laid yet, and police said the person is not believed to be a part of either community group.

At the vigil in Ottawa, Poilievre called Hamas “evil in its purest form,” and said it does not speak for Palestinians.

“That is why I unreservedly condemn any and all who took part in the disgusting celebrations that we have seen on our streets,” he told the crowd in Ottawa.

McGill University on Monday said it has written its student society, asking it to revoke permission for a group to use the university's name after it says the group made “incendiary posts.”

In a Facebook post Saturday urging people to attend a pro-Palestinian rally on Sunday, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill called the attack “heroic” and asked Montrealers to “celebrate the resistance's success.”

“McGill University denounces these communications; the celebration of acts of terror and violence is completely antithetical to McGill's fundamental values,” Michel Proulx, a spokesman for the university, said in a statement Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2023.

--With files from Fakiha Baig in Toronto, Darryl Greer in Vancouver, Laura Osman in Ottawa and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

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