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Controversial chant sparks discussions about free speech amid hate-motivated charge in Calgary

Calgary police say the demonstration between supporters of Israel and Gaza on Nov. 5, 2023, was largely peaceful, except for one person who was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance. Calgary police say the demonstration between supporters of Israel and Gaza on Nov. 5, 2023, was largely peaceful, except for one person who was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance.
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'From the River to the Sea' is a chant heard at pro-Palestinian rallies around the world, but the use of it has sparked controversy and now, a criminal charge in Calgary.

Police arrested Wesam Cooley, also known as Wesam Khaled, following a rally outside city hall on Sunday. The 32-year-old is now charged with causing a disturbance, and hate motivation has been applied to the charge after consulting with the police service's hate crimes coordinator and the Crown prosecutor’s office.

The incident occurred in front of a group of about 1,000 protesters from both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrations. 

While police did not say exactly what was problematic statement, Cooley was caught on camera repeatedly saying, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," at the weekend event.

Some do consider it Anti-Semitic because it calls for a Palestinian state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea, which includes current Israeli territory.

Police say they regularly adviseprotest leaders of hate speech laws, specifically what they cannot do or say, including certain wording of signage and the blocking of roads. 

"Through amplification and a public address system [the accused] acknowledged this conversation with police. He then proceeded to repeatedly use an anti-Semitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along," said a Tuesday police news release.

Local activist Saima Jamal says she is outraged by the arrest, saying the Pro-Palestinian event was a peaceful demonstration that called for a ceasefire and an end to the killing of innocent people in the West Bank and Gaza region.

In a letter to police and Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Jamal says the phrase refers to the military occupation of Palestinians by the Israeli government, their inability to vote, visit loved ones or move freely. 

"This call, 'From the River to the Sea,' isn't what this Israeli government or the Israeli people are saying –  that it calls for the destruction of Israel or Jews. It's actually calling for an end to apartheid, this end to the injustice that Palestinians are facing," Jamal said.

"It's asking for equal treatment or basic human rights. We Canadians, we have a right to define our freedom of speech. We have a right to say what we mean. So, when the police are silencing us from not even being able to chant a call that asks for an end to apartheid, then they're taking away those freedoms from us."

Supporters of Cooley with the Calgary branch of Justice For Palestinians have also called for the charges to be dropped.

"To our knowledge, there are is no legislation or bylaws criminalizing protest speech calling for justice and liberation of an oppressed population undergoing a genocide by a belligerent oppressor state," the group posted in a media release.

Calgary police also arrested members of the Pro-Israeli counter protest group at each rally in the past four weeks over concerns of violence. 

Cooley has since been released on bail under the conditions that he no longer participate in any further protests. He is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 19.

In Canada, a conviction for disturbing the peace can carry a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both, and a criminal record.

POLICE RESPOND FOLLOWING ARREST OF COOLEY

CTV News contacted the Calgary Police Service to ask for further details regarding Cooley's arrest and his charges. 

In a statement, CPS said:

"The full context of the behavior of the individual involved was considered in laying the charge of causing a disturbance and in applying hate motivation to that charge. 

"The behaviour that led to charges was considered in the context of the specific situation, all of which is broader than a single phrase, gesture, sign or symbol in isolation.

"We police behaviour and not beliefs. CPS' mandate is always carried out with the overarching purpose of ensuring the safety of those protesting, counter-protesting, the general public and police.  

"While we appreciate the desire for specific details, this matter is now before the courts and no further specific information will be released." 

Calgary police added that its community leaders in many units across the service, including its diversity resource team, major events and emergency management section, patrol officers and community liaison officers, are working to ensure the safety of all those protesting, the public and police officers.   

"Every reported hate-motivated crime or incident is taken seriously, and our hate crime prevention team is engaged to assist on those investigations," the police statement continued. 

"While we have seen a spike in hate crimes reported against specific communities in recent weeks, we are not seeing higher numbers of hate crimes overall. As in previous years, we have seen international events or conflicts temporarily increase reported hate crimes in Calgary."

JEWISH FEDERATION THANKS CALGARY POLICE 

On Thursday, Calgary police announced they have laid new hate-motivated charges against 25-year-old Mahamad Ghandour, who now faces three counts of uttering threats online towards the Jewish community.  

As a result of this latest charge, and the arrest of Cooley over the weekend, the Calgary Jewish Federation says it is thankful for local law enforcement. 

"This arrest will hopefully set a precedent not only in Calgary but in other cities," the group posted on its Facebook page. 

Lisa Libin, president of the Calgary Jewish Federation, says her community members are particularly scared following an increase in hate-motivated crimes. 

"The community is fearful, we've had Middle East conflicts in the past, but this is not like those conflicts," she said. 

Libin says that eggs were thrown at the Jewish Community Centre in Calgary recently, and several businesses have also been targeted. 

Thursday also marks the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass, in which Jews were targeted by the Nazi party. 

"Tonight is very significant in the sense that we feel like what has happened in the past is currently happening here in the present. The same businesses, synagogues, homes that were targeted back at five years ago, are the same fear that we're having here tonight," said Libin. 

When it comes to the phrase 'From the River to the Sea,' Libin says she's in agreement with those in the Palestinian community in calls for peace, but says the phrase is not peaceful. 

"It's important to note that this is a rallying cry phrase that has been used over and over again by terror organizations like Hamas, like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and they use it openly to call for the eradication of Israel and the eradication of the Jewish people. 

"It's not being called out as a peaceful chat, the yelling, the screaming of it at the rallies on social media, that's not the intent. The intent of it and how it's being used is to make our community feel unsafe and to make our community feel ostracized." 

Abe Silverman, manager of Public Affairs fro B'nai Brith Canada also referred to the chant as a destruction of Israel. 

"Israeli Arab citizens, which make up 20 per cent of the State of Israel, almost 1.9 million are freer in Israel and equal under the law, more so than any other Arab state," he said. 

"Poll after poll clearly shows that Israeli Muslim Arabs would rather live in Israel by side than anywhere, anywhere else. So from the river to the sea is very clearly accountable to eliminate the Jewish people in the state of Israel. That is why it is hate speech."

'IT'S NOT ILLEGAL': FREE SPEECH EXPERT

Director for the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University James Turk described the charge of disturbing the peace as a "very vague term" and notes that chanting the phrase itself should not be deemed as an illegal act.

"It's very disturbing that the police would do that ,and I think it really is contrary to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which has a very high standard for the protection of freedom of expression," Turk said. 

"What the police did in this case, it seems, is to charge someone because they are members of the community that found his speech offensive. That is really contrary to our whole understanding of freedom of expression and to the jurisprudence in Canada with regard to freedom of expression." 

Turk also noted that any sort of public criticism against the Israeli government can't simply be defined as anti-Semitic. 

"I think it's a dangerous, dangerous position to take because there are lots of Jews who are not Zionist and are critical of the Israeli government," he said. 

"In fact, a significant portion of the Israeli population is currently critical of the Israeli government and look at the massive demonstrations that were occurring in Israel against Netanyahu, his plans to change the court system and so forth. So to say that criticism of the Israeli government equates to anti-Semitism is, again, a way to shut up people being critical, engaging in political speech."

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