Protesters voicing support for residents of the Gaza Strip gathered at rallies in more than two dozen cities across Canada on Saturday, calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict after war broke out last month.
The rallies come as the United States and Arab partners disagreed over the need for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, as the Israeli military continued its strikes in its offensive to crush the enclaves' Hamas rulers.
The protests in Canada, which took place in cities including Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Fredericton, were launched after a call by the Palestinian Youth Movement for a national day of demonstrations.
The group is calling for a ceasefire in the region and the end of restrictions on humanitarian aid allowed into the territory. It's also demanding Canada end its support for Israel's military action against Hamas, which the federal government has designated as a terrorist organization since 2002.
In Montreal, thousands of demonstrators marched through the Quartier des Spectacles neighbourhood downtown, many carrying Palestinian flags and taking part in chants calling for a “free Palestine” and “ceasefire now.”
Montreal protester Shaima Nakhli said what she described as Canadian officials’ reluctance to condemn the killing of Palestinians made her doubt the government’s commitment to human rights.
“Canada is always there for human rights, for humanism," Nakhli said. "Where are those values?”
Palestinian Youth Movement organizer Sarah Shamy told the Montreal rally that she expected historic turnout in demonstrations organized across North America on Saturday.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza reports more than 9,440 Palestinians have died in the war with Israel, which was triggered by the group's incursion into that country on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 people and saw more than 200 taken back into Gaza as hostages.
Israel immediately declared war in response and has launched daily attacks since then, stepping up bombardments over the past week and triggering growing global alarm about the lack of food, fuel and basic supplies for Gaza's roughly 2.3 million residents.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Arab foreign ministers in Jordan a day after talks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Blinken said the United States believe that a ceasefire would "simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did on Oct. 7.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said he fears the region is sinking further into "a sea of hatred that will define generations to come" without an immediate ceasefire.
Netanyahu insisted no ceasefire is possible until all of the hostages taken by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack are released.
Back in Canada, a few hundred people carrying the green, red and black Palestinian flags and shouting slogans gathered outside Fredericton's historic City Hall building.
Demonstrators said they were there to protest what they called a 75-year-old occupation by Israeli forces, a characterization Israel has consistently rejected. Slogans on display included "bombing kids is not self-defence," "free Gaza" and "cease fire now," among others.
Amer Marwan El-Samman, a spokesman for the Fredericton rally, said the main message of the protest was to call for a ceasefire and stop what he called the "indiscriminate killing" of civilians.
El-Samman said he is hopeful about the future despite the long and complex history of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which have been ongoing since at least Israel's establishment in 1948.
"It might be next year, it might be two years. You never know how things can change," El-Samman said. "The next generation, the youth shows me a little bit more promise … So we'll see."
In Toronto, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. consulate downtown to protest, chanting "ceasefire now." The rally turned into a sit-in on busy downtown streets hours after it was supposed to end, before protesters dispersed late Sunday.
Protester Bandar Darwazeh, who is Palestinian and lives in Canada, said he feels the pain of his relatives who live in the West Bank, where violence has also been on the rise amid the past month’s bloodshed in and around Gaza.
Darwazeh said the Canadian and American governments should be doing more.
“We are here to push the Canadian government to request a ceasefire and bring peace,” he said.
Fellow protester Jane Story said she is “particularly traumatized and heartbroken by what's happening in Gaza.”
“I've been involved marching for Palestinians for 40 years,” said Story, who was waving a Palestinian flag at the protest. “It’s an ongoing conflict that's gotten worse and worse and worse, and the scenes out of Gaza are beyond belief.”
The Israeli military said Saturday it had encircled Gaza City and Hamas was "encountering the full force" of Israel's troops as large columns of smoke rose from the city.
Hamas's military wing said its fighters had destroyed 24 Israeli vehicles and inflicted casualties in the past two days.
At least 1,115 Palestinian dual nationals and wounded have exited Gaza into Egypt, but on Saturday authorities in Gaza didn’t allow foreign passport holders to leave because Israel was preventing the evacuation of Palestinian patients for treatment in Egypt, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority.
Global Affairs Canada had previously informed Canadians trapped in the Gaza Strip that they could be allowed out "as early as Sunday," but an update provided Saturday made no mention of the pause in border crossings and offered no more details on a potential timeline.
A summary of a conversation between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had offered assurances that "Canadians in Gaza will be able to leave in the coming days."
The readout also indicated Trudeau expressed concern about the humanitarian situation Gaza and stressed the need for aid to be allowed to flow into the territory, but also acknowledged a "disturbing rise of antisemitism around the world," including in Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2023.
— With files from Hina Alam in Fredericton, Sammy Hudes in Toronto, Thomas MacDonald in Montreal and The Associated Press.
Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press