Palestine solidarity march organizer arrested by Calgary Police for chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”

After a Nov. 5 pro-Palestine march in Calgary, co-organizer Wesam Khaled was charged with a hate crime for leading a chant of, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” his fellow organizers say.  

According to Justice for Palestinians (JFP) Calgary, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) treated the chant as an “offensive antisemitic comment,” and charged Khaled with causing a disturbance. Khaled was released on condition that he not attend any protests. 

In a Nov. 7 statement, CPS confirmed that they arrested Khaled for causing a disturbance and, in consultation with its Hate Crime Coordinator, added a “hate motivation” to the charge, accusing Khaled of expressing “an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along,” without specifying what the phrase was. The CPS release also identifies the man charged as Wesam Cooley. 

Wesam Khaled speaking to the crowd outside city hall at a Palestinian solidarity march held on Nov. 5. Photo by Albert Woo.  

The death toll in Gaza since Oct. 7, when the Islamist militant organization Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel killing 1,400 Israelis and migrant workers, has been enormous. According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in the span of one month, Israel has killed 10,022 Palestinians, including 4,104 children while 25,048 have been injured and 1.5 million—two-thirds of Gaza’s population—have been displaced. 

Khaled’s Calgary arrest comes after a concerted international effort to delegitimize rallies and speech that stands in solidarity with Palestinians. The chant in question, which explicitly calls for equal rights for everyone between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River, is instead cast by opponents as a call for the destruction of Israel, which is assumed to mean the elimination of its Jewish population.

Writing in the U.S. Jewish publication The Forward, in 2018, after African-American political scientist Marc Lamont Hill was fired by CNN for using the phrase while speaking at the United Nations, Palestinian-American historian Maha Nassar noted that its origins are “part of a larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine.”

“Dismissing or ignoring what this phrase means to the Palestinians is yet another means by which to silence Palestinian perspectives,” Nassar wrote.  

Organizer’s arrest should be seen as part of wider project to repress Palestinian solidarity, say critics

Muhannad Ayyash, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and a sociology professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Khaled’s arrest is “part of the worldwide campaign to label [pro-Palestine] marches as hate marches.” 

Zionist organizations “see the numbers and they’re scared,” because the protests “keep growing,” he explained. 

“This is a very clear attempt to put a dent into that and kill the momentum of the rallies, in an effort to cover up the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people,” said Ayyash. 

Authorities in Austria, Germany, France and Hungary have all banned protests in solidarity with Palestine and have arrested people who have defied those orders. Police in the U.K. are contemplating canceling a Palestinian solidarity protest in London planned for Saturday.

A Palestine solidarity march held in Calgary on Nov. 5. Photo by Albert Woo.

Jewish Federation of Calgary president Lisa Libin, who sits on the City of Calgary’s Anti-Racism Action Committee, wrote a Nov. 3 op-ed in the Calgary Herald alleging an “explosion in antisemitism” in Calgary. Local pro-Palestine protests, Libin claimed, “explicitly call for the eradication of Jews” and include “signs calling for our extermination.” She provided evidence of neither.

Libin cited an Oct. 13 international “Day of Jihad” called for by Hamas, which she claimed led to Jews in Calgary “making an inconceivable decision whether to send our children to daycare or school, whether to attend evening synagogue services for prayer, whether we could safely go to the grocery store.” 

This “Day of Jihad'' never occurred, but fear-mongering about it by right-wing talk radio in the U.S. led to a Chicago landlord stabbing his six-year-old Palestinian tenant to death

The day after Libin’s op-ed, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek released a statement arguing that “assemblies and protests that target specific groups with hateful language are quickly the norm and are increasingly spreading offensive rhetoric.” 

Without mentioning pro-Palestine protests by name, Gondek cited the “inherently violent nature of the offensive language and symbolism we are hearing and seeing in our city streets,” implicitly tying pro-Palestine protests to the white supremacist and anti-trans protests that have been prevalent in Calgary over the past two years. 

“Bylaw and police officers are placed in the impossible position of having to control crowds to people without having the ability to to remove those using harmful language because the threshold of hate crime legislation cannot be met,” said Gondek. 

The following day, Khaled was arrested. 

According to JFP, the organization has a recording of the entire demonstration, and there was no hate speech at any point. During his speech to the crowd, Khaled declared that the organization was “against all forms of racism including antisemitism.” 

“The mayor’s statement betrays a horrendous ignorance of the most foundational legal instrument in the country, the charter of rights and freedoms, and it's scary if public officials really do believe that,” said Faisal Bhabha, associate professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

“And with the police, it’s an abuse of authority. They know that the charter protects exactly this kind of activity. It’s possible the mayor doesn’t know this but the police know better. This is the police being weaponized against a vulnerable population and we’re seeing it all over the place.” 

Khaled was charged with criminal code section 175(1)(a)(i), causing a disturbance “by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language.” If he’s convicted, the alleged hate motivation will be factored into sentencing.

“Language that is insulting on its own is not criminal. But police have a wide amount of discretion to lay a charge. And then when you have systemically racist police forces, this is what we get,” said Bhabha.  

“These are well worn slogans and everyone knows what they mean. It’s a plea for freedom and equality, for anyone to say that it is anything else is completely disingenuous.”

Willa Holt, a spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices, which advocates for Palestinian human rights, agrees that the chant is being grossly mischaracterized.

“It cannot be inherently violent to call for your own dignity to be respected, and to label the Palestinian quest for freedom as inherently antisemitic or actively violent is frankly Islamophobic, and a form of anti-Palestinian racism,” Holt told The Progress Report.

Holt added that Libin has no right to claim she speaks on behalf of the entire Jewish community, because Jews “are no monolith, and many Jewish voices cry out this chant alongside Palestinians without reservation.”

“When we as Jewish allies share in this chant, we are collectively dreaming of a world in which no one is forced to live under apartheid, to face genocide or to lose their home,” Holt added. 

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) issued a Nov. 7 statement calling Khaled’s arrest a “grave overreach” by the CPS. 

“To be clear, non-violent and peaceful protests about Palestinian human rights should never be criminalized,” the NCCM wrote in a Facebook post, adding that the bail condition that Khaled not participate in further pro-Palestine protest “speaks further to how problematic, at least at this point, these charges appear to be.”

The NCCM said it will “be retaining expert outside legal counsel to ensure that the individual has a right to a fair trial.”