As turmoil along the Israel-Gaza border continues to escalate and death tolls rise, rallies flared up outside Israel’s consulate in Toronto on April 9, as demonstrators reacted to the country’s crackdown on mass border protests.
Protesters amassed in two groups – one in support of the Jewish state and the other condemning the Israeli government’s armed response to Palestinian protests in recent weeks.
The protests in Gaza, which began in late March, were led by Hamas leaders, who called on Palestinians to breach Israel’s borders and have left 26 protesters dead and hundreds more wounded by Israeli fire.
Around 80 protesters lined Bloor Street West on Monday night, calling for an end to Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters and carrying signs denouncing Israel’s “occupation” of Gaza. That protest was organized by the Toronto chapter of IfNotNow, an activist group made up of young Jews who describe their work as “a movement to end the North American Jewish community’s support for the Israeli occupation.”
“We’re going to fight for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians,” said Hadas Binyamini, one of the organizers of the event. “We’re not waiting for moral leadership from our leaders.”
Some carried signs calling for “freedom and dignity” for Palestinians, pegging the freedom of Israelis to their neighbours in Gaza and the West Bank.
“Jews cannot be free while oppressing others,” one IfNotNow speaker told the crowd. “This is not what freedom looks like. And we say enough.”
Others questioned what they see as a tepid international response to reports of violence against Palestinian protesters.
Leaders of the protest gathered the crowd in a circle to recite the Kaddish, to commemorate the Palestinians who were killed in the Gaza protests.
Israeli and international media have reported that some protesters threw firebombs at Israeli soldiers, while others carried weapons and tried to cut through the border fence.
“There are thousands of protesters gathering in the streets (of Gaza) – they’re not all violent protesters,” said Binyamini. “The fact that there’s live, indiscriminate fire going at all of them … speaks louder than the fact there are some violent protesters.”
Some protesters who joined IfNotNow’s event took a harder line. They waved Palestinian and Lebanese flags, chanting, “Free, Free Palestine,” and carrying signs that denounced Israel as an apartheid state. Others stood silently, dressed entirely in black, wearing bandanas and sunglasses to obscure their faces. They carried Antifa flags, belonging to the far-left group that has been linked to violent attacks on right-wing speakers and activists across North America and Europe in recent years.
IfNotNow said in an email that the group is not affiliated with Antifa.
A counter-protest, organized by the Jewish Defence League (JDL), attracted a handful of pro-Israel supporters waving Israeli and Canadian flags.
Separated by the busy street and occasionally interrupted by honks and shouts of support from passing cars, the two sides screamed insults and slogans at one another, in a series of angry exchanges. One pro-Israel supporter briefly breached police lines separating the two parties and approached the opposing crowd, filming them with a phone, while gesturing with his middle finger.
International attention on the border skirmishes became more intense after Yasser Murtaja, a Palestinian journalist, was shot dead by Israeli forces during a protest on April 6. Israeli security officials now say that Murtaja was actually a Hamas activist and is linked to a 2015 attempt to smuggle a drone into Gaza, to aid Hamas in intelligence gathering.
The Palestinian protests are seen by some as an attempt by Hamas to break through the border. Others have suggested that Hamas has used the protests to deflect attention from the internal turmoil between it and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank. Hamas says it is driven by widespread desperation over Israel and Egypt’s decade-long border blockade.
Hamas Leader Ismail Haniyeh said on April 6 that the protests will help return Palestinians to Israel, which he called their rightful homeland.