‘From the River to the Sea’ chant prompts Calgary police to charge a Palestinian activist with a hate-related crime

Wesam Cooley also known as Wesam Khaled of Calgary
Calgary pro-Palestinian leader Wesam Cooley, 32, also known as Wesam Khaled, at a Nov. 5 rally outside Calgary City Hall. (CJPME photo)

In what might be a precedent-setting case in Canada stemming from the current street protests over the Israel-Hamas war, Calgary police have charged a pro-Palestinian activist who was heard leading a crowd to chant “From the River to the Sea.”

In a statement issued Nov. 7, Calgary police said they had charged a 32-year-old Calgary man with “causing a disturbance” following his arrest two days earlier after a pro-Palestinian rally outside Calgary’s city hall building. However, officers have also tacked on a hate-motivated component to the charge, after consulting with their force’s hate crimes coordinator.

According to police, the incident happened Nov. 5 when a large group of about 1,000 protesters–both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian–each held their weekly competing demonstrations on Macleod Trail S.E. 

Calgary police have regularly advised protest leaders what they can and cannot do or say at these recurring events, including some wording on signs or breaking hate speech laws or blocking 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,” the police news release said.

Calgary’s Wesam Cooley, also known as Wesam Khaled, is scheduled to appear in court again on Dec. 19.

Cooley was released on bail and barred from attending any further protests.

The use of the phrase “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” has been interpreted of late by the Jewish community as advocating for the dismantling of the Jewish state, in order to create a homeland for Palestinians.

The Jewish Federation of Calgary thanked the city police for taking swift action after the weekend protest against a person “who was publicly inciting hate”, according to a statement posted on the Jewish organization’s Facebook page on Nov. 7.

“This arrest will hopefully set a precedent not only in Calgary but in other cities,” the group added.

Calgary police have made multiple arrests in connection with local protests since Oct. 7, the start of the current Israel-Hamas war.

They have detained people for a variety of reasons including breach of peace, uttering threats, assault and also assault with a weapon, following “incidents of violence”. However, it isn’t clear whether anyone was actually charged in connection with these other arrests. The Nov. 5 charge against Cooley is the first targeting someone for hate-motivated reasons against the Jewish community.

[Ed note: On Nov 8, Calgary police also announced they’ve laid a new hate-motivated charge, against a 25-year old Calgary man, for making threatening online social media posts targeting the local Jewish community.

Mohamad Ghandour faces three counts of uttering threats. He will next appear in court Dec. 6, 2023.]

Supporters of Cooley, a well-known Palestinian activist, are calling for the charges to be dropped, deny any hate-crime was committed, and accuse Calgary police of bowing to pressure from those trying to silence legitimate protest and to demonize Palestinian voices.

“We must underscore that his arrest occurred as an ambush rather than an arrest for an observable offence,” said the Calgary branch of the group Justice for Palestinians, in a media release.

 “To our knowledge, there are 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 anti-Israel group Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (CJPME) also condemned the charge and called it “spurious”.

“We are appalled at the shocking overreach of the Alberta government in carrying out this arrest, which is an example of anti-Palestinian racism,” said Thomas Woodley, president of CJPME, in a release.

For their part, the Calgary police say they are only enforcing the law, not clamping down on activism from anyone.

“We will continue to police behaviours, not beliefs,” the police department’s news release said.

In Canada, a conviction for the crime of “disturbing the peace” carries a maximum penalty of up to 6 months in jail or a $5,000 fine, or both, and a criminal record. However, when prosecutors add the hate-motivated tag to a summary charge, it gives a judge wider leeway to impose higher penalties during sentencing, according to legal experts.

It’s not the first time Cooley has come to public attention in Calgary for supporting the use of extreme language toward Jews in Israel.

A decade ago, while he was the president of the University of Calgary’s campus club known as Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, he came to the defence of a previous club leader whose Facebook posts drew complaints from a local pro-Israel group. In 2014, Cooley told the National Post at the time that the violent posts describing a “bloody” kaffiyeh of a Palestinian martyr were misinterpreted, because they had been written as  “fiction” and “poetry.”

Canadian police have now laid hate-motivated charges against 13 people related to the current Middle East situation:

  • Calgary police charged a 25-year-old man on Nov. 7 with three counts of uttering threats in connection with a series of online social media posts targeting the Jewish community in Calgary. Mohamad Ghandour will appear in court again on Dec. 6.
  • Calgary police have charged a 32-year-old man with disturbing the peace, in connection with a Nov. 5 pro-Palestinian protest rally in the city. Wesam Cooley, also known as Wesam Khaled, was arrested on Sunday after the rally. He is set to be in court again Dec. 19.
  • Ottawa police charged a 29-year-old man on Saturday Nov. 4 after death threats and anti-Zionist slogans were directed at Rabbi Idan Scher, of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, during a telephone call on Friday Nov. 3. Police did not identify the suspect.
  • Toronto police charged a 32-year-old man on Monday Nov. 6 after an assault in connection with someone trying to put up posters of missing Israeli hostages along Yonge Street in North York. The accused, Omar Elkhodary, will appear back in court Jan. 9, 2024.
  • Toronto police charged a 36-year-old Toronto man with assault with a weapon, after a pro-Palestinian protester wearing a keffiyeh on his arm was pepper-sprayed near a street demonstration on Sunday Nov. 5 in the city’s Yorkville area. Brandon Stier is set to be in court again Jan. 5, 2024.
  • Toronto police charged a 40-year-old woman with assault, after being caught ripping down Israeli hostage posters by a bystander. The victim was slightly hurt, after the suspect allegedly asked her whether she was Jewish. Selina Mew-Siew Chan will be back in court on Dec. 19.
  • Toronto police charged three suspects in connection with uttering death threats towards students at TanenbaumCHAT high school on Oct. 12. Enes Boydak, 20, and two teenagers who cannot be named because they are under age, each face four charges.
  • Ottawa police charged three suspects with mischief after antisemitic and other offensive graffiti was spray painted on a downtown garage on Oct. 29. Police were not naming the trio as two are under age.
  • Kingston police charged an 18-year-old driver with dangerous operation of a vehicle after a  truck nearly hit a crowd of pro-Israel demonstrators during a rally on Oct. 17. The suspect, a Kingston man, was not named. Police were looking for any victims who might have been injured when the truck accelerated into the crowd.