Rally goers wrapped in Palestinian flags filled Uptown Waterloo Square on April 23. Local Palestinians and their allies were raising awareness of the continuing oppression their people are facing at the hands of the Israeli government. Organizers have also planned an event for May 14 to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the Nakba.
During the month of April, Muslims all over were observing Ramadan. On April 15, Israeli forces raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem where thousands of worshippers had gathered for early morning prayer. Al Jazeera reported at least 158 Palestinians were injured during the raid, with hundreds more detained. Israeli police claimed they were there to break up a “violent” crowd.
The raid prompted outcry from Palestinians from all over the world, horrified, but not surprised that the Israeli government would do this. Palestinian activists from Waterloo Region quickly organized a rally for the following weekend.
“These emotions are not new,” said Yazan Shaheen, one of the rally organizers. “A lot of Palestinians in Palestine have been feeling this for a very long time, especially since last year.”
In May 2021, violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians in the region known as Israel. Hamas extremist groups escalated the violence by launching rocket attacks at Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Over 90 per cent of the rockets fired at Israel were intercepted by its Iron Dome air defence system. The Israeli government would retaliate in turn by launching airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. Similar to previous conflicts in the region, Palestinians made up the majority of casualties.
The deaths prompted a wave of protests around the world, including a car rally that was organized for Waterloo Region. Protestors lined the streets with their cars adorned with Palestinian flags as they took over major roadways. Shaheen was one of the people behind the local protest and stayed connected with organizers afterwards.
Shaheen immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia several years ago. His grandparents were first generation refugees forced from their homes during the Nakba, the destruction and displacement of Palestinian society and homeland in 1948. He and others carry that history wherever they go, as they continue to advocate for fellow Palestinians still living under the Israeli government.
“There were still aggression and arrests and Palestinians being killed by Israeli military and Israeli settlers that whole year, so we never got the chance to calm our emotions down this whole year,” Shaheen said.
Two Israeli-based human rights groups, Yesh Din and B’Tselem, have issued separate reports describing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians akin to apartheid. Major international human rights bodies Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also come to the same conclusion recently. The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories submitted a report in March this year stating that the Israeli government had created an apartheid state in their control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This year’s rally saw Palestinian speakers share their stories of trauma,describe the dangers their people face, and call out the media silence on Gaza. Pamphlets were given out that explained the mental health of a person who grows up under these conditions. Ramadan pamphlets were also given out, asking people to donate to charity.
In Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, residents have been evicted by the state in what activists describe as “forced ethnic displacement.” Organizers drew parallels from their struggles to that of Indigenous peoples in Canada, expressing solidarity with their fight against a settler-colonial government.
“It is an occupying power coming in and taking over land from an Indigenous population. Kind of the same methods that were used back then or same methods that are used now within Palestine,” Shaheen said. “We stand in solidarity with our Indigenous community.” Recently the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled to suspend evictions for the time being.
Shaheen felt hopeful at the sight of people showing up for their cause. A giant Palestinian flag waved against the sky in Uptown as rally goers shouted back and forth for a free Palestine. He said the most important thing people could do now was to donate to Palestinian relief efforts, and to educate themselves on what is happening.
“Staying informed of the situation that’s happening there right away is the first step and then educating yourself, reading up on policy literature, reading up on the understandings of how an occupying power works over an occupied population. Understanding how systems of oppression work, and being able to recognize those systems of oppression. Those are all basic steps that we can all take,” Shaheen said.
The Government of Israel is recognized and supported by the vast majority of world governments. One half of the world’s Palestinian population currently resides in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Israel. There are more than six million Palestinians, including first generation refugees and their descendants, living in the global diaspora. They do not have the right to return to their homeland.
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