TORONTO – As the temporary ceasefire in Gaza broke down, critics of Israeli military action and pro-Zionist supporters gathered in Queen’s Park Saturday afternoon, waving signs and shouting “terrorist” at one another across a metal barrier guarded by dozens of police officers.
One pro-Palestinian supporter who rushed the pro-Zionist side was beaten and placed in a chokehold before organizers pulled his attackers away. He appeared to sustain minor head injuries.
Around 3,000 people demonstrated in support of “a free Palestine.” Opposing them were a group of about 500 pro-Zionist counter-protesters organized by the Jewish Defence League.
Organizers from both sides repeatedly called for non-violence, but tempers continued to flare and the two groups nearly came to blows at the south end of Queen’s Park as protesters pressed nose to nose. Police along with organizers from both sides were able to pull the clashing groups apart.
“We didn’t start it, but we’ll finish it,” said JDL member Aaron Hadidah. who called the pro-Palestinian rally a “hatefest” and said he was there to defend against anti-Semitism.
Despite the JDLs insistence that they were there to demonstrate peacefully, pro-Palestinian demonstrator Yves Engelman said about 20 JDL members and their supporters spat on him and threw his bicycle into the street.
Pro-Israel counter-protesters at Queen's Park July 26. JONATHAN LINDS PHOTO
The pro-Palestinian event, known as the “International Day of Al-Quds” is held in Queen’s Park every year at the end of the month of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Though groups such as the JDL, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center had urged the Queen’s Park sergeant-at-arms to cancel the event, Harold Pomerantz a non-JDL-affiliated counter-protester said he didn’t mind that Queen’s Park hosted the rally, as long as it remained peaceful.
While he expressed sympathy for the loss of civilian life in the conflict, which has claimed more than 1,000 Palestinians and 43 Israelis so far, Pomerantz said, “We have to stand up for Israel. How can people expect Israel not to defend itself?”
Pro-Israel ralliers danced and waved Israeli and Canadian flags, and shouted slogans such as “Free Palestine from Hamas.”
Video from Queen's Park July 26 shot by Igal Hecht
On the other side of the police barrier, demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Palestine.”
“This is not a Muslim cause or Arab cause, this is a cause for justice,” said Zamir Rimaz, a law-student at the University of Ottawa who spent the day talking to people on both sides of the fence. “I’m sure if I go and ask [those on the other side], ‘Are you supportive of civilian deaths?’ they will say no.”
Not all voices were so civil. In video supplied to The CJN by documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht, one anti-Israel protester can be heard shouting, “Go to hell. Go where you come from. Go back to Germany where they can kill you again.”
Though the vitriolic voices were by far the loudest, the majority of people demonstrated peacefully.
The Al-Quds Day rally organizers, a coalition of over 70 groups, claimed several times to have many Jewish supporters in attendance, though this was difficult to confirm.
JONATHAN LINDS PHOTO
There were however, a number of Jews present to criticize Israeli's actions, including Vera Szoke, the daughter of Auschwitz prisoners.
“I’m the child of two Holocaust survivors, and they have taught me that trying to destroy another people is wrong and that ‘Never again’ does not just refer to the Jews and the Jewish Holocaust,” She said.
“I want people who are not Jewish to understand that not all Jews are Zionists. That there are many of us who support them.”
This was the second JDL-organized protest this month to end in violence. On July 6, its protest rally against the abduction of three Israeli teens who were later found murdered turned into a fight with pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators outside Palestine house in Mississauga. Peel Police have laid assault charges against two Palestine House supporters who attacked JDL supporters.