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Pro-Palestinian protester says he shouldn't have been charged for contentious chant

Wesam Cooley, who also goes by Wesam Khaled, who was recently arrested and charged by the Calgary police, addresses a pro-Palestinian rally in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. His charges were stayed Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — A man who repeatedly used a contentious chant at a pro-Palestinian rally says he never should have been charged by Calgary police because the phrase is not offensive.

Wesam Cooley, 32, was charged following a protest in the city's downtown earlier this month with causing a disturbance, and a hate motivation had been applied to that offence. His charges were stayed Friday by Alberta's Crown prosecution service.

"I was hoping they would be dropped. They never should have been laid in the first place," Cooley, who also goes by Wesam Khaled, told reporters Sunday before another pro-Palestinian rally was held in Calgary.

"There's absolutely nothing offensive about the chant 'from the river to the sea.' It's a call for freedom for the people of Palestine."

Many Palestinian activists say the chant is a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood, but Jewish people hear a clear demand for Israel's destruction.

It has become a battle cry for pro-Palestinian activists since the deadly attacks by Hamas across southern Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel's later bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

When Cooley was charged, Calgary police said that two groups of protesters gathered at City Hall on Nov. 5 to show support for Palestine and Israel amid the conflict in the Middle East. Officers met with each group to address the safety of participants and discuss some of the language and signage from past protests.

Police alleged he took to the stage, acknowledged the conversation then repeatedly used an "antisemitic phrase" while encouraging the crowd to follow along.

The phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" was again chanted by the hundreds gathered at Sunday's rally at Calgary City Hall, which took place across the street from a rally for Israel. 

Some Jewish people at the pro-Israel rally said they are deeply offended by the phrase.

"It's very clear what they are saying," said Elliott Steinberg, who described himself as a devoted member of the Jewish community. "They are talking about the Jordan River and the Mediterranean which, if you look at a map, encompasses all of Israel.

"So, what they're saying is that when they want to free Palestine, they want to clear it of all Jewish people. That's genocide. It's not an innocent statement."

Leigh-Anne Palter, who's also Jewish, said there's no nuance to the phrase.

"The entire region is Arab. There's a tiny little portion of the world that belongs to Jews," she said. "It means what they mean. Hamas exists to extinguish the Jewish people. That is their sole purpose.

"My heart aches for all of the innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict, but let's be clear: Hamas is endangering their own people. It's a deliberate action meant to incite violence and uncertainty in the entire region and across the world."

She said her granddaughter is at a Jewish daycare in Edmonton and she hasn't been outside in five weeks.

"It's a very scary time for everyone, and it's a sad time that these are my neighbours, that these are my potential colleagues and there's so much hate."

Khaled said Sunday he doesn't see it that way.

"We have members of the Jewish community at all of our marches. All around the world Jewish organizations have been leading demonstrations and solidarity with Palestine, including this chant," he said.

"Jewish people in this country should not feel threatened by this chant. We are opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism."

Experts in freedom of expression said the phrase is considered aspirational for many Palestinians and hateful for many in the Jewish community, but noted it isn't illegal speech. Canadian courts have said that democracy rests on robust public discourse, they noted.

In Halifax, more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at a downtown hotel Sunday as the annual Halifax International Security Forum came to an end.

Attendees of the forum, that included a panel with a former Israeli prime minister, were greeted by chants calling for an immediate ceasefire as they left the conference venue. Protesters held signs that read "stop the genocide and the occupation" and "peace for Gaza" and "ceasefire now."

Similar signs were at the pro-Palestinian rally in Calgary, while the pro-Israel rally had signs that said "free Gaza from Hamas" and "bring them home now."

Calgary police said in a statement later Sunday that there were about 2,000 people at the two rallies and most acted in a lawful, peaceful and respectful manner.

Police added, however, that about 100 people left the main protest group and started marching, which blocked traffic. Five of those people were arrested and three were charged with assaulting a peace officer. A fourth person was charged with obstructing a peace officer. The fifth person was released without charges, police said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 19, 2023.

— With files from Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax and The Associated Press

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the last name of Wesam Khaled, the name by which Wesam Cooley is known at rallies.

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