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Photo courtesy Noor Al-Sabeg

The Contemporary Dilemma: Students in Calgary mobilize the #FreePalestine movement

By Aymen Sherwani, May 25 2021—

This year, April 13 marked the first night of Ramadan — the Muslim holy month, during which all those who follow Islam across the world are encouraged to fast, feed the poor and be generous when given the opportunity to help one another. In 2021, this same day happened to also fall on Memorial Day in Israel, the state’s official remembrance day, meant to honour fallen soldiers. The New York Times reports that on this day the Israeli military raided the masjid Al-Aqsa — one of the holiest sites in Islam, and ultimately created a chain of events leading to the month-long campaign of forced evictions, air raids and bombings of Palestinian territory — including the airstrike of Palestine’s only COVID-19 testing facility.  

Exactly one month later, a little over a thousand protesters took to the streets in Calgary on Friday, May 13th to march in solidarity with Palestinians, calling on their political representatives to address this matter. The Gauntlet reached out to the organizers, Noor Al-Sabeg and Lina Moyano, regarding their motivations, their thoughts on the ongoing Israel-Palestine discourse and the role that Canada has — given our country’s long-standing history of human rights advocacy on the international stage. 

Al-Sabeg, who is a Public Relations student at Mount Royal University, also has a family currently living in occupied Jerusalem. She stated that her motivation to organize a protest for the #FreePalestine movement was because she “felt soon enough [her family] would lose their homes as well,” and “was hoping to spread as much awareness as [she] possibly could about the ethnic cleansing of [her] people.”

Alongside her was Moyano, who said her advocacy for Palestine was directly related to her identity as a Colombian refugee to Canada, and her staunch support for human rights that are often violated in her homeland. 

“I believe the motivation came from a burning will to change the narrative of what my future and my kid’s future would be. Protesting is a way we can reach our community to educate and spread awareness,” said Moyano.

The support for Palestine on the international stage has been scattered, particularly among those that have championed human rights in times of crisis. This is because of the increasing level of concern and controversy around the idea of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian region, and whether the open condemnation of Israeli war crimes would result in accusations of anti-Semitism. This is in the context of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements against the International Criminal Court (ICC), asserting that an investigation of Israel for “fake war crimes” would be “pure anti-Semitism” and even going as far as to say that “court[s] set up to prevent atrocities like Nazi Holocaust against the Jews now target the one state of the Jews.”

The Holocaust will be remembered for centuries as a devastating tragedy against Jewish Europeans, resulting in the migration of millions towards Palestine. It is for this reason that so many voices around the world are in staunch support for the stability of an Israeli state, as they believe it is a representation of Jewish freedom — our interviewees maintain that this freedom has been achieved at the expense of Palestinian lives. 

Al-Sabeg’s words ring clear in the murky waters of this political turmoil. 

“We are not standing against [Jewish people], we are standing for our human rights and our right to live in a safe space. Anyone should look at the difference between Tel Aviv and Gaza, and then you can see who was oppressed. My people deserve safety and to be recognized. I want [everyone] to also know that Palestinians are Semites, so it is absolutely pointless to call us anti-Semitic.”

“This isn’t about religion,” said Moyano. “We are not fighting [to determine] whose belief [system] is right or wrong.” Moyano says it is about people “losing their lives, fearing and wondering if they’ll see another day,” further going on to cite the death toll of 232 in the Gaza strip, and 12 on the Israeli front. Referencing the increased occupation of Palestinian territory since 1948, Moyano believes that a two-state solution would be a “slap in the face to the Palestinians […] and letting the colonizers win when we know how it went with our fellow First Nations peoples [of Canada].”

It then became clear to the protest organizers that the first step is recognition from their Canadian representatives and an understanding that what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian region is no different than the mistreatment of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. The failure to recognize what they believe to be a repetition of history is tone-deaf and irresponsible. Al-Sabeg wants Canadian representatives to make the connection between Canada’s history of settler-colonialism and the occupation of Palestine, and how both of them involved the oppression of the Indigenous populations that had already been established in the area.

“Canada is failing tremendously,” said Al-Sabeg. “Justin Trudeau said that Israel has a right to defend itself, but from what? What are they protecting themselves from? Women? Children? Pebbles that get thrown? They should realize that what their ancestors did here, is the same as what the settlers are doing there. If they are neutral in times of oppression, then they have automatically chosen the side of the oppressor.” 

To attendees of the protest, like Omimah Hassan, the Canadian sale of arms to Israel which are used to “maintain violent control of the West Bank” was exactly why she chose to take a stand with the movement. 

Hassan, along with the majority of the protestors who attended the march, believes that the Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa during ongoing worship and the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah are representative of “oppression, violent displacement and ethnic cleansing,” and not of a country trying to defend itself.

While recent news regarding the conflict is that a ceasefire has been declared, the blockade against Gaza remains, many now voicing that there is a lot more work to be done. The overall sentiment left behind by protestors was that Canada’s statements of neutrality are hypocritical. It raises into question whether or not Canada is only interested in preserving the status quo within the Middle East or whether they even are the self-proclaimed beacon of human rights they champion themselves as. 

While these questions don’t have an immediate answer, the sheer number of people protesting in favour of Palestinians across the world, including both Al-Sabeg and Moyano have proven one thing: “this is a movement which has been long overdue.”

There are thousands of strong and fearless men, women and children all over the world. These are the people that wake up, despite the atrocities they are facing, and push forward without looking back. These are the people that sacrifice everything so their families will have a better future. This is what The Contemporary Dilemma highlightsThis column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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