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Ottawa woman says she no longer feels safe after hijab pulled at Israel flag raising

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The Ottawa Police Service says its hate crime unit is investigating after a woman reported her hijab being pulled at a flag-raising ceremony for Israel’s Independence Day earlier this week.

Hayfa Abdelkhaleq fought back tears as she recalled the altercation, where she was protesting the ceremony in front of city hall. She identified herself to CTV News as the woman in the incident that was caught on video and circulated online.

"I can’t sleep," Abdelkhaleq said. "You know when someone attacks your dignity. This is how I felt."

In the blurred video, Abdelkhaleq can be seen holding a large Palestinian flag when someone walks up behind her, giving the camera the middle finger before pulling off her hijab.

"This is assault, this is not right," she said.

"As soon as I raised the flag and said 'From the river to the sea,' what does she do? I’m not going to forget what she did to me and I will fight until I find her."

Groups of protesters gathered at Ottawa's city hall on Tuesday to both celebrate and condemn the raising of the Israeli flag. Flags of nations with which Canada has diplomatic relations are regularly raised at city hall for national days and other events, but pro-Palestinian groups demanded this year to cancel the Israeli flag raising because of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

The city went ahead with the flag raising, but cancelled a planned public ceremony. Jewish groups later organized a private ceremony at city hall that was heavily policed, with metal barricades separating pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups.

"This is an anti-Palestinian hate crime," said her niece, Ghada Sasa. "My aunt followed her in order to identify her and make sure she was held accountable, but the police stopped her and said she wasn’t allowed to enter the pro-Israel side."

Hayfa Abdelkhaleq at a pro-Palestinian demonstration. (Courtesy: Hayfa Abdelkhaleq)

After the incident, the individual can be heard speaking unintelligibly as she walks towards the flag-raising ceremony. Abdelkhaleq is heard saying, "Shame on you."

Police have not yet identified the person in the video or confirmed whether they attended a pro-Israeli demonstration that took place at the flag-raising ceremony.

The Ottawa Police Service reported a 19 per cent increase in hate-motivated incidents in 2023, with the highest number of incidents targeting the Jewish community. 21 reported hate crimes that year were against Muslims.

Abdelkhaleq says she immigrated to Canada more than 25 years ago for a better life. She says she no longer feels safe and is thinking about leaving.

"I thought that I can help support them, but when I think about Canada, how they support Israel, it just makes me think that I have to go," she said.

In a statement, the Ottawa Police Service said, "We are aware of an incident involving a woman's hijab, from Tuesday's demonstration. Our Hate Crime Unit is investigating and we ask anyone with information to please contact us at 613-236-1222 ext: 5015."

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