Protesters in several Canadian cities waved placards and Palestinian flags Saturday as they angrily denounced the ongoing Israeli offensive in Gaza, just as word emerged that Israel's troops and tanks had moved into enemy territory.

Following on the heels of angry protests taking place in cities across Europe, the Canadian show of solidarity began in the nation's capital with more than 500 demonstrators braving chill winds on the steps of Parliament Hill.

The group made its way to the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Ottawa, as did a gathering of several thousand people in Toronto who at one point faced off against a smaller group of pro-Israel demonstrators in a downtown public square.

The noisy but peaceful gathering on Parliament Hill erupted with cries of "shame" when a speaker delivered the news Israel had begun its ground assault.

"Regardless what they say in this building (House of Commons), regardless what they say in Washington or the Hague, these are war crimes," shouted Robert Assaly, an Anglican priest from Montreal who was a speaker at the rally.

At the height of the protest, military officials in Jerusalem confirmed that Israeli ground forces, amassed for days on the Gaza border, had started moving into the region.

The ground incursion had been widely expected in the wake of a heavy barrage of artillery strikes from Israeli gunboats and warships that was hammering the region Saturday.

Organizers at the invective-charged Toronto rally opted not to announce the news for fear it would stoke additional anger.

"This will have huge implications," said Ali Mallah of the Canadian-Arab Federation.

"It will widen the wedge toward more war, more violence and more people to be killed. It's a shame that we just entered a new year ... to start with war and killing in the Middle East."

In Vancouver, about 250 people braved falling snow and slick roads to attend the protest.

"We gather here today to protest Israeli war crimes," said Omar Shaban of the Canadian-Arab Federation. "The people in Gaza, they need us. They need our support."

In addition to the Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver protests, an event is planned for Montreal on Sunday.

Braving -19 C wind-chill temperatures, the Ottawa rally denounced what they called Israeli atrocities against the 1.5 million residents of Gaza.

It included many self-identified Palestinian-Canadians, as well as a smattering of Jewish-Canadians opposed to Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank, union activists and civil rights advocates.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defence in response to continuous firing of rockets from Gaza into Jewish towns.

But the demonstrators dismissed that defence, calling the rockets a minor provocation that don't excuse the killing of over 400 Palestinians.

Toronto police - including several on horseback - formed a barrier between the impassioned masses of Palestinian supporters and the scores waving Israeli flags as the protest forced the closure of a typically busy portion of Yonge Street.

"(The violence) devastated me and my family," said Suraya Aburaneh, 21. "We can't do much, but we're here in Canada and the best we can do is spread awareness."

Interrupting her was her nine-year-old cousin Dina, who shouted: "We can't let people die like this!"

"We just need peace in this world, no killing. Both sides," said Sumbul Raza, 34, as she marched and led chants of, "Shame, shame Israel."

Across police lines, a group organized by the Jewish Defense League held a counter-demonstration.

"I want them to have their own country, I want them to have democracy," said Ravid Dahan, 28, who moved to Canada from Israel two years ago.

"I want my children to go to school with their children. But they don't believe I exist."

Jill Aharon, 51, from Thornhill, added peace could come easily: "If they lay down their rockets, there will be no more death," she said.

Vancouver's protest remained low-key but invective charged nonetheless.

One speaker called for the "dismantling of the terrorist state of Israel."

Shaban had spoken to friends in Gaza just before the march. He said they were watching the invasion.

"He can see ground-to-ground missiles," Shaban said. "He can see Palestinian civilians lying on the ground dead. There is no place for them in the hospitals. There is no place for the wounded. There are not enough ambulances. There's no food supplies.

"Of course I'm angry about it because the whole world is silent about it," said Shaban, who was born in Vancouver but spent time in a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago. "It's a really dire situation."

Police on foot watched the protest in downtown Vancouver. Patrol cars then led a march through city streets.

Tens of thousands of people also demonstrated across Europe on Saturday, including protesters who hurled shoes at the tall iron gates outside the British prime minister's residence in London.

Protests in Paris, Rome, Berlin and many other European cities also drew thousands.

Israel says it is responding to rockets fired from Gaza by the Hamas militant group. Four Israelis also have been killed in the week of violence.

The Israeli air strikes have badly damaged Gaza's infrastructure, knocking out power and water in many areas and raising fears of humanitarian disaster.

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