‘People are really fearful’: suspicion stalks Israel’s mixed communities

Dalal, a prominent Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who made her name as a folk singer, went to the police earlier this month to report online threats made against her. 

But it was Dalal who found herself arrested — seemingly for posting a Palestinian flag on social media, alongside the religious phrase “no victor but God”, on the day of the Hamas attacks on Israel. She was taken by police from her home town, Nazareth, and held in custody for two days.

Dalal’s arrest — and the anger stirred by her post — has been one of a growing list of incidents since Hamas’s assault that have tested the limits of Israel’s democracy, its commitment to free speech in times of war, as well as the social fabric of its mixed communities, where Jews and Palestinians live side by side as citizens of Israel.

Still reeling from the most bloody day in the country’s history on October 7, in which 1,400 people were killed, according to official estimates, Israel’s Jewish majority has shown little patience with expressions of dissent from Palestinian-Israelis, either about the Hamas attack or Israel’s retaliation.

Human rights campaigners say scores of Palestinian-Israeli citizens have been arrested, harassed, lost their jobs or faced disciplinary proceedings over statements and social media posts about the war, which has also killed more than 8,005 people in Gaza, according to officials in the Hamas-controlled territory.

Palestinians caught in the clampdown — ranging from Dalal, a neuroscientist turned singer, to footballers and screen stars — claim there is a concerted campaign by rightwing figures in the Jewish Israeli majority to demonise them, stoke nationalist rancour and quash critical voices at a time of war.

While each case is different, the alleged harassment and legal steps have added to the strains in the nation’s mixed communities, and revived questions about the protections for minority rights and freedom of expression under Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government.

As traumatised Jewish Israelis grieve those killed in the most deadly attack in the country’s history, which they have compared to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, Palestinians are reliving their own traumas that stretch back to Israel’s creation.

The 2mn Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship — about a fifth of the population — are the heirs of the generation that found themselves inside Israel’s borders after what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Some prominent Israeli Arab political leaders were quick to condemn Hamas’s cross-border attacks, in remarks welcomed by liberal Jewish Israelis. They included Knesset members such as Ahmad Tibi, who denounced “atrocities against civilians”. “In human morality there’s no selectivity, there’s no half morality; murder of children is murder of children,” Tibi said.

However, other Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, such as Dalal, have been more outspoken in their opposition or outrage over Israel’s declaration of war on Gaza — and have found themselves the targets of a backlash.

Vehicles destroyed in an rocket attack allegedly fired from the Gaza Strip

“It’s not even discrimination, it’s oppression,” said Hassan Jabareen, founder and general director of Adalah, a Haifa-based legal centre focused on the rights of Palestinians. “Discrimination is between two different groups, but oppression is to treat me differently because I’m Palestinian, to exclude me because I’m Palestinian, to shut my mouth because I’m Palestinian.”

Dalal made her stand on the day of the Hamas attack, when shock and rage over the assault within Israel was at its most intense.

The singer, whose full name is Dalal Abu Amneh, authorised her personal assistant to publish the message on Dalal’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Soon after the post went viral, the singer called her lawyer, Abeer Baker, who recalls Dalal saying: “I’m under attack, people are using this sentence and my photo everywhere, calling me a Nazi, threatening me.” 

Dalal’s husband Anan Al-Abassi, who works at a hospital in the city of Afula, became a target, with angry Israelis demanding he be sacked. Dalal deleted the post before contacting police to make her complaint and was arrested the same evening, according to her lawyer.

Dalal, who along with her husband declined interview requests, was released on condition that she make no further statements about the war. An Israeli police spokesman did not return a request for comment but the police have said that the allegations against her included behaviour that might lead to public disturbance, threatening police officers and preventing police from doing their duties.

A map of the population distribution of Israel, showing the proportion of Jews, Arabs and others by district/subdistrict for 2020

Communal friction between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis has flared during past conflicts between Israel and Hamas, including in 2014 and 2021, when violent unrest spread through Israeli cities with large Arab populations. 

This time, campaigners say, the backlash against Palestinian-Israelis has been faster and fiercer, although the tensions have not spilled over into violence, as they did in 2021 and have this year in the occupied West Bank. This is possibly because Israeli authorities have made it very clear they will not tolerate “solidarity” protests or pro-Palestinian messages of dissent.

“I don’t think there’s any communication between the sides,” Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney focusing on geopolitics in Jerusalem, said of the open divide in the country. “We’re unaware of what they’re thinking and the other way around.”

Israeli police said earlier this month that they would reject permits for demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Gaza. A spokesman said that should anyone hold a protest in favour of a “Nazi terrorist organisation that committed a Holocaust”, the police would “organise a bus for them to the Gaza Strip”.

Adalah, the legal centre, said it was monitoring 99 cases of complaints filed against Palestinian students in Israeli universities for social media posts, which it said had resulted in dozens of disciplinary hearings or suspensions. The group also said it was monitoring 161 criminal procedures Israel-wide relating to speech crimes.

Israel’s attorney-general’s office on Sunday announced it had filed four indictments against Palestinian-Israeli citizens for “inciting terrorism” and other charges.

 Maisa Abd Elhadi

The posts that resulted in indictments, by the attorney-general’s account, broke the law by praising or encouraging violence or Hamas itself.

On Tuesday police in Nazareth arrested Maisa Abd Elhadi, a Palestinian-Israeli actress, over an Instagram post featuring a tractor breaking through Israel’s security barrier with Gaza under the words: “Let’s go Berlin style”. After her arrest Israeli media published a picture of her, apparently taken by police, which showed her handcuffed and standing under an Israeli flag.

But Palestinian-Israelis and human rights campaigners say that many or most of the remarks that triggered harassment or legal action were nonviolent statements. In many cases people detained were released without charges.

They say that many of the cases were flagged to the authorities by Jewish Israelis monitoring Palestinians’ social media accounts for pro-Palestinian content, posts with Palestinian flags, or ambiguous slogans that might be interpreted as support for Hamas.

Lubna Tuma, a human rights lawyer, said the university disciplinary procedures she had seen were triggered by Israeli students submitting a complaint. Telegram accounts also comb through Palestinians’ social media posts.

“The environment is super, super tense and people are really fearful,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Israeli lawyer and activist. “The state coupled with these vigilantes comes after us, and there’s nobody to protect us.”