Israel’s Freedom of Expression Falls Victim to the War in Gaza

Since Oct. 7, hundreds of citizens — most Palestinian but many Jewish as well — have been fired, threatened or harassed in an official campaign to throttle antiwar dissent

Israel’s Freedom of Expression Falls Victim to the War in Gaza
Teachers Alia Hussien (left) and Efrat Toval give a lesson in 2016 on identity to a class of third-grade students simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic at the bilingual Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem. (Craig Stennett/Getty Images)

On Oct. 30, police arrived at an elementary school in Harish, a town just south of Haifa, and arrested a kindergarten teaching assistant. A video posted online shows uniformed officers holding her upper arms as they lead her to a police car, while adult men assembled outside the school jeer and call her a traitor. The young woman’s alleged crime: a five-year-old photo on her Facebook page that shows her holding a Palestinian flag. The shocking incident was just one of hundreds of cases, all of which occurred during the past three weeks, involving harassment, arrests, detention and death threats directed at citizens who have been targeted under new legislation that represses freedom of expression.

Since the events of Oct. 7, hundreds of Palestinian Israeli citizens and many Jewish leftists have been fired from their jobs or arrested. The offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government are, according to Israeli human rights lawyers, engaging in a coordinated attack on freedom of expression that targets anyone who dissents against the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza or who expresses support for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Some who have been targeted are leaders in their professions. Dr. Abed Samara, the head of the cardiac intensive care unit at Sharon Hospital in the town of Petah Tikvah, was informed on Oct. 19 that he had been summarily fired from his position, without any warning or due process. The director of the hospital told Samara that someone had filed a complaint accusing him of being a terrorism supporter. The complaint hinged on a June 2022 Facebook post from Samara, which shows the green flag of Islam with the shahada, or profession of faith (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”), alongside a dove of peace with an olive branch in its beak. According to the hospital director, the green flag indicated sympathy for Hamas. Samara’s explanations went unaddressed. He later learned that the order to terminate his employment came from Health Minister Uriel Busso.

Samara sat for an interview with a civil-society organization of Jews and Arabs called Standing Together shortly after the incident, looking as though he did not know what had hit him.

“I still don’t understand what happened,” he said, helplessly. “I have never differentiated between peoples,” he said. “Jew, Arab, foreigner … I don’t care. In fact the hospital is a perfect illustration that shows Jews and Arabs can work together, despite differences in political opinion.”

Suhad Bishara, legal director of the Haifa-based law firm Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said that while Israel usually sees some repression of expression during times of conflict, the current criminalization of freedom of expression is unprecedented. Speaking by phone, she referred to directives issued by Commissioner of Police Yaakov Shabtai and by Education Minister Yoav Kisch that specifically prohibit protesting or dissenting against the war in any way.

“Any solidarity with Gaza is now defined as solidarity with terrorists,” she said. For the Russians who found refuge in Israel after their country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, seeing the Netanyahu government apply Putin-like policies to repress dissent must elicit a sickeningly familiar feeling.

The magazine for the Communist Party of Israel reported on Oct. 28 that 74 students at 25 academic institutions were now facing disciplinary actions for expressing dissent against the war. The case of one of those students could have been amusing if it were not so deadly serious. It involves a video of shakshuka, the tomato-and-egg dish, bubbling on a stovetop, that Bayan Khatib, a student at the Technion University in Haifa, posted on one of her social media accounts. The caption under the shakshuka reads, “Soon we will eat the shakshuka of victory,” with a Palestinian flag emoji. Two weeks later, she was arrested. Then the Technion, Israel’s most prestigious science university, expelled her because she had a criminal record. In an interview for the newspaper Haaretz’s Hebrew edition, Khatib explained that the video was an inside joke with her friends, who had teased her with the claim that she was not a good cook.

Meanwhile, at least four university lecturers — two Jewish and two Palestinian — have been summoned to appear at hearings that could result in their employment being terminated. Tenured academics cannot be fired, but they can be harassed to the point of requesting bodyguards as protection after receiving death threats. Professor Nadera Shelhab-Kevorkian holds a chair in criminology at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law and the global chair in law at Queen Mary University, London. But her seniority and professional reputation did not protect her from a massive blowback in response to her having signed a petition that described the war in Gaza as attempted genocide. The president of the university sent her a formal letter in which he asked for her resignation. The ongoing controversy has attracted significant media attention, along with the aforementioned death threats.

“If the state authorities don’t rethink their policy of incitement toward the whole community of Palestinian citizens of Israel, things might get really bad,” said Suhad Bishara. She added: “I am not optimistic.”

The atmosphere of incitement and criminalization of free expression has manifested in toxic, dangerous incidents involving mobs threatening people in their homes. Such was the case of Israel Frey, a journalist for one of Israel’s main commercial broadcasters who is both ultra-Orthodox in his religious practice and left-wing in his political opinions. After he publicly said the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer for the people of Gaza, a mob gathered outside Frey’s apartment in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, chanting death threats at him. The police rescued him and his family, driving him out of the area, but Frey said later they were indifferent to his family’s fear and simply dropped him off on a street outside his neighborhood rather than taking him to a hotel or another safe location.

On Oct. 31, someone streamed a Facebook live video of a mob gathered outside an apartment building in Harish, the town south of Haifa where the kindergarten teacher was arrested. The mob chanted “death to Arabs” while waving Israeli flags. A man’s voice could be heard outside the frame, asserting that Arabs lived in the building. A few days earlier, a gang of far-right Jewish demonstrators gathered outside a college in the coastal town of Netanya, shouting threats and trying to break through the college’s electric gate to attack Palestinian-Israeli students who had been spotted gathering for Muslim prayers. Videos of the incident were uploaded to social media.

Meanwhile, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the notorious far-right minister of police, handed out automatic weapons to right-wing militias in Jerusalem in a made-for-the-media event that Ben-Gvir and his supporters posted gleefully on social media platforms.

Reporters and civil-society activists are doing their best to push back against the government’s campaign of incitement and repression against dissent. Antiwar protesters gathered in Tel Aviv, calling for a ceasefire and immediate negotiations for the release of all the hostages in Gaza. Samara was a guest on a prominent prime time news magazine program and Shelhab-Kevorkian is implacable in her refusal to resign from her position at the Hebrew University. But as long as the war continues, so will the atmosphere of jingoistic nationalism, official incitement and a centrally directed campaign to repress dissent poison the discourse and raise the risk of violent attacks on civilians.

Sally Abed, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who writes for Haaretz and is a co-director of Standing Together, a grassroots civil-society organization of Jewish and Palestinian citizens, wrote a heartbreaking series of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, about her fear and loneliness. “No matter what I write, they will denounce me for not saying the right thing,“ she said. “I’m actually on trial for my identity, not my words. … We are in this together. I know it’s difficult for you to accept, but we [Palestinians] are part of this society, and we feel its pain too.”

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