Israeli Police Crack Down on Arab Citizens Expressing Solidarity with Gaza

Israeli soldiers keep watch from the distance Palestinians during clashes at the northern entrance of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, 20 October 2023. (EPA)
Israeli soldiers keep watch from the distance Palestinians during clashes at the northern entrance of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, 20 October 2023. (EPA)
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Israeli Police Crack Down on Arab Citizens Expressing Solidarity with Gaza

Israeli soldiers keep watch from the distance Palestinians during clashes at the northern entrance of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, 20 October 2023. (EPA)
Israeli soldiers keep watch from the distance Palestinians during clashes at the northern entrance of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, 20 October 2023. (EPA)

When Palestinian singer and neuroscientist Dalal Abu Amneh filed a complaint with Israeli police over death threats she had received following a social media post, she didn't expect to be the one put in jail.

Abu Amneh is one of dozens of Arab citizens of Israel who have been arrested since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on suspicion of incitement and support for terror based on social media posts, police say. Civil rights lawyers say Israeli authorities are interpreting any expressions of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza as incitement.

Abu Amneh posted a Palestinian flag emoji with the words "There is no victor but God", a Muslim phrase. The post has since been taken down.

Police said Abu Amneh, who has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, was promoting hate speech and incitement, something she denies.

After two days in detention, she was placed under house arrest and banned from discussing the war for 45 days, her lawyer said. It is not clear if she will be charged.

On Tuesday, Israel's police commissioner Kobi Shabtai said there would be zero-tolerance for incitement against the state and its symbols, following a deadly Hamas rampage across southern Israel, in which 1,400 people were killed and at least 200 were taken hostage.

"Whoever wants to be a citizen of the state of Israel, ahlan wa sahlan ("welcome" in Arabic). Whoever wants to identify with Gaza is welcome, I will put them on a bus headed there," Shabtai said in a video message.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Israel has bombarded the densely populated Gaza Strip, killing more than 4,000 Palestinians, including more than 1,500 children, the health ministry in Gaza says.

Close scrutiny

Arabs in Israel - Palestinian by heritage and Israeli by citizenship - make up some 20% of the population. After the 1948 war surrounding its creation, Israel placed the minority of Palestinians who had not fled or were not expelled, under military rule for almost 20 years.

Scrutiny over speech during times of emergency and war is not new, said lawyer Abeer Baker, who represents Abu Amneh. What is different this time is the lower threshold.

Israeli authorities are interpreting any sympathy for the people of Gaza as support for terror, she said.

"We're being forced to silence ourselves because being Palestinian has become a crime," said Baker. "Before, we would be called a fifth column for such statements, but at least we weren't imprisoned. That's the escalation."

At least 100 Arab citizens have been detained, most on allegations of incitement and support for terror over social media posts, said the Haifa-based center for Arab minority rights Adalah, citing data from the State Attorney's office.

The center said it knows of at least 83 students who are facing disciplinary action at universities and that it received over 40 reports from employees who are at risk of being fired for social media posts expressing solidarity with Gaza.

"About 90% of the cases, legally speaking, have no basis," said Hassan Jabareen, the founder and director of Adalah. "The conduct of the police is illegal. You cannot arrest people over such things."

Sketch

One case involves a 60-year-old urban planner who was arrested on suspicion of aiding the enemy at a time of war for posting a sketch and analysis of ways Israel could launch a ground invasion into Gaza -- scenarios that journalists and commentators discuss daily on Israeli media, said Jabareen.

Police spokesperson Eli Levy said in a radio interview on Thursday that a special team formed in February to combat incitement to terror had spotted nearly 180 posts since Oct. 7, which he described as a "very worrying increase".

Levy said 96 people were being investigated and 63 of them had been detained - "in some cases, within 40 minutes of the publication of a post".

"Look at this audacity and ungratefulness. Citizens with a blue, Israeli ID... have the audacity to think that we as police will allow them to take to the streets and support a murderous, Nazi terrorist organization," he said.

Police have said those arrested include teachers, lawyers and nurses. Some of the evidence police provided includes TikTok videos of people using a filter with the Palestinian flag.

During an 11-day Israel-Hamas confrontation in May 2021, when Palestinian citizens took part in widespread protests across Israel, police arrested at least 1,600 Arabs, many of them civil society leaders and activists, said Adalah.

Most of the indictments were based on "racial" or "terrorist" motives, it said.

For the first time in some 20 years, Israeli authorities are launching an arrest campaign before any organized protests have taken place, said Adalah's Jabareen, adding: "They want to instill fear."



For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
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For Palestinian Athletes, the Olympics is About More than Sports

Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)
Omar Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself (The AP)

Most of the athletes representing the Palestinian territories at the Paris Olympics were born elsewhere — Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany, Chile and the United States — yet they care deeply about the politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland.

They are eager to compete but say their presence at the Games isn’t only, or even primarily, about sports. With Israel and Hamas locked in a brutal war that has killed tens of thousands in Gaza, these eight athletes — two of whom hail from the West Bank — carry heavier burdens.

Yazan Al Bawwab, a 24-year-old swimmer who was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai, said he doesn't expect recognition for his performance in the pool. He uses swimming, he said, as a "tool for Palestine.”

“Unfortunately, nobody has ever asked me about my races. Nobody cares,” said al Bawwab, whose parents come from Jerusalem and Lod, a city that today is in central Israel. “I’m going to be plain and honest: France does not recognize Palestine as a country. But I’m over there, raising my flag. That’s my role.”

Omar Ismail, who was born in Dubai to parents who come from the West Bank town of Jenin, has loftier athletic ambitions. Shortly after earning his spot on the team at a taekwondo qualification tournament in China, the 18-year-old said he aims to win a gold medal in Paris.

But even if he does not earn a medal, Ismail — who has visited relatives in Jenin — believes his mere participation symbolizes something larger than himself, The AP reported.

“I represent the identity of the people in Palestine, their steadfastness,” Ismail said. “I’d like to inspire the children of Palestine, show them that each of them can achieve their goals, give them hope.”

Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to maintain a vibrant Olympics training program in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nine months of war between Israel and Hamas has made that challenge next to impossible.

Much of the country’s sporting infrastructure, clubs and institutions have been demolished, said Nader Jayousi, the technical director at the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Do you know how many approved pools there are in Palestine? Zero,” said al Bawaab, who noted that the Palestinian economy is too small and fragile to consistently support the development of elite athletes. “There is no sports in Palestine. We are a country right now that does not have enough food or shelter, and we are trying to figure out how to stay alive. We are not a sports country yet.”

The Palestinian diaspora has always played an important role at the Olympics and other international competitions, Jayousi said.

Jayousi said it’s not the first time that most of the athletes representing the POC come from abroad. He said the Palestinian diaspora is always represented at any big international sporting competition and Olympics.

More than 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to local health officials. Among those who died were about 300 athletes, referees, coaches and others working in Gaza's sports sector, according to Jayousi.

Perhaps the most prominent Palestinian athlete to die in the war was long-distance runner Majed Abu Maraheel, who in 1996 in Atlanta became the first Palestinian to compete in the Olympics. He died of kidney failure earlier this year after he was unable to be treated in Gaza and could not be evacuated to Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Only one Palestinian athlete, Ismail, qualified for the Paris Games in his own right. The seven others gained their spots under a wild-card system delivered as part of the universality quota places.. Backed by the International Olympic Committee, it allows athletes who represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs to compete, even though they did not meet the sporting criteria.

“We had very high hopes that we would go to Paris 2024 with qualified athletes,” Jayousi, the team's technical director, said. “We lost lots of these chances because of the complete stoppage of every single activity in the country.”

Palestinian athletes will compete in boxing, judo, swimming, shooting, track and field and taekwondo.

There is a chance Palestinian athletes could compete against Israelis in Paris. The Israel Olympic Committee said it is sending 88 athletes to Paris, and that they would compete against athletes from anywhere.

Jayousi declined to say whether clear guidelines have been issued to Palestinian athletes about whether they would be expected — as a form of protest against the war in Gaza — to drop out of competition rather than face Israelis.

“Let's see what the draws will put our athletes against," he said. “We know what we want to do, but we don't have to say everything that we want to do.”

One Olympic hopeful who did not make the cut was Gaza-born weightlifter Mohammed Hamada, a flag bearer at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. When the war began, Hamada moved to Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah and trained there for 25 days. But because of the shortage of food, Hamada — who competed in the 102 kilograms (225 pounds) weight class — gradually lost about 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

Hamada eventually secured a visa to leave Gaza and moved to Qatar to continue his training. But, Jayousi said, he just couldn't get his body back to Olympic-level condition.

Jayousi said winning medals is not the top priority for the athletes who made it to Paris. (No Palestinian athlete has ever won an Olympic medal).

“We are going here to show our Palestinianism,” he said. “We are focused on fighting until the last second, which we have been doing as a nation for the last 80 years.”

Al Bawaab said he wants to empower the next generation of Palestinian athletes, in part by providing them with greater financial resources. He founded the Palestinian Olympians Association to help athletes prepare for sports and life beyond, including by providing them with mental-health support.

"We don’t have that sports culture yet,” al Bawaab said. “When I’m done swimming, we’ll hopefully get that rolling in the country. But you have to be safe first.”