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Freedom of SpeechIsrael

Arab Israelis battle repression amid Israel-Hamas conflict

March 26, 2024

For many Palestinians living in Israel, life as part of the Arab minority was complicated enough before the Hamas attacks. Now, some say their freedom of speech is being curtailed.

 Israeli and Arab activists gather to hold a demonstration to demand a cease-fire for Gaza
Israeli and Arab activists have called together for a cease-fire in GazaImage: Mostafa Alkharouf/AA/picture alliance

Issa Fayed is the owner of a car repair center in Haifa, a city on Israel's Mediterranean coast. He's also an Arab Israeli, or, as he describes himself, a Palestinian living in Israel. 

When Israel began its offensive on Gaza in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attacks, Fayed posted a video on his Instagram account saying that Palestinian residents of Israel had no freedom of speech. 

"I said that the Palestinian and Arab views matter, too, and this will still remain the case if they [Israeli authorities] arrest us," he told DW. 

As a result of the video, Fayed was arrested by Israeli authorities on October 13 for alleged incitement of terrorism. No charges were brought against him, however, and he was released after a few days. Fayed's account mirrors that of other Arab Israelis who have been arrested under similar circumstances. 

Fayed said since his arrest in October, he's been self-censoring his social media posts. 

"Before the war, I knew we were second-class citizens," he said. "Now, it feels like we live under occupation." 

New challenges for Arab Israelis

For many of Israel's roughly 2 million Arab citizens, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has made a historically complex relationship with the state of Israel even more difficult to navigate. 

Arabs, including both Muslim and Christian Palestinians as well as Druze and Bedouin communities, make up roughly 20% of Israel's population. Many are descendants of Palestinians who remained in the new state of Israel after its founding in 1948, which saw the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into neighboring areas. As a consequence, Palestinians in Israel often have strong ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as those in the global diaspora. 

Following the October 7 attacks by Hamas, classified as a terror group by Germany, the US, the EU and other governments, and the subsequent Israeli offensive in Gaza, some Palestinian citizens of Israel say they've faced a range of restrictive measures. These include arrests and expulsions from their academic studies in response to their social media posts about the war and the situation in Gaza. 

Israel: Jewish and Arab activists try to bridge divide

Adalah, an Israeli NGO advocating for the legal rights of the Arab minority in Israel, has been tracking investigations and arrests that have arisen from "opposition to the targeting of civilians in Gaza, expressions of sympathy for the Palestinian people in Gaza, opposition to collective punishment and war crimes, and the dissemination of news about Gaza." 

According to Suhad Bishara, Adalah's legal director, hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel have been arrested following social media posts. Such cases fall under the category of free speech and almost exclusively affect Arab citizens of Israel, she told DW. 

"We see a pretty drastic deterioration in the authorities' policies, which are based on racist assumptions and selective enforcement," she said. "This has no legal basis." 

According to Bishara, Israeli authorities and politicians equate any show of solidarity with Gaza by the country's Arab minority with support for terrorism. 

"There's a process of dehumanization of all people in Gaza in Israeli politics," she said. 

Arab Israelis fear for their lives and future 

Fayed agrees with this sentiment, arguing that there's a double standard for Arabs and Jews who voice solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank

"If you're Jewish, you're a left-wing activist," he said. "If you're Arab, you're a terrorist supporter." 

A protest in Haifa against the war in Gaza.
Haifa has seen several protests against the war in Gaza since OctoberImage: Mostafa Alkharouf/AA/picture alliance

A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests Fayed's feeling is shared by many Arab citizens of Israel. The December 2023 survey found that 71% of Arabs living in Israel are worried about voicing their views on social media. 

"Presumably, this is due to the fact that since the outbreak of the war, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of complaints made and charges brought by law enforcement agencies for the offense of incitement," the survey summary said. 

The survey also found that 84% of respondents feared for their physical safety, while 86% worried about their economic security. 

Fayed can also relate to these are also sentiments. Following Facebook posts about his arrest, he said, his shop was vandalized with graffiti such as "death to Arabs." He also said the income from his car repair business has fallen 90%, as many of his Jewish clients began boycotting his business. 

Hope for peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews

At the moment, the divide between Israel's Jewish population and its Arab population is wide. A January poll conducted by Israeli statistician Mano Geva found that only 34% of Israel's Jewish population say they trust the country's Arab population, and more than 60% say they are against an Arab party being part of an Israeli government coalition. 

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Yet despite the challenging situation posed by the war between Israel and Hamas, some groups are still trying to maintain, and even strengthen, the delicate bonds between Jews and Arabs in Israel. One such group is Standing Together, a grassroots initiative by Arabs and Jews fighting for more equality in Israeli society. 

As part of its activities, Standing Together has collected food for Palestinians in Gaza. The donated goods were transported to Gaza by a car convoy that departed from several Israeli cities and made its way toward the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Israel. 

Though such groups are often seen negatively by large parts of right-wing Israeli society, Fayed believes there's no alternative for Jews and Arabs but to work together.

"You can't live without this hope for living together," he said.

Edited by: Michaela Cavanagh, Timothy Jones