The War on Gaza: The Policy of Silencing, Intimidating, and Persecuting Palestinians in Israel

Since the start of its current war on Gaza, Israel has adopted a string of measures to silence and intimidate its Palestinian citizens, aiming to prevent them from expressing opposition to the massacres and destruction being inflicted on civilians and civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. This paper argues that the Israeli government’s view of the conflict as an existential war—a “second war for independence” in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and the security and political crisis that has gripped Israel since October 7, have together created fertile conditions for silencing any opposition to the war, killing, and destruction, and for suppressing Palestinian society inside Israel and treating it as an enemy.

The Israeli leadership is exploiting the state of shock, the war, the resulting domestic crisis, as well as the emergency cabinet it created to further restrict the narrow political margin in which Palestinian citizens of Israel had been able to defend their basic rights. The government is imposing new restrictions on expression and political activity by proposing legislation, amending laws, and pursuing policies that both facilitate political censorship and escalate incitement against Palestinian citizens, as well as allowing the use of arms to break up demonstrations.

The Scale of Measures to Silence, Prosecute, and Repress

From the early days of the war, Israeli security agencies began silencing voices of opposition from within the Palestinian community in Israel, working in lock step with the Israeli media, political institutions, and the public at large. Every utterance, statement, or post on social media expressing opposition to the war, rejection of killings of civilians, or sympathy with the women, children, and the elderly of Gaza, has been seen as “supporting Hamas”.

This soon manifested in a campaign of arrests of Palestinian citizens on charges of terrorism or supporting Hamas. The police detained dozens of people over such posts, including influential social media[1] and public figures such as Dr. Amer al-Hazil, a mayoral candidate in Rahat, a predominantly Bedouin city in southern Israel.[2] They also included artists such as singer Dalal Abu Amneh[3]  and actress Maysa Abd Elhadi,[4] mosque preachers, and even Palestinian members of medical staff at Israeli hospitals. Palestinian students at Israeli universities were also prosecuted, suspended, or expelled over social media posts opposing the war or expressing sympathy with the children of Gaza.[5]

The campaign also extended to Palestinian lecturers at Israeli universities and employees at Israeli workplaces including educational and medical institutions, as well as students living in Jewish-majority urban centers. Many Palestinians have been sacked on the grounds of social media posts expressing sympathy with the people of Gaza or opposing the war. One example was Dr. Abd Samara, the head of the Cardiological Intensive Care Unit of the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva.[6]

In cooperation with the Arab Emergencies Committee, part of the umbrella High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, rights group Adalah on October 27 published a report documenting 161 cases of criminal proceedings brought against Palestinian citizens of Israel (not including residents of East Jerusalem) “on the grounds of expressing their views on current events in the country.” These proceedings included formal summonses for investigation, arrests, formal charges, remanding in custody while legal proceedings were underway, and verbal warnings by the police or the Shin Bet internal security agency. According to the Adalah report, there were 22 cases of arrests for taking part in protest vigils[7]; the Emergencies Committee said 82 people had been sacked from their jobs.

According to Adalah, most of the suspected acts under investigation were violations of the penal code (such as “inappropriate behavior that could undermine public order”) or anti-terrorism laws. Most of those interrogated or arrested were released after being questioned, but under restrictive conditions such as house arrest or paying bail. Furthermore, 11 indictments were drawn up against Palestinian citizens of Israel based on posts on social media. All included items under the anti-terrorism law of 2016, relating to “incitement to terrorism” or “identification with a terrorist group.”

In response, the Joint Body of Student Blocs, an umbrella group for 26 Palestinian student committees which is overseen by the Emergencies Committee, reported that more than 100 students at Israeli academic institutions had been referred to disciplinary committees, and that hundreds of inciteful publications had been posted by their colleagues at universities, with the full complicity of the universities and their unions.

This incitement reached a peak with an attack on students at a mainly Palestinian residency hall in Netanya, which was surrounded by a mob of Jewish Israelis. The students were eventually rescued, but nobody took responsibility for their safety and wellbeing.[8]

The Police in Support of Political Repression

Since becoming minister of national security, far right-wing Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir has publicly and clearly stated that his main task is to prevent any repeat of the demonstrations seen during Israel’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls” attack on Gaza in 2021. He has vowed to put down any protest with an iron fist, and to deal firmly with the “danger” posed by Palestinian citizens of Israel, publicly portraying them as a security threat to Israel.

Ben-Gvir believes that the current war and state of emergency can be exploited to implement his policies toward the Palestinians without any restrictions. When the war on Gaza was launched, he bought 10,000 machine guns and distributed them to so-called “protection units” in Israeli cities, while an officer was appointed to organize civilian “battle units” in Israeli towns.[9] The police also began forcibly shutting down any activity expressing opposition to the war, and the government put forward legislation to facilitate politically motivated arrests and indictments against anyone who voiced opposition to the war or to the killing of civilians.

The repression of opposition has widened throughout the war, extending to Palestinian and Palestinian-Jewish associations. For example, on October 26 the Israeli police banned a Palestinian-Jewish meeting that had been organized by the High Follow-Up Committee at a hall in Haifa, to be attended by Palestinian and Jewish academics. According to the Committee, “the Israeli police threatened the owners of the hall where the meeting was meant to take place, saying that if it went ahead the hall would be closed down.”[10] The Committee called this “an extremely dangerous step that reflects an escalating, fascist attack on democracy. It comes in the context of a political blockade against Palestinian citizens, which has reached the point of banning dialogue with progressive and democratic forces in Jewish society.”

The police have made enabling such political repression and arrests a systematic policy, as has the Attorney General’s office, which has changed its guidelines and procedures to make it easier to arrest and hold such suspects. Under the pre-war guidelines, the police needed the authorization of the Attorney General or a deputy in order to arrest someone on charges of incitement. Following the outbreak of the war, he dropped this condition, giving the police powers to open an investigation into incitement without his office’s say-so.[11]

The Attorney General has held to this position despite protest from rights groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Adalah.[12] On October 24, his office and the police activated an emergency system allowing for robust measures against detainees in the context of the political arrest campaign against Palestinian activists because of the war on Gaza. These new measures allow them to hold detainees for longer periods and prevent them from having access to a lawyer for up to 90 days.[13]

Furthermore, the national security minister has put forward a bill that would fundamentally change the guidelines under which police can use live ammunition. This would reverse a policy brought in after the Or Commission of October 2000, which followed the killing of 13 Palestinians by Israeli police during demonstrations and confrontations throughout the Galilee. The new measures would make it easier for the police to use live fire against protestors blocking major roads or the entrances to towns, on the basis that such actions could hobble the war effort.[14] The government’s legal advisor has approved the bill, but the government has yet to do so.

Forms of Political Repression

During periods of conflict, the cosmetic tools of democracy in Israel break down almost completely, threatening freedom of expression, the right to protest, and opposition to the war. There is also a dangerous escalation in the treatment of Palestinian citizens by the state, the security agencies, and society at large. Clearly, the longer the war drags on, the worse these attacks and repression will become, as Israel takes vengeance against Palestinians in general and puts in place a different set of rules for Palestinian political behavior, set by Zionist consensus.

Judging by the tools used to deal with Palestinians up to this point, it can be deduced that during times of crisis, the Israeli establishment sees them as enemies, or at the very least, potential enemies. Thus, the current situation can be described as a return to military rule (1948-1966) in all but name. The current war on Gaza has revealed the fragility and hollowness of the “citizenship” granted to Palestinians in Israel and its total subordination to the country’s security needs and conditions, as defined by Zionist consensus. Israel’s current policies toward its Palestinian citizens could become permanent after the war, were the Zionist consensus to become convinced that such a situation serves its interests, would not provoke a real reaction, or would not have a political price.

Conversely, the war has also exposed the failure of Israeli policies toward the question of Palestine, policies built on separating Gaza from the West Bank, ignoring the natural rights of the Palestinian people in determining their destiny, and preventing the creation of a Palestinian state. It thus can be expected that the Palestinian question will return to being a central feature of the political and party scene, after being largely ignored by Israel for the past two decades.

All these shifts demonstrate the importance of formulating a unified vision for Palestinian political action in Israel, starting today. This must be based on a close reading of the changes taking place in Israeli society and institutions, and on the political fallout of the current war. It is even more important that it address the question of the substance and meaning of the citizenship granted to Palestinians in Israel. It must also take into account the return of the question of Palestine and the occupation as major issues in Israeli politics, after being overlooked over the last few years as attention focused on daily concerns and the issue of violence, as well as the illusion that pervaded some Palestinian parties that they have genuine political clout.

Moreover, the current phase has shown the importance of cooperation and collective work, building unions and service associations, and reorganizing university student unions. All this is essential in order to push back against the campaign of silencing, intimidation, and persecution currently being waged against Palestinians in Israel.

This position paper was first published in Arabic by Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research, Haifa, Israel.

[1] “Arrest of Mohannad Taha from Kabul Extended on Charges of Publishing Content Related to Gaza,” Arab 48, October 12, 2023 (in Arabic).

[2] “Arrest of Rahat Mayoral Candidate Amer al-Hazil Extended Until Next Monday,” Arab 48, October 14, 2023 (in Arabic).

[3] “Arrest of Dalal Abu Amneh Extended Until Tomorrow,” Arab 48, October 17, 2023 (in Arabic).

[4] “Charges brought against actress Maysa Abd Elhadi,” Arab 48, October 29, 2023 (in Arabic).

[5]  “Joint Student Body set up to Track Prosecutions of Palestinian Students at Universities and Higher Education Facilities,” Arab 48, October 15, 2023 (in Arabic).

[6] To read more on layoffs from workplaces, see: Miriam Farah, “Unprecedented and Escalating Campaign of Arrests and Intimidation to Silence Palestinians in Israel on the Grounds of ‘Support for Terrorism’,” Madar Center, November 2, 2023 (in Arabic).

[7] Lama Taha, “Adalah Documents Violations Amid the War: Hundreds of Prosecutions of Various Forms Against Palestinian Citizens,” Adalah, October 27, 2023 (in Arabic).

[8] “The Joint Body of Student Blocs Discusses Prosecutions of Palestinian Students at Colleges and Universities,” Arab 48, October 29, 2023 (in Arabic).

[9] “The Effect of the Security Situation: Ben-Gvir Orders the Purchase of Thousands of Weapons,” Channel 14, October 10, 2023 (in Hebrew).

[10] “Follow-Up Committee Holds Press Conference after Police Prevents Palestinian-Jewish Meeting,” Arab 48, October 25, 2023 (in Arabic).

[11] Jackie Khouri, Chen Menit, Ran Shimonly, “Dozens of Palestinian Citizens Arrested During the War on Suspicion of Online Incitement,” Haaretz, October 16, 2023 (in Hebrew).

[12] Hilo Glazer, Itay Mashiach, “False arrests, dismissals on illusory grounds: this is what the persecution of Israeli Palestinians looks like,” Haaretz, November 2, 2023 (in Hebrew).

[13] “Adalah Calls for Cancellation of Emergency Rules Allowing the Prevention of Detainees to Meet Lawyers,” Arab 48, November 30, 2023 (in Arabic).

[14] “After Agreement of Legal Advisor, Vote on Sunday on Changing Gunfire Laws, Which Could Allow for Field Executions,” Arab 48, October 26, 2023 (in Arabic).