Arab politicians arrested in Nazareth as online 'incitement spreads uncontrollably'

Former parliamentarians detained ahead of planned silent vigil

Israel's northern city of Nazareth, where the group was arrested. AFP
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Leading Arab politicians and community leaders were arrested in Israel on Thursday ahead of a 50-person protest in Nazareth as the war in Gaza continues to rage.

The head of the High Follow Up Committee and several former parliamentarians were detained on Thursday morning, a statement from political leaders read.

Committee chairman Mohammed Barakeh, members Yossef Tatour and Mahmoud Mawasi, and former MPs Sami Abu Shehadeh and Haneen Zoabi were arrested in Nazareth, the largest Arab locality in Israel, ahead of a planned silent vigil.

The committee “is the highest official body of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, composed of the Arab Council of Mayors, former and current MPs and other representatives”, read the joint statement from the Hadash and Israeli communist political parties.

“Arresting its leaders is a draconian, anti-democratic measure, which reflects Israel’s continued assault on free speech, political association and the civic rights of the Palestinian population," it added.

The group was released late on Thursday. Afterwards, Mr Abu Shehadeh took to social media to denounce the government and western allies for the rise in abuses against Palestinians in the country.

He said they had been detained for more than seven hours for wanting to hang a sign – in English, Arabic and Hebrew – saying “stop the war”.

“There are all kinds of violations happening against all Palestinians all over, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and also towards Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel,” he said in a video on X.

“We are not allowed to do demonstrations … our students are being chased in universities. Our workers are expelled because they are Arab, the same is happening with our doctors, teachers.”

“When he [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] declared war, he also declared war on us, 20 per cent of the Israeli population.”

It comes as Palestinian citizens have witnessed growing incitement inside Israel, which some say is “spreading uncontrollably” online.

Arabs in Israel are being subjected to a “witch hunt” for opposing the war on Gaza on social media, Jalal Abukhater of 7amleh, the Arab Centre for Advancement of Social Media, told The National.

The organisation has noted 877,000 Hebrew-language posts, mostly on X, formerly known as Twitter, containing hate speech or inciting violence against Palestinians since the war began, he said.

“Hate speech and incitement is spreading uncontrollably online, it's absolutely rife,” said Mr Abukhater. “Telegram users are sharing addresses of Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and calling for violent acts against them.

“We do not see Israel authorities cracking down on incitement against Palestinian citizens but we're seeing them pass draconian laws for expressing basic acts of freedom of expression.”

Thursday's arrests have been condemned and described by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel as " a dangerous escalation of the government's aggressive stance towards Arab society, specifically its leadership”.

The committee had planned a “peaceful public vigil” in Nazareth's Ma'ayan Square, the ACRI said.

“The organisers had duly informed the Nazareth police chief a day prior, specifying their intent to hold a protest vigil involving a maximum of 50 participants – an event that, according to the law, did not require police approval.

“Despite this, the police intervened, citing concerns of potential incitement and disruption of public peace.”

It comes a day after Israel's High Court rejected a petition to hold anti-war demonstrations in the Arab towns of Umm El Fahm and Sakhnin.

Silencing 'balanced voices'

The court said it agreed with the police decision not to stage the rallies, citing a lack of officers in northern and central Israel, and said the demonstrations would pose a threat to public order.

“Hundreds of arrests have swept through Arab towns and villages, targeting the community and leaders advocating for non-violence and a ceasefire,” read a statement from the Haifa-based Mossawa Centre.

“These actions aim to silence a balanced, reasonable voice that advocates for a ceasefire and rejects violence against civilians.”

Hundreds of people have gathered in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities in recent weeks against what many perceive as government failures to secure the release of about 240 people held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Many demonstrators have called for a ceasefire, while others have specifically called out Mr Netanyahu for his handling of the war, calling him a “traitor”.

Protests have also been held outside his home in the coastal town of Caesarea, where police had initially banned demonstrators from gathering.

Families of the captives have set up tents outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and the Kirya, the defence headquarters in Tel Aviv, displaying photos of their loved ones and urging the long-time Prime Minister to accept a swap deal, demanded by Hamas, to release Palestinian prisoners in Israel in exchange for the release of hostages.

It comes on the heels of counter-terrorism legislation passed by the Knesset, which critics say stifles the voices of Palestinian citizens opposing the war.

Under the law, a “temporary order” in place for two years, anyone consuming content deemed to praise or promote terrorism can be sentenced to prison for up to one year.

This includes “passive” consumption of social media content, including being members of WhatsApp groups, said Mr Abukhater, who noted many cases of Palestinian citizens being arrested for liking social media posts on the war in Gaza.

“Even if you're scrolling through WhatsApp or browsing the news, that could be potential for you to be arrested.”

The Mossawa Centre has also warned the law may stifle freedom of expression.

“We highlight that the intensive viewing of publications, especially those linked to organisations such as Hamas, does not constitute an endorsement or an intention to commit violent acts,” it said. “For many, particularly within the Palestinian Arab Community in Israel, the viewing of such content is a means to remain informed and should not be conflated with active participation or support.

“In an era where digital content is ubiquitous, it is practically impossible to control the viewing of specific material, making the enforcement of such a law both unfeasible and prone to selective interpretation. This could unjustly target Palestinian-Arab citizens, further marginalising and silencing our community.”

Updated: November 09, 2023, 8:42 PM