'You can't say what you're thinking': Arab-Israelis afraid to speak out on Gaza war

Some consider emigrating as people are fired and suspended for showing solidarity with Gaza

Sharing opinions on the current conflict could come at a high price for Palestinians living in Israel. AFP
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As the latest war in Gaza rages, social media debate continues over the Israeli military's bombardment of the enclave, home to more than two million people.

But for Palestinians inside Israel, sharing opinions may come at a high price.

A growing number of people have been dismissed from work and suspended from university for voicing opinions against the war, framed by authorities as supporting the Hamas militants who killed more than 1,400 people on October 7.

"Things have never been this bad before," an Arab parliamentary worker who wished to remain anonymous told The National from northern Israel.

"You literally can't say anything because they can explain it based on you being Arab or Muslim. I've never [before] thought about leaving but lately it's all I can think about and it's not just me. A lot of people here are thinking the same way – it's not a place to live where you can't express what you are thinking.

"I'm against any kind of war but I can't say that, because you'll be seen as someone who supports the other side."

Israeli police said on Wednesday they had arrested 110 people, mostly Arab-Israelis, suspected of inciting violence since the beginning of the war. Charges have been filed against 17.

The news came as Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem said it has suspended 14 students over alleged inciteful comments on the war. Six were immediately dismissed and the remaining eight are subject to an ongoing hearing.

A representative of Palestinian students at the college, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said most of complaints came from a Zionist student group formed during the 2021 Israel-Palestine war.

The representative accused the college of not treating the accusations neutrally and suspending students who posted Quranic verses.

A growing crackdown on Palestinian voices inside Israel has renewed fears of resurging violence, which rattled mixed cities in 2021.

"You see people getting fired for liking a post on Instagram or changing their profile picture into a message against the war. It's expanding by the hour," Alon-Lee Green, head of the Standing Together peace movement, told The National.

"It is almost impossible or maybe even impossible to say that also in Gaza, there are innocent children and people. If I say it as a Jewish person, I'm condemned as a traitor but if a Palestinian says it and we're both citizens of the same country, they're considered to be supporting terror."

The collective has set up a hotline for Palestinian citizens who are "being chased for their beliefs or just because of their ethnicity", he said.

"We receive hundreds of calls per day, we're just trying to keep our heads above water."

Some callers are too scared to go shopping alone, while others simply want to talk.

"We're working very hard to create a way to de-escalate and survive, to say we understand that this society has Jews and Arabs living together. Pointing fingers, as the right-wing are doing ... is not going to solve anything. It's only going to create more violence and tension."

Itamar Avneri, another leading member of the movement and a candidate for Tel Aviv's city council, volunteers with Jaffa's Arab-Jewish Solidarity Guard, one of 15 across the country which is seeking to keep violence at bay and promote closer relations between Jewish and Palestinian citizens.

Almost 4,000 people have joined a WhatsApp group organising civil patrols, monitoring incitement and physical threats against Arabs.

"Many students are feeling attacked," he told The National from Tel Aviv. "We have people on the hotline and others trained to go out to de-escalate if there is violence."

"Some people thank us," he said of interactions in Jaffa. "Some say, 'I would have joined you two weeks ago, but now I can't'."

Trying to 'terrify us'

Also stoking fears is a decision by Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to bolster gun ownership among his National Guard, which has drawn heavy criticism, even before the war, and been categorised as an attempt to assemble a private militia.

Mr Ben-Gvir, who is well-known for inciting violence against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank, has vowed to "keep arming Israel" as the war in Gaza continues, with more than 10,000 assault rifles to be distributed to volunteers in the West Bank, Gaza border area and various mixed cities.

"The target is to terrify us," said Jafar Farah of Haifa's Mossawa Centre, which works for equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

"They don't need any more weapons around the Gaza Strip. They are pushing them to the mixed cities. We are afraid of what they will do in the mixed cities but I think Jewish citizens should also be afraid," he told The National.

Incitement from both police and civilians is growing, he said.

"There is huge oppression against freedom of speech. Any statement in solidarity with Gaza is treated heavily by law enforcement but nothing is done to face incitement against Palestinian citizens.

"They want to see us as the face of the enemy ... to treat us as the enemy from the inside."

On Thursday, Israel's High Follow-Up Committee will hold a press conference in Nazareth following a police decision to cancel a Jewish-Arab meeting in Haifa to discuss "the political situation and opposition to war and harm to civilians".

"The Israel police directed the hall owners, where the meeting was supposed to take place, that if they host it, the hall would be closed," it said on Wednesday.

"This step is extremely dangerous ... and it is a part of a political siege against the Arab citizens, which includes preventing engagement with progressive and democratic forces in Jewish society."

Despite this, Mr Avneri says the alliances bring hope there may be change after the war.

"It's easy to talk about peace now but hopefully this will build a bridge for Israelis and Palestinians after the war. Israelis are going nowhere and Palestinians are going nowhere.

"Deep in their hearts, most of the people living here, both Jews and Arabs, know that."

Additional reporting from Thomas Helm in Jerusalem

Updated: October 26, 2023, 7:40 AM