Israel cracks down on dissent

By Mya Guarnieri
|Published August 7, 2014

More than 1,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested by Israeli police during Operation Protective Edge, according to a lawyer representing a number of the detainees. While some were arrested for protesting the Israeli military incursion into Gaza, dozens were held without charge.

Maisa Arshid, an attorney for dozens of the detainees, says that 20 to 30 Palestinians were picked up by Israeli police every week in the Nazareth area alone. “All of them are accused of participating in illegal demonstrations,” she says. But, she adds, “Part of these demos were permitted by the police themselves.”

In many cases, there is no evidence that the accused has participated in a protest other than a policeman’s word.

Arshid adds that police frequently held people for short periods without registering the detention, likely putting the number of those who were picked up by the police even higher than 1,000.

When the wave of arrests began earlier in July, Palestinian citizens were detained and quickly released. Some were put on house arrest, some were ordered to do community service. But as the month and Israel’s assault on Gaza has worn on, Palestinian citizens were subject to longer and longer detainments. Last week, Arshid visited a group of detainees who had been held without charge for nine days. “Each day the court is delaying their hearing,” she says, adding that hearings initially scheduled for last Sunday were pushed back to Tuesday.

It’s a way of prolonging their detentions and it has a chilling effect on demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge, Arshid argues. “If people in the street know that people have been arrested for nine days, it will prevent protest.” She says that the detentions are a way to “terrorize the population” into silence.

While Jewish Israeli leftists who object to the war are protected by the police when they protest, they are facing increasingly violent attacks from their countrymen. Moriel Rothman-Zecher attended Tel Aviv’s most recent demonstration against Operation Protective Edge, which drew approximately 5,000 protesters. There were only a couple hundred counter-demonstrators, Rothman-Zecher tells Al Jazeera English, “but they were really, really energetic.”

Israeli police stood between the two groups, preventing clashes. But when the protest ended and the leftists began to leave, right wingers confronted them on the street. They shouted at the demonstrators, calling them “smelly traitors.” A rightest who was carrying an Israeli flag began to beat a leftist with the flag-stick; another starting hitting a leftist’s head with a crutch.

Rothman-Zecher feels that the rightists’ “desire for violence” isn’t new. “But there’s a new level of acceptability,” he says.

He offers Jerusalem Day protests, when right wingers march to mark “reunification” of the city, as an example. In the past, it “was nationalistic and aggressive” but leftists would be shocked to hear right wingers openly chant “Death to the Arabs,” Rothman-Zecher reflects. “It was under the surface but it was still surprising. Now it’s become the baseline.”

Although no one is organizing the counter-demonstrators – and Rothman-Zecher correctly points out that they tend to come from poor, marginalized communities –Rothman-Zecher argues that Israel’s leaders are responsible for the right wingers’ violence.

“When the leaders of the country call openly for revenge and violence, of course it becomes kosher,” he says, adding. “You have members of Knesset calling for population transfer, [a former] member of Knesset [boasting] that [he] killed Arabs…I believe very strongly that discourse shapes reality.”


Palestinian citizens have also been arrested for “incitement” for calling for demonstrations against Operation Protective Edge. Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel points out that these citizens “were arrested even before any demonstrations began.”

Among them is Rafaat Awaishi who Israeli police put on house arrest, without a hearing, after he posted a call on Facebook for people to join protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Noting that Awaishi’s hearing was scheduled for July 13, “the same day that the police-imposed house arrest is to end,” Adalah called the police-imposed detention a “denial of due process.”

The conditions detainees face also seem intended to deter protests. Several of Arshid’s clients have been beaten while in custody, she says, and have needed medical treatment for their injuries. During an interrogation, police allegedly removed a detainee’s kuffiyeh, urinated on it, and then put it back on the man’s neck.

Police attempts to intimidate the country’s Palestinian population are not limited to detentions. Last week, Arshid saw police harass a Palestinian teenager in Nazareth. The boy was walking down the street when an unmarked car stopped and three heavily armed men, one wearing a kippah, got out. The men, who turned out to be plainclothes policemen, “terrified the boy,” Arshid reports, adding that he was a minor. “They took pictures of him and screamed at him.”

“I thought it was another Shuafat,” Arshid says, referring to the kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

When she attempted to intervene, the policemen showed Arshid their identification. She informed them that their actions were illegal, explaining that according to Israeli law, police can only stop someone if they “have the suspicion that something criminal is going on. In this case, it was [a boy] walking with a kuffiyeh.”

The police then detained Arshid for several hours before releasing her.

The arrests and detentions seem to be part of a broader crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. Last Wednesday, the Israeli Knesset heard a bill that proposes to outlaw “discrimination against soldiers in uniform” the Jerusalem Post reported.

Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the Knesset Member who presented the bill, pointed to protests against Operation Protective Edge as proof that “We must set limits for words of incitement against soldiers. Not everything is allowed in the name of democracy.”

Palestinian citizens who attend Israeli universities have already been subject to disciplinary hearings and expulsion due to remarks made on Facebook against Israeli soldiers. In a letter to the Council of Higher Education in Israel, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) likened the universities’ monitoring of Palestinian students’ social media accounts to a “witch hunt.”

In a press release, ACRI stated that:

…only Arab students have been punished, even though the social forums are simmering with racist comments by Jewish students, which raises a concern that the heads of the institutions are acting according to patriotic and emotional motives that do not align with their professional obligations.

Arshid levels similar criticism at the Israeli police and the state: “They misunderstand their job – their first job is to protect their civilians and their freedom of speech.”

However, according to Arshid, “The state’s first claim is that the political situation is more important than the freedom of speech.”

Saher Jeries is a 22-year-old marketing and advertising student who lives in Haifa. He says he was at a protest there, standing towards the back, when police officers began to beat him. He and other protesters were taken to a bus where they were held for six hours before they were driven to the police station for interrogation.

During questioning, Jeries found that the Israeli police are not only trying to control the discourse about Gaza, but they also seemed intent on reshaping his identity.

“They said to me, ‘You’re Christian, why are you doing things like this?’ As though I’m not part of the [Palestinian] people.”

A shorter version of this article was first published on Al Jazeera English