Israel’s Free Speech Crackdown Is a “War Inside of a War”

From a Washington Post story by Loveday Morris headlined “Israel’s free speech crackdown: “War inside of a war'”:

The 21-year-old computer science student was beamed into the small wood-paneled courtroom from jail via video link. She had dark circles under her eyes after 11 nights in detention.

To save on personnel during Israel’s war against Hamas, defendants are no longer transported from their cells. Only urgent court cases are being heard. The prosecution of Rita Murad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is deemed to be one of them.

Her alleged crimes of “identifying with a terrorist organization” and “incitement to terrorism” center on three Instagram posts that she shared on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants rampaged through communities in southern Israel.

One of the images used in the prosecution of Murad showed Palestinians using an earthmover to pull down parts of the barbed wire-topped barrier between Israel and the Gaza Strip. “While the ‘invincible army’ was sleeping,” read the message in Arabic across the image.

A second showed a montage of Palestinian children: “Where were the people calling for humanity when we were killed?” it read. A third post to her 1,100 Instagram followers showed a group of jubilant Palestinians on a captured Israeli military vehicle. “Gaza today,” read the caption with an emoji of the Palestinian flag.

In “normal times” such posts wouldn’t even warrant a trip to the police station, said Murad’s defense lawyer, Ahmad Massalha, as he waited for her hearing on Thursday.

But these aren’t normal times. Murad faces up to five years in jail if convicted, while a new draft law seeks to strip citizenship for those convicted in cases like hers. In court in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, she has made accusations of being beaten in prison.

Murad is one of at least 56 people indicted on similar charges. Israeli authorities say they are fighting a second front in the war against Hamas, one set on rooting out anything that could be perceived as sympathy or “incitement” among the population. Rights groups say as many as 100 others have been arrested or detained in the “zero tolerance” crackdown, including one of Murad’s acquaintances who posted an Instagram video about cooking “victory” shakshuka.

According to the Mossawa Center, a rights group in Haifa, Israel, at least 350 Palestinian Israelis have been called to hearings at their workplace and 120 university students are in disciplinary hearings. Meanwhile, ad hoc groups of civilians trawl through social media posts and flag them to the police.

Defense lawyers and human rights advocates describe the moves as a McCarthy-style clampdown focused on the 20 percent of the Israeli population that has Palestinian heritage. In the current climate, posting anything that does not sit staunchly with the Israeli state’s framing of the war can lead to arrest.

The groups foresee profound implications for freedom of expression, but also for the fabric of Israeli society as even expressing pro-Palestinian sentiment appears enough to be criminalized in some cases.

“It’s McCarthyism on amphetamines,” said Ari Remez, a spokesman for Adalah, an Israeli legal rights organization tracking 215 cases of arrests and investigations, drawing a comparison to the “Red Scare” in the United States in the 1950s when public figures and others were screened for loyalty and sometimes blackballed for any hints of Communist sympathies.

“The criminalization is on a totally different level,” he said.

Spearheading the effort is Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, who has been convicted himself for inciting racism and supporting a Jewish extremist terrorist organization. Even in the emotionally charged atmosphere post-Oct. 7 — that has brought crowds to the streets chanting “Death to Arabs!” — none of the 56 indictments on alleged incitement cover accusations of hate toward Palestinians.

Ben Gvir’s task force, formed in February to tackle online incitement, has been expanded, said Mirit Ben Mayor, a spokeswoman for Israeli police. Police also are being handed new powers. A law passed by the Israeli parliament last month makes even passively looking at content that praises or calls for terrorist attacks online “in a way that indicates identification with the terror group” punishable by a year in prison.

“It’s a war inside of a war,” said Ben Mayor. “We have one war that’s going on physically, with our soldiers there. And while that war is going on, there’s another war that goes on on the net.”

But Israeli authorities contend that free speech is being upheld. “Freedom of expression and criticism will be preserved even when the guns are roaring,” said Shlomi Abramson, head of security at the State Attorney’s Office.

The investigations are all “clear cases of support for horrible and horrific acts of terrorism or identification with a terrorist organization that has committed criminal acts against the citizens of the country,” he said. “One publication, even a status or a story that is deleted after 24 hours, is enough for us to open an investigation and prosecute in the appropriate cases.”

‘Israeli narrative’

The corridors of the district court in Nazareth, a city largely populated by Palestinian Israelis, are filled with lawyers and family members of those facing the full weight of the Israeli law for their posts.

On a bench outside a courtroom on the first floor, Maisa Abd ElHadi, a Palestinian Israeli actress who has been indicted in connection with two Instagram posts, waits nervously. She says she can’t speak to journalists. Murad’s family also declined to comment; too scared in an environment where many fear that a wrong word can lead to jail.

Even the owner of a hummus restaurant — where some of the defense lawyers regularly grab lunch — spent a night in jail late last month over a WhatsApp status picture that showed a fist with a Palestinian flag, and was eventually released without charge.

On Thursday, Murad blew kisses to family and friends before an expected hearing on whether she’d be released on bail. The proceeding was postponed until Sunday. She is one of three students from Israel’s prestigious Technion in Haifa — the oldest university in Israel — to be arrested in connection with their social media posts and appear via video link to the courtroom in Nazareth in recent weeks.

The cases are a “blatant abuse of the criminal procedure” said Nareman Shehadeh, a defense lawyer with Adalah, who said that people can face prosecution “merely for not adopting the Israeli narrative on the events that led up to it.” She called it part of a “campaign aimed at sending a threatening message against these students.”

Their posts were flagged by other students who compiled a presentation of social media messages and images they found problematic for university and police authorities. Jewish students say they are scared. The “Israeli army won’t be able to protect us within the campus. They can’t put soldiers into the campus,” said a 21-year-old physics student who spoke on the condition of anonymity amid fears of reprisals.

One Technion student, a 21-year-old woman who studies data science, shared a single Instagram post to 20 friends of a captured Israeli military vehicle. The post added an Arabic turn of phrase used on birthdays and holidays.

The student was arrested at her home and was handcuffed and blindfolded, according to family members and her lawyer. “It’s something you’d expect to see for a murderer, not an Instagram post,” said a cousin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy. Police later returned for a night raid on her family home, emptying drawers and cupboards and leaving the contents strewn across the house.

“It’s a witch hunt,” said Shehadeh, who is representing the student. She said the image was deleted when the details of the killings emerged. Detaining suspects during the investigation has become the norm rather than the exception, she said.

Ben Gvir has publicly berated the judge who released the actress ElHadi to house arrest last month. “This is what domestic enemies look like,” Ben Gvir tweeted of the judge.

The third Technion student, Bayan al-Khateeb, 23, was the one who posted about cooking shakshuka, a popular egg-and-tomato dish. She added it to Instagram Stories with a soundtrack that’s been widely used on posts about cooking successes. “Today we eat victory shakshuka,” she wrote on the clip of a bubbling skillet.

“Everybody knows I’m a bad cook,” she explained. “And on the 8th of October, I succeeded to make a shakshuka. What I meant was it was a victory in cooking, not a victory happening in the country.”

Khateeb was suspended from university pending an investigation, and arrested two weeks later. She described being held in a cell that was designed for four people but had nine. “All were there for social media cases,” she said. She said she was strip-searched three times over the course of her detention, and was woken up every hour to be counted.

Investigators asked why she’d put a Palestinian flag on her post. She said she opposed violence.

“It hurts all of us that innocent people were murdered,” Khateeb said, adding that some of her closest friends are in the Israeli army. “I feel like now I’m in a different war. One where I have to defend myself and my identity.”

Khateeb had hoped to attend Murad’s hearing on Thursday, but was caught up in her own six-hour hearing at university, where she is fighting to continue her studies.

“In the immediate aftermath of the deplorable events of October 7th, and facing allegations of social media posts condoning terrorism, Technion officials promptly denounced such expressions in the strongest terms,” the university in a statement, saying that three individuals have been suspended “pending a conclusive judgement.”

Khateeb is afraid, though, of returning to campus and of being rearrested.

“I sleep in my clothes,” she said. “I’m afraid that at any moment they can come and take me away.”

Not far from the Nazareth courtroom on Thursday were more reminders of the constraints. Mohammad Barakeh, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which consists of parliamentarians and political representatives, was detained on the way to a downtown demonstration calling for an end to the war. Four other prominent Palestinian political leaders in Israel were arrested.

“We used to know where the line was, and the line was the law,” Mudar Younis, head of the National Council of Arab Mayors in Israel, said at a meeting Thursday.

“We can’t understand what’s happening with our students, with our employees,” said Younis, fearing far-right groups in Israel seek to stir up communal strife between Jews and Arabs. “We are very worried about what is happening but even more about what tomorrow will bring.”

“There is no freedom of speech,” he said.

Judith Sudilovsky and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

Loveday Morris is The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau chief. She was previously based in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Beirut for The Post.

Speak Your Mind