Reflections six months on from 7 October

The 21st century has simultaneously brought the world closer together and driven communities further apart. Technological advancements have enabled us to be more aware of the gift humanity can bring to the globe and of our unshaking ability to wreak so much damage.

This dichotomy of hope and hate has been sharply placed into focus in the Middle East.

This weekend marks the six-month anniversary of the horrific 7 October attacks on Israel.

Every night we turn on our televisions and witness the pain and suffering of peoples who yearn for peace.

1,269 children, women and men were brutally murdered by Hamas, with hundreds more tortured and taken hostage. This barbarity ignited a conflict between Israel and Hamas which, as of 5 March, has claimed the lives of 30,228 Palestinians and 1,410 Israelis.

Each person behind these faceless numbers leaves behind a pit of grief for loved ones which will never be filled.

The pain and suffering inflicted by the 7 October attacks have reverberated throughout communities, both in the Middle East and in countries across the planet. The war is leaving behind a trail of devastation and despair. Lives have been lost, families shattered, and entire communities torn apart. The aftermath of such violence cannot be overstated, and the scars it leaves behind run deep.

While Index on Censorship typically centres its efforts on defending freedom of expression, we cannot turn a blind eye to the urgent humanitarian crisis which has unfurled before us. It is crucial that we acknowledge the human toll of such conflicts and recognise the need for immediate action to alleviate the suffering of those affected.

In times of crisis, it is essential that the international community comes together to provide support and assistance to those in need. We must renew our efforts to secure a lasting peace in the region and work towards addressing the root causes of conflict.

This means prioritising humanitarian aid, securing the release of the hostages and ensuring that those devastated by the 7 October attacks receive the assistance they so desperately need. It also means holding accountable those responsible for perpetrating violence and ensuring that justice is served for the victims.

But beyond immediate relief efforts, we must also work towards addressing the underlying issues that fuel such conflicts. This includes addressing issues of inequality, injustice, and discrimination, which often serve as breeding grounds for violence and extremism.

As we reflect on the six-month anniversary of the 7 October attacks, let us not forget the human faces behind the headlines – the families mourning loved ones, the children traumatised by violence, and the communities struggling to rebuild in the aftermath.

As we look ahead, let us honour the memory of those we have lost by working tirelessly towards a future where such senseless violence is but a distant memory. Together, we can create a world where freedom, dignity, and human rights are upheld for all.

Iran: do you want the good or the bad news?

A great privilege of working at Index is, and always has been, the amazing people we get to encounter, those who look tyranny in the face and don’t cower. Iranian musician Toomaj Salehi is one such person. This week, the 2023 Index Freedom of Expression arts award winner donated the £2500 cash prize to relief funds for those affected by the floods in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province in an act of extreme generosity. We were informed of the donation by his family.

Salehi, whose music rails against corruption, state executions, poverty and the killing of protesters in Iran, has spent years in and out of jail. Today he is still not free – indeed he faces a court hearing on another new charge tomorrow. Our work with him doesn’t end with the award. But what solace to know that the money will make a tangible difference to the lives of many and that jail cannot stop Salehi from his mission to make Iran a more just country.

While Salehi, and others, confront the brutal face of censorship, those in the USA and the UK are this week dealing with the finer print – who owns what. The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that will require TikTok owner ByteDance to sell the popular video-sharing app or face a total ban. This is challenging territory. TikTok is guilty of its charges, shaping content to suit the interests of Beijing and data harvesting being the most prominent. So too are other social media platforms. If it is sold (which is still an if) we could see a further concentration of influential apps in the hands of a few tech giants. Is that a positive outcome? And how does this match up against the treatment of USA-based X? The social media platform, formerly Twitter, has Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding, the investment vehicle of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, as its second largest investor. Is the US Government holding X to the same standards?

Meanwhile, the UK government (which has expanded the definition of extremism this week in a concerning way) plans to ban foreign governments from owning British media, effectively saying no to an Abu Dhabi-led takeover of the Telegraph. We have expressed our concerns about the buyout before and these concerns remain. Still, we’d like to see the final proposal before deciding whether it’s good news.

We’ve also spoken a lot this week about the decision by literary magazine Guernica to pull an article written by an Israeli (still available via the Wayback machine here) following a staff-walk out. We stand by everyone’s right to protest peacefully, of which walking out of your office is just that. But we are troubled by other aspects, specifically redacting an article post-publication and the seemingly low bar for such a redaction (and protest), which hinged on the identity of the author and a few sentences. We can argue about whether these sentences were inflammatory – I personally struggle to see them as such – and indeed we should, because if we can’t have these debates within the pages of a thoughtful magazine aimed at the erudite we’re in a bad place.

Speaking of a bad place, Russia goes to the “polls” today.

From the Danube to the Baltic Sea, Germany takes an authoritarian turn

Since the Hamas’ 7 October terrorist attacks and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza, German authorities are using increasingly illiberal measures to curtail pro-Palestine activism. Under the guise of combatting Israel-related antisemitism, civic space for freedom of expression and assembly is shrinking.

The seemingly isolated incidents highlighted in this article are piling up and the curtailing of civic space is starting to be noticed internationally: Civicus, which ranks countries by freedom of expression rights, recently downgraded Germany in a review from “open” to “restricted” due to repression of pro-Palestinian voices, as well as of climate activists.

Stigmatisation of pro-Palestine activism

In her speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the historical responsibility of Germany for the Shoah, including the security of Israel, as part of Germany’s “Staatsräson” (reason for existence). As Hamas has never credibly renounced its goal of destroying Israel, many German policymakers instinctively lean towards near unconditional support for Israel in the face of such adversaries. For them, the 7 October attacks only served to highlight that Germany cannot give an inch to critics of Israel.

There are long-standing disagreements around where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks on Israel that single it out because it is a Jewish state, are expressed in antisemitic ways or are motivated by antisemitic views. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” but identifies seven examples of when attacks on Israel may be antisemitic (taking into account the overall context). For example, it could be antisemitic to reference classic antisemitic tropes such as the blood libel conspiracy myth to describe Israel, deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or blame Jews collectively for the actions of Israel, according to IHRA.

While Germany has adopted IHRA, much looser standards seem to be applied by authorities and commentators committed to tackling Israel-related antisemitism. Calls for a binational state, advocacy for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or accusations that Israel is committing Apartheid are regularly identified as antisemitic. There is a strong sense that given its historical responsibility, it is not Germany’s place to judge, or let anyone else judge, Israel even as its offensive in Gaza has resulted in one of the highest rates of death in armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century, and disproportionately affects civilians.

Against this background, advocacy for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights is cast as suspicious. In the liberal Die Zeit newspaper, journalist Petra Pinzler criticised the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as she “sympathises more and more openly with the Palestinians and thus divides the climate movement.” Apparently sympathy with the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.

The debates since 7 October have created an atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian voices are more and more stigmatised. Pro-Palestinian protests have repeatedly been banned by local authorities. Their dystopian rationale for these bans revolves around the idea that, based on assessments of previous marches, crimes are likely to be committed by protesters. The practice is not new: in the past, German police have even banned protests commemorating the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the collective mass expulsion and displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1947-49 wars following the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine by the United Nations. In reaction to pro-Palestine protests since 7 October, the antisemitism commissioner of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal justice minister even suggested the police should pay closer attention to the nationality of pro-Palestine protest organisers as protests organised by non-Germans could be banned more easily.

Furthermore, pro-Palestinian political symbols are being falsely associated with Hamas or other pro-terrorist organisations. In early November, the Federal Interior Ministry banned the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” as a symbol of both Hamas and Samidoun, a support network for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

While one plausible interpretation of the “From the River to the Sea” slogan is that it is a call for the destruction of Israel, it is equally plausible to understand it as a call for a binational state with full equality of all citizens. Without context, the slogan cannot automatically be identified as antisemitic, though it is of course entirely legitimate to criticise this ambivalence. As has been extensively documented, the slogan does not originate with nor is exclusively used by Hamas.

Apart from being based on misinformation, banning “From the River to the Sea” has also created the ludicrous situation that the German police force is asked to make assessments on whether holding a “From the River we do see nothing like equality” placard is an expression of support for terrorism. A former advisor to Angela Merkel even called for the German citizenship of a previously stateless Palestinian woman to be revoked who posted a similar slogan (“From the River to the Sea #FreePalestine”) on her Instagram.

In some cases, these dynamics venture into the absurd. On 14 October, the activist Iris Hefets was temporarily detained in Berlin for holding a placard that read: “As a Jew & an Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza.”

These illiberal and ill-conceived measures are not limited to protests. In response to the 7 October attacks, authorities in Berlin allowed schools to ban students from wearing keffiyeh scarves to not “endanger school peace”.

Curtailing civic spaces

While these trends have been accelerated since 7 October, they predate it. In 2019, the German Bundestag passed a resolution that condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. It referenced the aforementioned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which does not comment on boycotts), compared the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish business and called on authorities to no longer fund groups or individuals that support BDS.

BDS calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from companies involved in the occupation of Arab territories and sanctions to force the Israeli government to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Inspired by the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa, BDS has attracted many supporters, but critics have claimed that BDS singles out Israel and delegitimises its existence. Accusations of antisemitism within the movement should of course be taken seriously: BDS supporters have previously been accused of employing antisemitic rhetoric about malign Jewish influence and intimidating Jewish students on campus. However, many of BDS’ core demands are clearly not antisemitic. Since the BDS lacks a central leadership that would issue official stances, it is difficult to make blanket statements about the movement in its entirety.

The 2019 resolution is now being cited to shut down cultural events. A planned exhibition in Essen on Afrofuturism was cancelled over social media posts that, according to the museum, “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide” and expressed support for BDS. The Frankfurt book fair “indefinitely postponed” a literary prize for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, after one member of the jury resigned due to supposed anti-Israel and antisemitic themes in her book. Shibli has since been accused by the left-wing Taz newspaper of being an “engaged BDS supporter” for having signed one BDS letter in 2007 and a 2019 letter that criticised the city of Dortmund for revoking another literary price for an author that supports BDS. A presentation by the award-winning Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has analysed human rights abuses in SyriaVenezuela and Palestine as well as Neo-Nazi murders in Germany, was likewise cancelled by the University of Aachen which cited the group’s founder Eyal Weizman’s support for BDS.

The curtailing of civic space increasingly affects voices that have stood up for human rights at great personal risk. The Syrian opposition activist Wafa Ali Mustafa was detained by Berlin police near a pro-Palestine protest, reportedly for wearing a keffiyeh scarf. Similarly, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is associated with the centre-left Green Party, pulled out of the Hannah Arendt prize ceremony, which was due to be awarded to the renowned Russian dissident, philosopher and human rights advocate Masha Gessen. Despite acknowledging differences between the two, Gessen had compared Gaza to the Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe in an article about the politics of memory in Germany, the Soviet Union, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel.

Conversation stoppers

Alarm bells should ring as one of Europe’s major liberal democracies has taken an authoritarian turn in the aftermath of 7 October. Germany’s noble commitment to its historical responsibility in the face of rising antisemitism is morphing into a suppression of voices advocating for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights.

In this distorted reality, civic spaces are eroded, cultural symbols banned, political symbols falsely conflated with support for terrorism and events are shut down. So far, there has been little pushback or critical debate about these worrying developments. To the contrary: politicians, foundations, cultural institutions and media outlets seem to be closing ranks under the shadow of the 2019 BDS resolution and a skewed interpretation of the IHRA definition.

Following the appalling violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, and the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza due to the subsequent Israeli military offensive, polarisation and tension between communities have been on the rise. In this context, it is crucial to be able to have passionate, empathetic, controversial and nuanced discussions about the conflict, its history, the present impasse, potential ways forward and its impact on Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities abroad. With the voices of activists, authors and even internationally renowned human rights advocates being increasingly isolated, these vital exchanges are prevented from taking place.

Silent Palestinians in Gaza and Israel

“Where are you Mohammed?” I muttered to myself while scrolling down my Facebook feed. Since the start of war in Gaza, as soon as I wake up in the morning, I check Facebook in search of reassuring signs that my Gazan friends are still alive. A week ago I noticed that for more than 24 hours there had been no new posts by Mohammed. I was extremely worried and immediately tried to click onto his own profile, only to find that his whole account had disappeared. I rang him and luckily found he was alive.

“Where are you Mohammed?” I asked, relieved.

“I need to become invisible,” he said and explained that he had to deactivate his account after receiving death threats. He was told that ‘traitors’ like him would be properly dealt with once hostilities were over. They made it clear, Mohammed told me, that they were not going to ask questions first and shoot later. They were just going to shoot. They were Hamas security forces.

A prominent poet among a new generation of gifted poets in Gaza, and an eloquent writer, Mohammed had for many years been a cautious critic of Hamas’ rule in Gaza. But with the unfolding horror of the Israeli retaliation for Hamas’ atrocious attack of 7 October, he could no longer restrain himself. His criticism of Hamas’s leadership and its recent disastrous war policies suddenly became uncompromising. He ridiculed those who praised Hamas’ Tawafan Al-Aqsa operationHamas’ name for its attack on Israelpointing out that it was in general morally and politically damaging to Palestinian people and particularly destructive to Gaza citizens’ lives and properties.

In one of his posts Mohammed declared that Hamas did not represent him and his family, nor indeed people like him. He clearly stated that if his wife and two-year-old daughter, or any other members of his extended family, were killed under Israeli bombardments, he would hold Hamas as responsible as Israel.

Mohammed is a descendant of a refugee family. His grandparents escaped to Gaza during the war of 1948. He himself was born in a refugee camp. Since 2007, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was ousted from power in Gaza, Mohammed has lived under Hamas’ rule. Like many people of his generation, especially creative, liberal-minded people, he has been calling for peaceful engagement with the Israelis, whether through nonviolent protests or peace negotiations, in the hope that life in Gaza could somehow become less insufferable. But to no avail.

Voices of dissent in Gaza have been getting louder since 2007, especially after Hamas’ various disastrous military engagements with Israel. But since 7 October, and given the scale of the ongoing catastrophe that has resulted from that day, many people in Gaza have completely lost patience. There can be no end to the tragic situation in Gaza, they have come to believe, without the total disarmament of Hamas and other militant groups.

Hamas has never tolerated critical views of its leadership and polices. A 2018 report from Human Rights Watch revealed that Hamas carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism, typically targeting supporters of the PA following the Fatah-Hamas feud. When there have been protests, they’ve quickly been crushed.

But critics, such as Mohammed, are independent voices, not affiliated with the PA. They do not represent an alternative authority. Indeed sometimes they are as critical of the PA as they are of Hamas. To this end Hamas has largely turned a blind eye to them. Hamas has also wanted to appear in front of its “friends” in the West to show a degree of respect for freedom of speech. Now things have changed; with its entire fate on the line, they’ve accelerated efforts to stamp out any voices of dissent.

People in Gaza are praying for an immediate and lasting ceasefire, which they see as their only chance of surviving. But for Mohammed, and dissidents like him, leaving Gaza altogether might be the only way to survive both the danger of Israeli bombardment and Hamas’ prosecution. He is hoping to escape to Egypt as soon as possible and in whatever way possible.

“This is our second Nakba (catastrophe),” he told me, the first being the war of 1948 which turned his grandparents and their successors into refugees in Gaza. Were he to succeed in escaping from Gaza, he, his wife and his daughter would suffer the life of refugees all over again.

With people like Mohammed leaving, Gaza will be left with no one who can freely express their views apart from Hamas supporters whose extreme political views and visions are delusional. Some of these people believe that the ongoing war is bound to cause the total destruction of Israel. With people like Mohammed gone, there will be nobody in Gaza left to challenge their absurdly self-destructive views.

Yet had Mohammed been born in what after 1948 became the State of Israel, and thus became a Palestinian citizen of Israel himself, he would still have no other option but to stay silent, even in the absence of death threats. After all it’s not just anti-war voices in Gaza that are being gagged. While searching for posts by Gazan friends I noticed that Palestinian-Israeli friends were suspiciously quiet too. I had known them to be typically outspoken in their criticism of both the Israeli government and Palestinian leadership – in the West Bank and Gaza – so I was surprised to see no posts of theirs, nor any comments on posts related to the Hamas’ assault and subsequent Israeli reprisals. I wrote sarcastically, wondering out loud, whether Palestinian-Israelis were keeping silent out of fear of Hamas’ rockets. The next day I received a private message with one simple question: “Haven’t you heard what’s happened to Dalal Abu Amneh?”

Dalal Abu Amneh is a popular Palestinian singer, influencer and doctor from Nazareth. She had been questioned by the Israeli authorities, I soon learned, over an Instagram post consisting of only a single Quranic verse, the meaning of which was that there is no ultimate victor but God. For some reason the Israeli police suspected that the use of such verse was an expression of solidarity with Hamas, and so she spent two days in detention.

Then I received news that activists from Standing Together, one of the largest grassroots Israeli-Palestinian groups working for peace, had been arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”

The Israeli public debate has also not been immune from the decline of rationality. Some far-right politicians and news commentators have even been arguing that destroying Gaza in the same way that cities like Dresden and Hiroshima were destroyed during World War II is the best possible way to put an end to the danger posed by Hamas.

Israel is considered the only democracy in the Middle East, yet its Palestinian citizens are frightened to protest against such calls for mass murder of the civilians of Gaza. Hoping to find out the source of such fear, a few days after the start of the war, I got in touch with Noha, a Palestinian friend from Haifa. Noha is a teacher and writer and she is usually chatty and blunt in expressing her opinions, but this time she seemed withdrawn and reticent.

“We can’t write anything about the current situation,” she replied curtly.

I asked whether Palestinians in Israel are frightened because they are exposed to a general sense of intimidation or whether there were actually state laws which prohibited them from freely expressing their views. Again her reply was brisk, “Every word is being monitored.”

“Who is monitoring every word?” I hoped to hear her explanation but she remained silent in a way that implied that our private conversation itself was being monitored. I nearly told her, jokingly, that she was just being paranoid; but after what had happened to Dalal Abu Amneh, a couple of days earlier, I couldn’t blame her even if she was merely being paranoid.

The Israeli government has vowed to continue its offensive until Hamas is eradicated. Those of us with first-hand knowledge of politics and history in Palestine-Israel know for sure that such an objective could not be achieved unless the whole of Gaza was totally destroyed. In other words, in order to achieve its goal, the Israeli government would have to follow the advice of those who have been calling to do to Gaza what was done to Dresden or Hiroshima.

In a later conversation with Mohammed he told me that many ordinary people in Gaza believe that Hamas is going to win in the end. “But how can that be when it’s obvious that Hamas is fighting for its life?” I protested. “Or is it the case that its mere survival would be considered a victory?”

“The people of Gaza have been living under siege for more than 16 years,” Mohammed said, adding that things have been getting despairingly worse. “Isolation and despair have made people seek refuge in political fantasies and delusions,” he explained.

Mohammed told me that when the news broke out, on the morning of 7 October, hundreds of Gazan civilians crossed the border into Israel literally following in the footsteps of Hamas’ attackers. The aim of some of these civilians was looting wealthy Israeli homes and properties. Others, however, believed that they were going homereturning, to the land from which their ancestors had fled during the war of 1948. They believed Israel was being conquered and that the Israeli population were leaving, and they, the civilians, wanted to make sure that they got in before anybody else so they could occupy the best vacant properties.

Political delusions and absurd views, such as the ones expressed by extremists on both sides, would be harmless if those who held them were not in power, nor armed. But that is not the case in Gaza and Israel. With the silencing of voices of reason such insane views could very easily win the attention of those in charge. The outcome would be a disaster on a scale not witnessed since World War II.