“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 operation, Hamas’ name for its attack on Israel, pointing 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 home, returning, 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.
It seems every week there is a news story of another academic, a group of students or a vice chancellor detailing threats to academic freedom. Heartbreakingly this has become an even more common occurrence since the Hamas pogrom in Israel on 7 October and the subsequent war in Gaza.
Only this week the UKRI, a UK government body which distributes research funding, has suspended its diversity advisory panel, after a leading member of the British Government publicly criticised members of the panel for their social media comments regarding Hamas and Israel. This led to the resignation of several academics from posts at the UKRI.
And at Cornell University in the US, a student is currently facing charges for threatening to kill Jewish students via a range of graphic social media posts, resulting in his persecution and enhanced security measures now in place for Jewish staff and members on campus.
These are two of the more extreme examples of the impact of the current crisis on academic institutions.
And as angry as they make me, as heartbroken as I am about current events, I have to consider them through the prism of my job – defending freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is a very broad concept and there are as many definitions as there are forms of expression. But taking the two examples above at hand, academic freedom and freedom of speech are different things. What people debate and discuss in the lecture hall, in a seminar room or on the pages of an academic tome must always be protected. But academics are not afforded special protections outside of the confines of their intellectual endeavours. That’s not a matter of academic freedom, it’s one of freedom of expression and should be considered separately.
At the same time, the events in Cornell equate to hate speech and are not and should not be protected. Hate speech and incitement are against the law and should be dealt with accordingly. And every community, every student should have the right to feel safe on campus – not in fear of their lives. No one should be scared of walking onto their university campus whatever is happening in a war thousands of miles away.
This is all at a time when university campuses are increasingly considered to be the frontline in the ongoing battle to protect free speech.
Earlier this year, the UK saw the passage of The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.
In the current context, this seems to have muddied the waters between academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. The new law places an onus on universities, colleges and Students’ Unions to not only protect free speech but to actively promote it. But what does this mean when applied to the views of students and academics who are promoting views outside of their academic specialisms?
The very name of the Act it suggests that those on campus have complete freedom of speech without limitation. They do not; no one does. But as academics they must have complete freedom to teach and challenge without fear or favour (within the confines of the law).
Universities are meant to be seats of academic exploration, cathedrals of learning. They provide a forum for discussion and debate in which new ideas and minority opinions can be considered. The purpose is to expose students to the breadth of views and ideas that exist in their particular discipline and ideally challenge their worldview – allowing them to argue back. On campus, in the classroom – not on a social media platform.
It is always difficult to know what impact these debates and issues are having on campus. How safe academics feel to push the boundaries of their areas of specialism and how secure students feel to question and debate on campus – to ask the unpalatable question, to challenge the status quo. But in the midst of the current gloom and misery I am choosing to take a little bit of hope from a recently published survey.
The National Student Survey from the Office of Students would suggest that this endemic attack on free speech is not as pervasive as we sometimes believe it to be. They asked students from colleges and universities in England how free they felt to express their “ideas, opinions, and beliefs” and 86% said that they felt “free” or “very free”. Only 3% of the 300,000 respondents said that they felt they were ‘not free at all.”
On the face of it, this is good news. We should welcome the fact that an overwhelming number of students feel free to speak their mind and share their opinions. Self censorship is a real problem but not one, it seems, that plagues the majority of today’s students.
But we must ask the 3% why they don’t feel free at all to express themselves on campus. is it threats from external forces like the Chinese Communist Party, is it because of their identity or faith, or is it because they themselves hold minority opinions and are fearful of being challenged. Whatever the reason, 9,000 students who participated in this survey feel silenced. We need to know why and we need to find a way to support them.
In the interim I’m going to focus on the positive and celebrate the fact that we start from a position of academic freedom and that the overwhelming majority of students know that they can express themselves on campus without fear or favour.
Following the brutal attacks on Israel by Hamas on 7 October, violations of free speech have occurred at such pace and scale that it has made keeping track a challenge. The situation was already difficult before that date: Israel was in the grip of a huge crisis, the country stalled by endless protests in response to the government’s attempts to neuter the Supreme Court, while Amnesty International identified “a general climate of repression” in Gaza Strip under Hamas. Since the war started, the right to freedom of expression has gone from bad to worse in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world. Whilst a degree of deterioration was predictable – conflict is never the arena in which rights improve – the current state could hardly be foreseen.
Starting with media freedom, on 7 October itself, of the 1,400 people who were murdered by Hamas several were Israeli reporters on duty. Following the massacre, Israel’s response has resulted in the death of at least 5,000 (according to the latest UN figures from 23 October), again including a number of journalists. Although none of the journalists from either side of the divide were killed for what they had written, they lost their lives though their line of work, making the media landscape all the poorer.
Others have, however, been punished for their work. Journalists from outlets including the BBC, Al-Jazeera, RT Arabic and Al-Araby TV have all reported obstructions to their reporting by the Israeli military, police and others since the conflict began. On 12 October, a team of BBC Arabic reporters were dragged from their vehicle, searched and held at gunpoint by police in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, despite their vehicle being marked “TV” and the presentation of press cards, the BBC reported. On 26 October, Lama Khater, a freelance writer with Middle East Monitor and a political activist, was arrested by the IDF in the city of Hebron, West Bank, her husband Hazem Fakhoury told CPJ. Confrontational attacks have been coupled with subtle ones: On 9 October, for example, The Jerusalem Post reported that its website was down following a series of cyberattacks. The group Anonymous Sudan claimed responsibility for the attacks, reported Axios and Time magazine.
Media freedom could deteriorate further. On 16 October, Israel proposed new emergency regulations that would allow it to block broadcasts that harm “national morale”. Officials threatened to close Al-Jazeera’s local offices under the proposed rule and to stop the global news organisation from freely reporting on the war.
With the situation on the ground increasingly difficult and with limited media from Gaza itself, the internet more broadly, and social media specifically, is a lifeline. And yet getting information within and out of Gaza has become increasingly difficult. Internet services have been disrupted by the attacks, while Palestinians and their supporters allege that social media platforms, in particular Instagram, are “shadow-banning” their content. Instagram’s owner, Meta, has denied this, but they have admitted that they inserted the word “terrorist” automatically into translated bios of Palestinian users, something they apologised for on 19 October.
Social media giant X, which has had a tumultuous ride under owner Elon Musk over the last year to say the least, has also been flooded with misinformation, as we reported on 18 October. Images have been adopted from other conflicts, fake accounts created in a smorgasbord of lies intended to sow confusion, division and hate. At a time when it could be providing an essential role in the spread of crucial information, trust is low.
As those within Israel and Palestine struggle to access reliable news, international media outlets find themselves in the middle of claims of irresponsible reporting, such as jumping too fast to conclusions over who was behind the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital, and accusations of bias. The latter can sometimes be unhelpful noise. To instantly shout “censorship” can be erroneous. There are a host of reasons why newspapers and broadcasters might run a story or interview a person (some being mundane, merely down to the availability of one person over another). Impartiality is not a prerequisite for outlets that are not funded by taxpayers. Nor does objectivity equate to equal weight for views. Still, with a conflict as complicated as that between Israel and Palestine, as longstanding, as heated and as volatile, a plurality of views and careful attention to how information is both interrogated and reported is crucial. It’s not clear that every outlet has adhered to these fundamental principles.
As for the actual red pen, one example of direct censorship came from Yale University’s campus newspaper, the Yale Daily News, which censored a pro-Israel opinion piece by removing references to Hamas atrocities. We suspect there are others. Alas the nature of censorship and self-censorship means we don’t always know about them.
Has criticising Israel become a punishable offence for the average person? A “McCarthyite backlash” against criticism of the country’s bombardment of Gaza has been claimed by civil rights groups in the USA, as people are fired, threatened with dismissal or blacklisted from future jobs, according to the Guardian. Take one example: Michael Eisen, editor of the scientific journal eLife, was forced out of his job after reposting an article from satirical magazine the Onion with the headline: “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas”. In Germany, the journalist Michael Scott Moore noted that “the tendency in Berlin right now is to squelch as much criticism of Israel as possible”, citing the arrest of a Jewish Israeli protesting the war amongst others. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested that waving Palestinian flags and using popular pro-Palestine slogans could be illegal and a ministerial aide was sacked from his government role following his letter to the prime minister calling for a ceasefire. In Switzerland, all demonstrations related to the conflict were banned in Zurich. In Australia, New South Wales authorities vowed to stop marches from proceeding. And in Israel, in one of the more unpleasant twists, the parents of hostages, who were protesting in Tel Aviv, were spat at and abused by supporters of current leader Benjamin Netanyahu. This in addition to police saying they’ve investigated and detained more than 100 people for their social media activity and, as we reported last week, activists being arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”
Staying with Israel, human rights activists worry the detentions are due to the police adopting a wider interpretation than normal of what constitutes incitement to violence. A well-known singer and influencer, Dalal Abu Amneh, was held in police custody for two days. According to Abeer Baker, her lawyer, she was accused of “disruptive behaviour” by police officers, who said her posts could incite violence, in particular one featuring an image of the Palestinian flag with the Arabic motto: “There is no victor but God.” Baker said Abu Amneh was expressing a religious sentiment, while Israeli authorities interpreted the singer’s post as a call to arms for Palestinians. This example highlights a tension right now, the question of what defines hate speech and how we balance the rights for people to protest (be it online, in the streets or through petitions) versus the rights for people to live free from fear and persecution. Some of the banners and comments made at protests have been vile. They are clearly, irrefutably hate speech and given recent events – an Orthodox Jewish man assaulted in London, a mob storming Dagestan’s airport looking for people arriving from Israel, cemeteries and synagogues set alight in Tunisia and Austria, to name just a few – one could argue incitement. Still, it is clear that there has been huge overreach. Many who have been punished for what they’ve said have been peaceful, with views that – even if you disagree with them or find them uncomfortable – should be protected.
The above is far from an exhaustive list. It could go on and on. Consider Adania Shabli, the Palestinian writer whose event at Frankfurt Book Fair was called off. Consider the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose appearance at 92NY, one of New York City’s leading cultural organisations, was pulled on the back of his criticism of Israel. Yet even this incomplete tally paints a grim picture. Free speech can be difficult and no more so than with Israel-Palestine, a conflict which is and always has been so deeply emotive and tribal. The knee-jerk response at present seems to be to silence. This is no solution. As George Orwell famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This applies as much to those in Israel as it does to those in Gaza and to all of us outside. There have already been enough victims and casualties – let’s ensure free speech is not another.
Peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict may seem like a distant dream, but even now there are those on the ground working to build understanding between the two peoples. The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) is an umbrella organisation which helps bring together more than 170 groups across the region seeking dialogue and mutual understanding. ALLMEP this week helped organise a seminar, The Gaza War in Israel to amplify these voices. One of the largest grassroots Israeli-Palestinian groups is Standing Together which, according to its mission statement, mobilises Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in pursuit of peace, equality and social and climate justice. Two of the speakers at the seminar, Sally Abed and Uri Weltmann, represented the organisation, whose members have been arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.” Weltmann warned of an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere in Israel following the 7 October atrocities. He pointed to comments by Israel’s police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai. who said: “Anyone who wants to sympathize with Gaza is welcome to get on a bus and go there.”
Index attended the seminar and has been given permission to print edited versions of one-minute monologues given by some of the expert panel members.
Sally Abed is a Palestinian leader of Standing Together (Omdim be’Yachad/ Naqef Ma’an), the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel. She is running for city council in Haifa as head of a Jewish-Arab list. She was recently profiled in a New York Times article about Israel’s peace movement in the shadow of war.
The first thing I want to say is to hold the people of Gaza in your prayers. It’s just heart-wrenching to see [what is happening] and to feel so hopeless and so helpless, and to not be able do something about it. Especially here from Israel as a Palestinian. I do want to say that I think a message for me as a Palestinian that is very important for me to portray to everyone in the world [is] there are Palestinians in Israel who are going through the experience and the humanitarian loss and the catastrophe that the Israeli public has gone through.
Our cause for Palestinian liberation is a very just cause. However, we cannot justify the extreme measures that Hamas has took to advance this cause and I think one of the most important things that we need to hold [onto] right now as a Palestinian liberation movement, and as Palestinians, is our rights, all of us as civilians, for life – to live securely. I really want to hold that very, very tight.
Listen to us, listen to the people on the ground here in Israel. We are often overlooked. We are seeing amazing cases of radical empathy of victims, Israeli victims who have lost dear ones, and who have people in captivity right now and who are still calling for a ceasefire, who are still calling for ending the occupation, who are still calling for peace. We need to join these people and we need to really hold our humanity together as people and isolate our leaderships at the moment.
Uri Weltmann is the national field organiser for Standing Together (Omdim be’Yachad/ Naqef Ma’an), and a member of its national leadership. He lives in Tel Aviv-Yafo.
Since 2005 there have been 16 major military operations carried out by the Israeli government against the population of the Gaza Strip. None of these military actions brought safety and security to Israelis. All of these military actions only wreaked havoc on the civic population in Gaza, causing many innocent lives [to be lost] including children, and each one of them merely planted the seed for the next major military operation. I fear we are going in the same direction. I fear our government is pushing us into yet another round of violent bloodletting, yet another round of taking a terrible toll of human life of Palestinians in Gaza, and yet another round of undermining the safety and security of us, the people who live in Israel. We need to go about it in an entirely different direction. We need to go for an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on UN resolutions. We need to go in the direction of ending the siege and ending the occupation, and securing the independence, freedom and justice of both peoples. This is what Standing Together is doing, and we are doing this not on the West Coast or the East Coast [of the USA], or Europe. We are doing this inside Israeli society, organising Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, which we think is the only way for us as an Israeli peace movement to go about it.