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Israel's Palestinian citizens grow louder in protesting the Gaza war

Palestinian citizens of Israel hold an anti-war protest in the town of Deir Hanna, Israel, on March 30.
Maya Levin for NPR
Palestinian citizens of Israel hold an anti-war protest in the town of Deir Hanna, Israel, on March 30.

DEIR HANNA, Israel — After the brutal Hamas attack last October, which Israel says killed 1,200 people, anti-war demonstrations in Israel were quashed. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel were even arrested on their way to small vigils, which by law do not require a police permit. Legal aid groups documented hundreds of people who were jailed, faced job loss or suspension, or disciplinary proceedings at universities, often for social media posts that appeared to question Israel's invasion of Gaza.

That's why it was such an unusual sight, one recent Saturday afternoon, when hundreds of people marched through the Arab town of Deir Hanna, in Israel's Galilee, loudly protesting the Gaza war.

Police had banned the Palestinian flag — black, white and green with a red triangle. But like many, 25-year-old Haj Amir defiantly hoisted one over his shoulder.

"This will be the flag of our independent country at some point," he said.

The march was for an annual event called Land Day, centered in the Galilee but marked more broadly every March 30, to commemorate Palestinian opposition to Israeli expropriation of Arab land. But this year, it was also about opposing the fighting in Gaza that has now lasted six months.

"We feel safe here, without any threats" of retribution for speaking out, said Nagm Madi, who brought her four young children. Wearing a headscarf and large, stylish sunglasses, she said it was her first chance to raise her voice against the war. "We are not extremists. We want peace, and we want to express ourselves."

Palestinians make up 20% of Israel's population, but have long felt treated like second-class citizens due to lack of job opportunities, disproportionate poverty and under-investment in Arab communities. Many grieve the suffering in Gaza, but expressing solidarity with Palestinians there can be perilous.

The Deir Hanna march was held as part of an annual event, Land Day, commemorating a 1976 protest against Israeli government plans to control land owned by Arabs in the northern Galilee area. Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinians in the 1976 protest. This year, the march was also about opposing the fighting in Gaza that has now lasted six months.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
The Deir Hanna march was held as part of an annual event, Land Day, commemorating a 1976 protest against Israeli government plans to control land owned by Arabs in the northern Galilee area. Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinians in the 1976 protest. This year, the march was also about opposing the fighting in Gaza that has now lasted six months.

Madi says one of her sisters, a university student, has been under disciplinary review for months after posting a poem on social media. It was by Mahmoud Darwish, considered the Palestinian national poet, and it mentioned a martyr.

She says another sister switched her online profile to a black image, in a sign of mourning over Gaza, but a work colleague messaged her that it was inappropriate and she should change it.

"I think [Jewish Israelis] don't feel safe," Madi says. They support the war, she believes, because "they think only war and violence will protect them and their children."

Despite this rally's success, one marcher said she was disappointed turnout wasn't bigger, and said she had friends who were too scared to come out.

Legal aid groups are securing protest permits, but still see a chilling effect

Legal aid groups say after the Oct. 7 attack, Israel waged an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly — for everyone, including Jewish Israelis, but especially for Palestinian citizens. While Israelis have protested weekly to demand the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bring home hostages — or more recently to call for early elections — permits for anti-war protests have been harder to come by.

Legal aid lawyers have battled for months, taking cases all the way to Israel's Supreme Court, and have won permits for a few recent anti-war demonstrations.

"It's shifting, but it's still a very grim picture from where I'm standing," says Noa Sattath, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

She says Palestinian rallies are often organized jointly with Jewish activists, who are more likely to get permits. And Sattath sees a clear chilling effect. "We know that Arab citizens object to the war, but very few of them are protesting," she says.

Palestinian citizens of Israel march in Deir Hanna, March 30. Legal aid groups say after the Oct. 7 attack, Israel waged an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Palestinian citizens of Israel march in Deir Hanna, March 30. Legal aid groups say after the Oct. 7 attack, Israel waged an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly.

Some protest permits for Palestinian citizens have also had "very limited and strict conditions," says Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organization Adalah. For example, instead of being allowed to hold a protest in the center of one Arab town, organizers were confined to an out-of-the-way soccer field.

"It's so insulting," he says.

But the group decided to accept the restriction, worried that contesting it might risk denial altogether.

And other kinds of suppression continue.

In March, a Palestinian professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was suspended after suggesting that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza and expressing doubts over the extent of alleged sexual assaults by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack. The university reinstated her, saying she had "clarified" some of the remarks.

"Every time something like that happens, when people express their opinions, then they're less likely to do it next time," says Sattath.

"We're definitely going to witness a new era after this war," says Shahd Bishara, 30, in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
/ Catie Dull/NPR
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Catie Dull/NPR
"We're definitely going to witness a new era after this war," says Shahd Bishara, 30, in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Some Palestinians of Israel who speak out say their fears remain

In the first weeks of the war, Shahd Bishara, a 30-year-old pathologist in Tel Aviv, stopped speaking Arabic in public. Tensions over an earlier conflict with Hamas in 2021 led to street violence between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and Bishara worried it would happen again. "I was scared that I would be attacked somehow," she says.

That did not happen. But last fall was such a stressful time that one of her friends, also a Palestinian citizen of Israel, created a podcast as a way for people to speak out. "It was called 'We will not be silent,'" she says. "He gave me a fake name."

At her apartment in a Tel Aviv suburb, she says she still has fears. But these days she is comfortable not only speaking Arabic in public but also speaking out against the war in Gaza.

That confidence has come partly from her work with Standing Together, a group of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. They set up a hotline and financial aid for Palestinian citizens who faced harassment, and have held "solidarity" meetings to find common ground between Jews and Arabs. More recently, the group has organized several anti-war rallies.

"To show that we demand a cease-fire agreement, which is the only way that will bring the Israeli hostages back home," Bishara says. "And second of all, to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Gaza."

Still, there are moments.

At a Tel Aviv cafe, she suddenly freezes mid-sentence after spotting a man in a t-shirt and shorts with a large gun on his hip. After the Hamas attack, Israel's far-right national security minister loosened gun laws to arm civilians. He recently celebrated giving out 100,000 new gun licenses. One Israeli newspaper reported that no Arab communities or town residents were listed among those eligible.

"The arming is to target Arabs at the end of the day," Bishara says. "So I think it's normal to be afraid in such a situation, no?"

Palestinian citizens of Israel march in Deir Hanna for Land Day on March 30. Some protest permits for Palestinian citizens of Israel have had "very limited and strict conditions," says Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organization Adalah.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Palestinian citizens of Israel march in Deir Hanna for Land Day on March 30. Some protest permits for Palestinian citizens of Israel have had "very limited and strict conditions," says Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organization Adalah.

Bishara says it's painful to see the destruction in Gaza and the more than 33,000 Palestinians killed. But she says Israeli media does not show that. "There is somehow a bubble," she says, and she believes Jewish Israelis "don't see what the international society sees in different [media] platforms."

For her, it feels like the relationship between Israel's Jewish and Palestinian citizens at this moment is at a critical juncture.

"I'm not sure to which direction it's going to change," she says, "but we're definitely going to witness a new era after this war."

She intends to keep raising her voice to try and shape that era away from more violence.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.