War regime

Peace means betrayal

02/15/2024   Read time: 8 min

Nothing is over, nothing is normal. Israel after 7 October. By Ramona Lenz.

At first glance, normality has returned to the centre of Israel, in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Since the beginning of the year, the rocket fire from Gaza has tapered off considerably. Shops, schools and universities are open again. Buses and trains are running regularly. Building sites are bustling with activity. But a closer look reveals that nothing is like it used to be: posters on almost every street corner commemorate the hostages taken to Gaza by Hamas on 7 October 2023; Israeli flags and signs with the demand "Bring them home" are emblazoned on shop windows and house walls; men in civilian clothes with assault rifles over their shoulders are much more commonplace than before. At supermarket checkouts, on buses and on motorway bridges, pennants or banners with slogans proclaim "Together we will be victorious", while some of the building sites are used to build "mamads". These are air-raid shelters that have been mandatory for new buildings for several years and are now being added on to some older buildings.

One Arab delicatessen vendor in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv - one of the few places in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together - says that hardly any Jewish customers have come into his shop since October, out of fear, he suspects. And one father reports how, during children's gymnastics at the Arab-Jewish community centre a few streets away, Arab children froze in shock when a Jewish father picked up his daughter wearing a uniform and with a gun slung over his shoulder. Memories of the last Gaza war in May 2021, which were marked by violent clashes in mixed cities like Jaffa, are still fresh in people's minds.

Grief and repression

Nothing is over, nothing is normal. In this small country, almost everyone knows someone who was a victim of the massacre and hostage-taking on 7 October. Many families have soldiers who are deployed in Gaza, or know people who have had to leave their homes because of the war. And some have friends and family members who fear for their lives in Gaza or the West Bank. All of the above frequently applies to well-connected left-wing activists who have been campaigning for an end to the occupation for years.

Added to this is the repression, which has intensified on a massive scale since 7 October. Anyone who avoids the war-related propaganda with its omnipresent slogans of perseverance and stands up for an end to the bombing of Gaza and the settler violence unleashed in the West Bank must expect to lose their job, be subjected to threatens, attacked or imprisoned. The Palestinian minority in Israel in particular is massively affected by all this. All it takes is a harmless post on social media at the wrong time or participation in a demonstration for peace. For Palestinians, this can be followed by months in prison.

"Police violence perpetrated on Palestinians and leftists is nothing new," comments Ari Remez from Adalah, the Haifa-based Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which medico has been supporting for many years. "Since 7 October, however, restrictions on freedom of expression have reached an unprecedented level." According to Remez, numerous legislative proposals and political initiatives are fuelling the brutal police crackdown at present – be it Security Minister Ben-Gvir's demand to allow the use of live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators; be it the law passed in December criminalising "consumption of terrorist media"; be it the threat to change the law to include linguistic offences, allowing people to be stripped of their citizenship as punishment for serious terrorist acts." Any contextualisation, any expression of grief for the victims in Gaza and any deviation from the Israeli government's narrative can be interpreted as support for Hamas and be made a criminal offence. Those affected are accused of having no sympathy for the Jewish victims. As if it were not possible to mourn both the one and the other."

Intimidation, suspension, imprisonment

It is not just the police who are restricting the right to freedom of expression in this way. At universities and other educational institutions, Palestinians and left-wing Jews are also accused of sympathising with Hamas. Disciplinary proceedings are initiated on usually flimsy pretexts. According to Remez, a total of 120 students from 34 different Israeli universities and colleges have contacted Adalah in this connection in recent weeks. Lecturers are also affected. "For example, anyone who posted a photo of a birthday cake immediately after 7 October, quoted the Koran or published statements similar to those of UN Secretary-General Guterres ran the risk of being accused of incitement to hatred. This was followed by attempts at intimidation, suspensions and imprisonment."

Omri Metzer, from the Human Rights Defenders Fund, an Israeli medico partner organisation that was awarded the Aachen Peace Prize last year, explains: "Since the beginning of the war, there has been an almost complete zero-tolerance policy towards any voices opposing the government and the military response to the cold-blooded massacre by Hamas on 7 October." Like Adalah, the HRDF has taken action in numerous cases contesting the intimidation of political dissidents, mainly Palestinians. Social media activities are often the trigger, Metzer notes. But since 7 October, numerous demonstrations have also been banned or broken up with the use of police force. This frequently results in arrests, including of minors and journalists. This was the case, for example, at the peaceful anti-war demonstration with around 200 participants that took place on 19 October 2023 in Umm al-Fahm, an Arab city in northern Israel. Most of the detainees were released after a few days. However, Ahmad Khalifa and Muhammad Jabarin, the organisers of the demonstration, have now been in prison for over a quarter of a year and fear that they will be tried for supporting terrorism.

Catastrophic prison conditions

"There are currently more people in administrative detention in Israel than ever before," reports Sahar Francis from the Palestinian Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association Addameer in Ramallah. With administrative detention, trial-related files are usually kept secret and the detainees do not know what they are being accused of or how long they will be held. In Israel, Palestinians are particularly affected by this. Addameer has long been drawing attention to the catastrophic conditions facing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. On 23 January this year, the organisation presented a report entitled "Escalating Oppression". It documents to what extent already ghastly prison conditions for Palestinians have deteriorated further since October. The supply of clean water, food and clothing is often inadequate: people have to sleep on the bare floor in hopelessly overcrowded cells and are denied vital medical treatment. In addition, family visits have been prevented and lawyers who want to visit their clients in prison have to request an appointment weeks in advance.

And that's not all: "Since 7 October, the prisons have turned into scenes of intensified cruelty. They are no longer used only for oppression, but also to torture Palestinian prisoners, who are subjected to various forms of revenge," says the Addameer report. "They are forced to sing songs in Hebrew, kiss the Israeli flag and behave like dogs," explains Francis. Some are forced to spend 24 hours a day handcuffed in cages. Seven prisoners are known to have died in Israeli prisons since 7 October due to the use of force and lack of medical assistance. "There has also been a sharp increase in sexual violence against Palestinian prisoners - both women and men," says Francis. It is particularly bad for prisoners from Gaza, of whom little information reaches the outside world.

Escalation of violence in the West Bank

In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, violence committed by settlers and Israeli occupation forces against Palestinians and Bedouin has reached new heights since 7 October, reports the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, based in Ramallah, which medico has been working with for many years. Killings and attempted killings are the order of the day, as are expulsions and the destruction of property. "Between 7 October 2023 and 20 January 2024, 363 Palestinians, including 94 children, were killed by Israeli occupation forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem," reports Shahd Qaddoura from Al-Haq, adding that sexualised violence is also becoming increasingly commonplace. Since October, 350 "flying checkpoints" have been added to the 480 permanently installed Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank. They are set up on main roads, at the entrance to Palestinian villages or even in the middle of nowhere. This not only further restricts Palestinians' freedom of movement. It also increases the risks to their safety. "Mobile phones are usually inspected at the checkpoints. Having the Telegram app installed often suffices to be beaten and humiliated," adds Qaddoura.

Future uncertain

The policy of silencing is having an effect. In view of the events on and since 7 October, many actors on the left were initially paralysed and therefore withdrew. Now many hardly dare to take to the streets because of the repression. "I now avoid speaking Arabic on the bus or in other public places," explains a Palestinian activist from Haifa. "I'm definitely not going to go to a demonstration at the moment. The risk of a Palestinian ending up in prison is too great." As a Jewish activist from Tel Aviv explains: "It's all very personal. We have been working together for the same goals for many years. But since 7 October, many have revised their values. Personal turmoil and disappointments are also unavoidable."

War and repression continue and nobody knows where it will all lead. The growing number of participants in weekly demonstrations against the government may be a glimmer of hope. But they cannot obscure the fact that many stay away from demonstrations because they are intimidated or imprisoned.

Ramona Lenz, spokesperson for the medico Foundation, has been in Tel Aviv for extended periods of time over the past few months. She was also there on 7 October and when this report was written.

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