Israel’s large Palestinian minority is facing an unprecedented backlash of incitement and violent reprisals as Israeli Jews rally behind the current military operations in Gaza, human rights groups and political activists have warned.
They say recent statements from public figures urging war crimes and genocidal actions in Gaza have helped to stoke an especially dangerous atmosphere for Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
Palestinian citizens have been accused of being “traitors” and a “fifth column” for criticising Israeli operations in Gaza, in a surge of ethnic hatred by the Jewish majority not seen since the outbreak of the second intifada 14 years ago.
“There has been an explosion of incitement against the Palestinian minority on Facebook and other social media in the past few weeks,” said Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament. “Pages calling for violence get tens of thousands of likes overnight.”
Jewish mobs have also started patrolling Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities with mixed populations looking for Palestinians to attack, and beating those participating in anti-war demonstrations, said Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for Arab citizens.
“These are no longer spontaneous or isolated attacks. The gangs of Jewish extremists are organised, well-funded and backed by a campaign of incitement from government officials.”
At the weekend, two Palestinian youths were seriously injured after they were beaten by a gang in Jerusalem.
BBC reporter attacked
In another incident, shown live on BBC Arabic TV, reporter Firas Khatib was assaulted by an Israeli man as he reported from Israel, close to the Gaza border.
Last week, the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for a boycott of Arab businesses after Palestinian communities staged a one-day general strike in protest of the mounting Palestinian death toll in Gaza, which on Tuesday topped 1,200, most of them civilians.
Reprisals by companies followed, with reports of Arab workers sacked or disciplined for posting comments on social media against the Gaza operation, dubbed Protective Edge. Several universities have also punished students for making critical comments or celebrating the deaths of Israeli soldiers.
Tal Hassin, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights In Israel (Acri), said there were numerous reports of sanctions being imposed. “Only Arab students have been punished, even though the social forums are simmering with racist comments by Jewish students.”
She said university staff appeared to be acting like a “thought police.”
On Tuesday, in a sign of the growing intolerance, the Israeli parliament for the first time in its history suspended a legislator for six months.
Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian MP, had refused during a TV interview to label as “terrorists” Palestinians behind the abduction last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. The youngsters were later found dead.
She is also being investigated for incitement. The public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, has called for Zoabi to be stripped of her parliamentary immunity.
Dangerous new phase
The ugly mood prompted Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian writer whose TV comedy show Arab Labour became a huge hit with Jews, to declare that he was leaving Israel for good.
Kashua wrote: “Last week something inside of me broke. When Jewish youth parade through the city shouting ‘Death to the Arabs’, and attack Arabs only because they are Arabs, I understood that I had lost my little war.”
Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organisation promoting equality, said Israel was entering a new and dangerous period. “The level of verbal and physical violence [from Israeli Jews] is on a scale we have never seen before.”
He called Lieberman’s comments “unbelievable.” “How does he think such a boycott should be implemented? Should Arab shops be specially marked so Jews know how to avoid them? This kind of incitement gives legitimacy to ordinary people to go out on the streets and take the law into their own hands.”
Gerlitz said Palestinians were used to discriminatory and violent treatment by police, as occurred at the start of the second intifada, 14 year ago. On that occasion police shot dead 13 Palestinian citizens and wounded hundreds more in a few days of clashes.
“It was bad enough when the violence came from the police, but it is more dangerous when, as now, we see Jewish extremists taking to the streets to attack Arab citizens. This could quickly get out of control.”
Farah accused the authorities of mothballing a Jewish anti-terror unit in the police. “We’ve heard it’s no longer functioning. It seems they are waiting for someone to be killed, to make us afraid to demonstrate on the streets. They want us silenced.”
Zoabi’s suspension on Tuesday came as the parliament held a special meeting on incitement.
A hotline established four weeks ago by the justice ministry to report incidents of incitement had received more than 1,100 calls, Moshe Cohen, a ministry spokesman, told Middle East Eye. He said: “There has been a big rise in racist material published on sites like Facebook and WhatsApp.”
But the committee hearing, led by Miri Regev, a hawkish member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, mostly focused on what it considered “incitement” by Palestinian citizens.
Much of the hearing was dedicated to Zoabi, who has faced a series of police investigationsin recent weeks over comments critical of Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank. A recent poll of Israeli Jews found 89 percent thought Zoabi’s citizenship should be revoked.
However, Tamar Zandberg, of the leftist Meretz party, asked whether the police had launched an investigation against any Jewish politicians for incitement, adding: “What is being done to defend Israeli citizens from pogroms?” [http://www.jpost.com/National-News/MKs-call-on-police-Attorney-General-t…
When questioned by Middle East Eye, the justice ministry’s Moshe Cohen said no public figure apart from Zoabi was being investigated.
Zandberg noted in particular Lieberman’s boycott comment and remarks by Ayelet Shaked, a rising star in the Jewish Home party of economics minister Naftali Bennett.
This month Shaked quoted approvingly from an unpublished article urging the slaughter of relatives of Palestinian “terrorists,” including their mothers, to stop them raising another generation of “little snakes.”
Calls for destruction of Gaza
Other prominent public figures have also called for war crimes in Gaza.
Moshe Feiglin, a deputy Speaker of the parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud party, called for massive destruction of Gaza, with inhabitants to be starved of supplies and then expelled to Sinai.
Danny Danon, until recently the deputy defence minister, has demanded that Israel “stop providing fuel and electricity”, while Miri Regev herself said action should be taken to “prevent the people of Gaza from receiving basic goods.”
In another incident, Mordechai Kedar, a Middle East expert at Bar Ilan university, told a radio programme that nothing could deter Palestinian terrorists except “the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”
A feminist group wrote to Bar Ilan’s president, Daniel Hershkowitz, decrying comments that “grant legitimacy” to Israeli soldiers using rape as a weapon of war. The university backed Kedar, saying he had simply described “the bitter reality of the Middle East.”
Rabbis have also joined the fray. Dov Lior, influential among extremist settlers, issued a religious edit last week permitting soldiers to kill Palestinian civilians and for the defence minister to “order the destruction of Gaza.”
That followed a pronouncement from Noam Perel, head of the world’s largest religious Jewish youth movement, for an “army of avengers.”
Notably, Netanyahu has not spoken out against such comments. He himself questioned the future of Palestinians inside Israel after widespread protests erupted earlier this month over the grisly murder in Jerusalem of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian, by a Jewish group.
Netanyahu said: “There’s no place in the State of Israel for those who throw rocks at police. … You can’t enjoy social security payments and child subsidies on one hand and on the other hand violate the most basic laws of the State of Israel.”
A columnist with the liberal daily Haaretz accused Netanyahu of being “the king of inciters.” “His whole government, his entire success at the polls, is based on the surefire recipe of incitement, hatred and fear-mongering,” wrote Nehemia Shtrasler.
Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal group for the Arab minority, said the Israeli attorney general was not being consistent. “There have been a lot more inciteful comments than what Haneen Zoabi said, but they are not being investigated.”
Zoabi is under two investigations: for an interview with al-Jazeera TV, in which she is reported to have said the “Palestinian resistance will not surrender”; and for allegedly calling an Arab policeman a “traitor.”
Zoabi herself has complained of being abused and assaulted by police at recent anti-war demonstrations, including an incident when she was arrested and handcuffed by police in Haifa for half an hour.
She told Middle East Eye: “They want an example – an easy victim, a Palestinian woman – to deter others from speaking out. They are afraid of anyone holding up a mirror to them so they can see what they are really doing in Gaza.”
Backlash at universities
Human rights groups have been alarmed by the rapidly growing trend of Israeli firms and universities punishing workers and students for expressing political views on social media.
A nurse at a medical clinic near Tel Aviv was suspended last week for posting on Facebook that Israeli soldiers were war criminals, and a doctor in Jerusalem suspended for calling them “murderers”.
Hadassah college in Jerusalem revoked an Arab woman’s scholarship and banned her from campus over a Facebook post.
Bishara said: “This has become a serious attack on freedom of expression. But it reflects a general atmosphere of zero tolerance of dissent.”
On Tuesday, Bar Ilan university reprimanded a law professor, Hanoch Sheinman, after a flood of complaints from students who received an email from him in which he hoped they were safe and “not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed.”
The dean of the faculty, Shahar Lifshitz, said he was “shocked” by the “hurtful” email, which “contravened the values of the university.”
Gerlitz, of Sikkuy, said the outburst of violence and incitement was not only provoked by events in Gaza, but reflected deeper trends in Israeli society. There was, he said, growing resentment and fear among Jews at the Palestinian minority’s greater success in integrating into the Israeli economy over the past decade.
“Jews think of Arabs as street cleaners or taxi drivers. Now they see they are doctors, pharmacists, teaching in the universities or working in hi-tech. The right wing wants them back in their place, where they were before.”