Israeli policemen detain a demonstrator that was participating in a vigil against the arrests of leaders of the Arab-Israeli community, in Tel Aviv on November 9, 2023. Credit - Ahmad Gharabli—AFP/Getty Images
As Israel continues its war to eliminate Hamas in Gaza, its government is waging a simultaneous battle to root out dissent at home. On Thursday, Israeli authorities detained several high-profile Israeli Arab leaders—among them former parliamentarian Mohammad Barakeh, the chairman of the High Follow-Up Committee, the national representative body of Palestinian citizens of Israel—for organizing a protest vigil against the ongoing war in Gaza.
Earlier this week, Israel’s high court rejected a petition by Arab Israeli political parties and human rights advocates challenging a police ban on demonstrations against the war in two Palestinian towns. Israeli lawmakers also passed an amendment to the country’s counterterrorism law that introduced a new criminal offense for consuming “terrorist materials,” which the human-rights organization Adalah—The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel warned would criminalize “even passive social media use.” Indeed, dozens of Palestinian citizens of Israel are estimated to have been arrested for speech-related offenses, including one woman who was reportedly charged with inciting terrorism over her WhatsApp status, which read, “may God grant them victory and protect them.”
The crackdowns amount to “an attack on the entire Arab population,” says Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab Israeli lawmaker representing the left-wing Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (known as al-Jabha or Hadash in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively) in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature.
Speaking with TIME by phone from Jaffa, Touma-Sliman discussed the arrests of her colleagues, the wider crackdown on anti-war expression in Israel, and what it means for the country’s minority Arab population.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: What has the situation in Israel been like for Palestinian citizens since Oct. 7?
Aida Touma-Sliman: Since the beginning of this, we were very cautious. We were very clear in our position and feeling really shocked by what happened on the 7th of October.
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Meanwhile, the minister of national security [Itamar Ben-Gvir] was distributing weapons all over the cities. The police chief [Kobi Shabtai] said very clearly that we will never allow any demonstration against the war and whoever wants to send sympathy to Gaza will be sent there. On top of that, we knew that on the public level, there are groups of very right-wing people who are doing a kind of incitement against the Arab population. They are tracking people who are working in Jewish institutions, students, doctors. They are tracking their Facebook and their social media. And if there is a small sign—even in the past—about your Palestinian side, they will report directly to the Minister of the National Security and people will be persecuted. We had hundreds of people either investigated or arrested.
Can you talk about the circumstances that led to your colleagues’ arrest?
We understood that the threat to our population was really serious. Our main concern was not to bring our community to be attacked, so we considered very carefully how we were going to protest. The first attempt was when the High Follow-Up Community decided to have two big meetings indoors: one was with Jewish democratic forces to start talking about the situation and the position against the war, and second was the massive popular meeting for the Arab community—but again, indoors, because we were not sure that if we do it outdoors that it’s not going to be dangerous for the participants. The police called the different halls, the premises we were supposed to have the meetings in, and threatened that they are not allowed to have these meetings and, if they do it, they will suffer economically. We were not able to find a place that can be rented and the police published a declaration that we are not allowed to have those meetings. So instead, we did a virtual Zoom meeting where more than 450 people, two thirds of them Israeli Jews, participated and it was a really powerful and good meeting. They stand clearly against the war.
And then we decided that there is no way not to demonstrate or to say anything about what is happening in Gaza. So we decided that only between 20 and 30—only the Arab leadership, members of the High Follow-Up Committee, including the MKs and party leaders—will have a protest. Only standing, in Nazareth, with one slogan: Stop the War. We told the police that we are going to have this protest, that it’s going to be only leadership, that it’s not going to be a massive demonstration or something like this. The next day, when Barakeh was heading to Nazareth, they arrested him.
How do you interpret these crackdowns? Is this an attempt by the Israeli government to effectively criminalize expressions of Palestinian identity and solidarity?
Not only the Palestinian identity. I think that whatever they couldn’t pass through the judicial overhaul, they are passing now under the cover of the war. When nobody is paying attention, they are eliminating the freedom of speech. They are not allowing any real opposition. Yesterday night, there were two protests in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem led by our Jewish comrades against silencing the Palestinian community. And they were cracked down brutally.
Because the Palestinians are the main power against the policy of occupation, of destruction, of war, it looks like it’s only criminalizing the Palestinians. But it is also criminalizing the anti-war voices. They are behaving in a fascist way. They are establishing a fascist regime under the pretext of the war because the war has political goals relating to conquering Gaza and annexing a large part of the West Bank. They need to prepare the legislation to protect them later on and they need to silence any opposition for that.
Is there any meaningful political opposition to the government right now?
There is political opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Yesh Atid, opposition leader Yair Lapid’s party, which is in opposition to him because he is not doing enough, in their opinion, and they want to replace him. But they are not against the war policy.
We—meaning Hadash and Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al Party—are the only ones who are voting against. There is no real opposition. All of them are supporting what the government is doing.
What does this all mean for Palestinian citizens of Israel today?
You have to understand that many of our workers and employees who are working in Jewish areas are not going to work or asking to work from their homes because they are feeling insecure. We have seen what happened to our students in Netanya, where they were in their dormitories and they were attacked. Instead of arresting those who were calling “Death for Arabs” and trying to attack these students, they evacuated the students. And they are not allowed to go back to their dormitories. People feel that they are under constant danger.
Are you concerned that the policies of this crackdown might outlast the war?
It will stay. None of [Israel’s leaders] will dare even to try to change it. The atmosphere is really bad. I don’t think that any government that will come will challenge these—at least not immediately. It’s going to take years.
How do you see this ending?
There are signs that they are starting to go for a ceasefire. I don’t think it’s going to end, really. Netanyahu understands very clearly that the day the war ends, his career is also going to end. There is a lot of criticism and the voices are more and more clear about him—that he should resign, that he should leave his position, that he is responsible for what happened. So he understands that very clearly and I’m afraid that he will look badly for a victory photo or a victory moment that can convince people to keep him.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think a message should be clear to the Biden administration that they are as much responsible for what is happening in Gaza. The massacres of people, children who are killed there—Biden is as responsible as Netanyahu for the unconditioned support and the financial and weapons that are sent to Israel.
And I’m tired. That’s it.
Write to Yasmeen Serhan at firstname.lastname@example.org.