Whether in Gaza or Haifa, in Bethlehem or at Ben Gurion International Airport, the message Israel is sending is the same: It can do whatever it wants, and people need to shut up about it.
As a longtime activist and journalist in Israel, including for the grass-roots news and commentary site +972 Magazine, I have been arrested for documenting and trying to prevent human rights violations in the West Bank. I have reported for years on how Israel silences dissent, even among its Jewish citizens, and how it is moving to outlaw human rights organizations it deems traitors.
The images and video of Israeli soldiers shooting live ammunition into masses of mostly unarmed Palestinians on the other side of the Gaza border fence over the past several weeks horrified observers around the world. Starting March 30, Israeli troops suppressing protests in Gaza killed 118 people and wounded more than 13,000, including 1,136 children.
The deaths and injuries, Israel Defense Forces international spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus lamented recently, have “done us a tremendous disservice, unfortunately, and it has been very difficult to tell our story.” Now Israel’s government is moving to make sure there are no more videos of mass shootings in the future — not by ordering a stop to the shootings, but by considering a law that would ban anyone from filming or photographing any military operations “with the intention of undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and Israel’s residents.”
Even if that bill never becomes law, the fact that the Knesset is contemplating it underscores the current state of freedoms in Israel: Maintaining its decades-long occupation depends on systematic suppression of dissent on both sides of the boundary fences. Just as Israel exercises varying levels of control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it also permits varying levels of dissent and criticism depending on who you are, what you are protesting and where.
Within Israel’s 1948 borders, for the most part, when Jewish citizens protest, it’s tolerated; when Palestinian citizens protest, it’s “disturbing the peace” or worse. Days after the events in Gaza, for instance, Israeli police violently arrested 21 protesters — most of them Palestinian citizens — as they demonstrated in the northern Israeli city of Haifa against the mass shootings. Video, images and testimonies from the protest show police using barricades to herd people into one spot and then shoving them, punching them and rounding them up. Seven of those arrested had to be hospitalized after being beaten by police, reportedly most while in custody . Jafar Farah, a prominent civil-society activist and director of an organization that promotes equal rights for Palestinian citizens, had his knee broken by an officer at the police station. One detainee testified that an officer called him a “terrorist” and told him: “Go to Gaza. This is a Jewish state.” The arrestees, two of whom were Jewish, were all released by a district judge after spending more than 48 hours in detention. This was effectively extrajudicial punishment for exercising their freedom to protest.