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Palestinians in Israel cite threats, firings and discrimination after Oct. 7

Members of the group, Standing Together, paint signs to hang over bridges. The group's members are Jewish and Palestinian Israelis and the signs are in Hebrew and Arabic, and say: "Good neighbors even in hard times; Arabs and Jews together even in hard times."
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
Members of the group, Standing Together, paint signs to hang over bridges. The group's members are Jewish and Palestinian Israelis and the signs are in Hebrew and Arabic, and say: "Good neighbors even in hard times; Arabs and Jews together even in hard times."

TEL AVIV, Israel — Two years ago, Samah Abou Shhadeh graduated from college and landed a coveted job as an economist at an Israeli financial services company in a skyscraper in downtown Tel Aviv.

Abou Shhadeh's hiring broke barriers.

"I was the first Arab to come to this company, with all Jewish colleagues. I felt like I had to work extra hard," she tells NPR.

She commuted daily from her home in Jaffa, an ancient Arab quarter of what is now Tel Aviv, where her family has lived for centuries. At work, she kept her head down, and avoided talk about politics. Instead, she'd regale her colleagues with talk about her upcoming wedding.

"All of them were my friends, before the war," she says.

But everything changed on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked multiple locations in Israel, killing around 1,200 people and kidnapping about 240, according to the Israeli government. Israel has responded with fierce bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 12,000, Palestinian health officials say.

Colleagues began sharing grief and rage on social media, Abou Shhadeh recalls. But when she did the same, there were big consequences.

On Oct. 9, she shared a clip on Instagram from a 2022 Israeli documentary called Tantura. It's about a massacre in one Palestinian village during the 1948 war over Israel's founding. She posted the footage, without any commentary of her own. This was on her personal account.

Her manager phoned her the next day. Colleagues were offended. He asked her to remove the clip. Abou Shhadeh refused — and a letter from human resources followed.

She was fired.

War has unleashed a wave of mistreatment

At least 20% of Israelis identify as Arab or Palestinian, like Abou Shhadeh. Most of them are descendants of the people who weren't killed, expelled or compelled to flee when Israel was created.

Many say they've long felt like second-class citizens. But human rights advocates say this Gaza war has unleashed a wave of mistreatment, abuse and further discrimination.

This month, three Palestinian doctors in Israel penned an open letter decrying "racism, militarism and hypocrisy" in the Israeli medical system, where they say their Jewish colleagues have been "cheering for the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians."

Abou Shhadeh is mulling a labor discrimination lawsuit, but she's scared. She asked NPR not to name or contact her company. She's worried it could hurt her prospects of finding a new job.

In the HR letter outlining her dismissal, which Abou Shhahdeh showed to NPR, the company says it supports freedom of expression, but that during wartime, more sensitivity is expected from employees. Abou Shhadeh crossed a line, it reads.

"This is all absurd. We are not talking about feelings that are hurt," says Sawsan Zaher, a human rights lawyer based in Haifa, Israel. "We are talking about a massive wave of political persecution against Arab citizens inside of Israel."

One lawyer reports huge uptick in discrimination complaints

Zaher, who does not know or represent Abou Shhadeh, says she's getting 20 times more queries from Arabs reporting labor abuse inside Israel compared to before the war.

"Every phone call is people who are being fired from their jobs or suspended from colleges and universities," she said. "But they're also being arrested, and indictments are being submitted."

Some Israeli media have carried stories about this. But data are difficult to compile. Many victims say they're scared to speak up.

One of those arrested and released this month was Haneen Zoabi, a former member of Israel's parliament. She's part of Balad, an Arab political party that advocates for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

On Nov. 9, Zoabi and five colleagues gathered in a public square in her hometown of Nazareth, in northern Israel, for what they had planned as a peaceful protest, she recalled in an interview with NPR at her home. They'd applied for a permit to protest, but police turned it down. They gathered anyway, with banners that read, "Stop Genocide" and "Stop the war in Gaza."

But before they could even unfurl their banners, police came and arrested Zoabi and her colleagues.

"We didn't have the time to hold the banners! We were on our way. We were six people, and the police didn't allow us — without banners, without anything — even to stand — to stand in the middle of Nazareth," she said.

Zoabi was arrested for alleged "incitement" and for attempting to protest without a permit, a Nazareth police spokesperson confirmed to NPR. As of early November, Israeli police had issued dozens of indictments for incitement to violence and terror, and had opened dozens of other such cases, since the beginning of the war, according to The Times of Israel. Police haven't made more up-to-date data public.

New law and new attitudes bring chilling effect

Haneen Zoabi outside her home.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
Haneen Zoabi outside her home.

Authorities haven't broken down those arrests by ethnicity, but Palestinian citizens of Israel say they've been disproportionately targeted.

Palestinians also have been arrested under an amendment added earlier this month to Israel's counterterrorism law, making "consumption of terrorist materials" — reading pro-Hamas content online, for example — a new criminal offense. The law has been criticized by rights groups groups including Article 19 and Adalah as being ambiguous and far-reaching.

Adalah has called the new amendment "one of the most intrusive and draconian legislative measures ever passed by the Israeli Knesset.

"It makes thoughts subject to criminal punishment ... and criminalizes even passive social media use," the group says.

Zoabi is a prominent Israeli dissident who's been detained for protesting before. But she says this time was different. She says Israeli police officers sang Jewish victory songs and waved an Israeli flag while booking her.

"They were dancing," she says.

A police spokesperson told NPR he did not know anything about that behavior.

Arrests like Zoabi's aim to further frighten and intimidate the Palestinian community, she says. Many are appalled by their government's bombardment of Gaza, but are scared to speak up, she says.

"If you don't open your mouth, they will start to say, 'Your silence is suspicious!' Zoabi says. "It is not enough if you shut your mouth. You should express that you agree with them, that you identify with them."

Activists call for Israeli-Palestinian partnerships

Mahasan Abed Alhady hugs Sokina Taoon, an Arab community organizer. The two gathered at the Standing Together banner painting earlier this month.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
Mahasan Abed Alhady hugs Sokina Taoon, an Arab community organizer. The two gathered at the Standing Together banner painting earlier this month.

Even those determined not to stay silent have to tread carefully.

In a barn off a rural road in northern Israel, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel gathered together one recent evening to paint peace banners. The idea is to hang them from highway overpasses together.

The painters are members of grassroots group called Standing Together, which says it aims to bring Jewish and Palestinian citizens together "in pursuit of peace, equality, and social and climate justice."

At the gathering NPR attended, participants decried what they called increasing censorship of Palestinians in Israel, and of those who support them.

"There's a lot of discrimination. People are starting to tell on other people if they're criticizing the war or if they're even sympathizing with the pain of the Palestinians in Gaza," says Orly Mor, a Jewish dual American-Israeli citizen and member of the group.

On the banners, Mor and her friends were painting slogans — in Arabic and Hebrew — calling for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis to join hands and support each other in this war.

For Abou Shhadeh, the economist in Tel Aviv, a simple social media post cost her a job.

She worries that taking legal action against her former employer might hurt her prospects for a new job — which she desperately needs. She and her fiancée have a mortgage to pay. They were supposed to get married this month, but the wedding is delayed because of the war.

Before Oct. 7, Abou Shhadeh marveled at how she could live in Tel Aviv's old Arab quarter Jaffa and commute across town to the city's mostly Jewish financial district. She was part of both of those worlds, and she was proud, she recalls.

"Now, this war has made me feel like I never belonged there," she says, gesturing across to the Tel Aviv skyline.

Local freelance producer Abed Abou Shhadeh contributed to this report. He and Samah Abou Shhadeh are members of the same extended family.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.