Israel Is Cracking Down on Internal Dissent

As its indiscriminate assault on Gaza continues, Israel is ramping up repression of its own citizens for speaking out against the brutal war. The clampdown demonstrates the fragility of a “democracy” premised on occupation and apartheid.

Soldiers of Israel Defense Forces in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 1, 2023. (Alfons Cabrera / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Since October 7, the Israeli government has accompanied its war on Gaza with an assault on its own citizens’ right to free speech and dissent, primarily targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel. Aiding the government are far-right vigilante mobs and bottom-up snitching campaigns, encouraged from above. Many who have spoken out have been arrested, protests have been broken up, university students have been expelled, a left-wing parliamentarian has been suspended, and indoor meetings of activists have been forbidden.

While US media and politicians often herald Israel as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, the ongoing clampdown illuminates the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Israeli state. It was founded upon and is maintained through the subjugation and dispossession of Palestinians — whether in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Israel itself.

Since October 7, Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has ramped up repression of Palestinian citizens within Israel’s 1948 borders, using its war on Gaza as pretext to revoke civil liberties in the interest of “security.” While this has primarily affected Palestinian Israelis, their Jewish Israeli allies are starting to feel the grip tighten as well.

Israelis Are Losing the Right to Dissent

The Israeli government is trying to silence those who have protested the massacre in Gaza or expressed sympathy for Palestinians under assault. On October 18, Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, Israel’s national police commissioner, spelled out the consequences for dissent, in rather dystopian fashion, through a video posted on the Israeli police’s TikTok account. In the video, Shabtai proclaimed in Arabic, “Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome. I will put him on the buses heading there now.”

Though there aren’t any confirmed cases of Palestinians being shipped to Gaza, the police chief’s words were no idle threat. Two weeks ago, a popular left-wing Israeli commentator, who wishes to remain anonymous, recorded and shared a video telling his followers to not post too much about the ongoing war in Gaza, warning them they might be prosecuted for opposing the government’s war policy. For the crime of posting this video, the police beat both him and his father and detained him for several days. The government also closed his bank account, claiming he is a “supporter of terrorism.”

This has been the reality for many brave Israelis these past two weeks who have been willing to speak out against the Netanyahu government and its destructive war. Among those who have been arrested is Dalal Abu Amneh, a popular Palestinian-Israeli singer, who the Israeli police threw into solitary confinement for two days for posting a picture of the Palestinian flag. Other arrests have gone unreported due to fear of future reprisals.

The internal crackdown on dissent hasn’t been limited to Palestinian Israelis. At the beginning of the war, Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish socialist member of Israel’s Knesset, was suspended for forty-five days for his public criticism of Israel’s war policy, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation, and comparing the slaughter of Gazans to the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Left-wing activists have even been arrested for putting up posters stating “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”

The handful of antiwar protests have been met with state violence. The day after the massacre at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the Herak Haifa movement, a broad social movement of Palestinians in Haifa, called a demonstration in the city. They were met by a mob of cops, who beat up and arrested the organizers before the protest began and arrested a journalist who was taking videos of the arrests.

Only one public demonstration has taken place within Israel, in the Palestinian city of Umm al-Fahm. An activist who wished to stay anonymous told us, “Unlike most demonstrations, [the protesters] moved in the small alleys and not in the main streets, to avoid clashing with the police. Just as they thought that the demonstration was finishing peacefully, they were very violently attacked by the police, and twelve people were arrested.” Two central activists remain in jail, indicted for “supporting terrorism.”

The government also shut down an Arab-Jewish antiwar conference organized by the High Follow-Up Committee (a coalition of every political party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel) by threatening the venue with permanent closure. Police also harassed the longtime anti-occupation protests led by the “Women in Black” and confiscated all their banners. This has all occurred within a context of self-censorship, where many organizations are trying to pick “nonoffensive” slogans (the Women in Black requested no references to a cease-fire); the state harasses the demonstrations regardless.

And earlier this week, the Israeli network Kan News reported that the Israeli government “will approve using live fire on protesters that are blocking intersections.” The legislation, which Israeli attorney general Gali Baharav-Miara has promised to fast-track, was actually proposed earlier this year, championed by fascist national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. As Israel’s war on Gaza intensifies and takes more innocent lives, policies like this may expand the killing to Israeli citizens.

Repression From Below, Encouraged From Above

The repression isn’t just coming from the top — the government is encouraging and empowering mass snitching campaigns and mob violence against Palestinians. Israel’s student union issued a call for students to report any “incitement to terrorism or support of terrorism” they see to an anonymous Google Form.

Throughout Israel, Jewish Israelis are taking up this call, reporting coworkers, classmates, and friends for their social media posts in support of Palestine. The examples of this “support of terrorism” included a photo of Gazan children captioned “Israel’s bank of targets” and a post reading, “Please delete me if you delight in the death of innocents.”

Alon-Lee Green, national director of the Jewish-Arab peace movement Standing Together gathered and shared anonymous testimonies of these expulsions. One Palestinian student whose friend reported their social media post wrote, “I was very hurt, and it made me afraid to speak with Jewish people anymore. This is all because I posted a picture of innocent people that were murdered and their houses destroyed. . . . I was surprised it came from friends.” Another message simply asked, “Can I publish a post on the pain of what is happening on the other side [Gaza] without them coming to take me to the station?”

Alongside police violence and snitching, fascist mobs have taken to the streets to intimidate and attack Palestinians and their allies. Two weeks ago, a lynch mob of Jewish supremacists surrounded a dorm where Palestinian students resided and attempted to break through the gates while chanting “Death to Arabs.” The students were then evacuated, a stated goal of the mob’s far-right leader.

Fascist mobs have also come after journalists like Israel Frey, who had to go into hiding after a mob came to his house threatening to lynch him and his children. And in the West Bank, armed settlers have shot at Jewish Israelis for documenting their attacks on Palestinians.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

For the past two years, Israel has been rocked by massive weekly demonstrations against its far-right government. The protesters would chant “de-mo-kra-ti-ya” — democracy in Hebrew — in protest against the government’s judicial overhaul.

But the democracy the protesters were referring to never included Palestinians, nor did their protests. Longtime anti-apartheid activist Orly Noy called the protests a demand “to turn the clock back far enough so that the apartheid regime in Israel can once again be marketed as a functioning democracy.”

At the same time, the Israeli state was increasing repression from the river to the sea. In 2021, in response to mass Palestinian protests, the Israeli police declared “Operation Law and Order,” where thousands were arrested across Israel (only 10 percent of whom were Jewish). During this time, Zionists who openly lynched a Palestinian in Lod were released by police on the grounds of “self-defense,” the state refused to investigate hundreds of cases of intimidation and assault against Palestinians, and digital surveillance increased. What an anonymous activist described to us as “fascization of the police” from above and increased settler violence from below prepared the ground for the even more intense crackdown of the past few weeks.

Now, following the October 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza, former critics of the government have entered its coalition, in a united front committed to the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinians. In a country recently rife with protest, unity has been found in total war and a crackdown on dissent.