Bayan Khateeb knows she’s a terrible cook. So when she managed to pull off a dish of cooked tomatoes and eggs, she took a photo to show friends on social media.
“Soon we shall eat the Shakshouka of victory!” crowed her caption, which included an emoji of the Palestinian flag.
Khateeb intended the Oct. 8 Instagram post as a joke, she said. But in the fraught atmosphere that has gripped Israel since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, statements that might have once sounded innocuous have taken on more sinister meaning and resulted in scores of arrests.
A classmate saw the post and thought Khateeb, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was cheering on Hamas. When the post was shared more widely, Khateeb suddenly found herself accused online of supporting terrorism. The next thing she knew, she was suspended from her studies at a prestigious university, ejected from her dorm, fired from her two jobs and interrogated in shackles by Israeli police.
“I felt like I was in a nightmare. You’re arresting me, after I was subjected to two weeks of political persecution?” she said. “How did I end up in this situation?”
She was among more than 270 Palestinian citizens who have been arrested in an Israeli crackdown on free speech and political activity since the Hamas attack, according to Adalah, an advocacy organization for Palestinians inside Israel.
Palestinian citizens have also reported intimidation, firings and expulsions from universities, as well as surveillance of their online speech by other civilians.
“People are arrested for anything expressing sympathy for the civilian victims in Gaza,” said lawyer Abeer Baker, who represents another woman who was arrested. “Everything that was not in favor of attacking Gaza as such actually puts you in danger of being arrested.”
The arrests go to the heart of the dual identity of Palestinian citizens as they struggle to navigate a Jewish-majority society. Palestinian citizens have equal rights on paper but have historically suffered from discrimination in job opportunities, housing, health care and education. The community is one of Israel’s poorest.
The arrests also raise questions about Israel’s commitment to free speech and the rights of its Palestinian minority, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s nearly 10 million people.
“We have undergone many wars. Never was such suppression ever declared before,” said Hassan Jabareen, the director general of Adalah. “People among themselves speak about living under a dictatorial regime. A Jewish, racist dictatorship.”
Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some of the Palestinian citizens arrested over the past five weeks allegedly expressed outright support for Hamas and its onslaught.
“There is nothing better than to wake up to the terror and fear of the Zionists, and missiles falling on their heads,” a preschool aide is accused of posting.
But others have been detained because authorities either misinterpreted posts or conflated support for the people of Gaza with support for terrorism, critics say. Prominent Arab leaders in Israel have been arrested for challenging a ban on anti-war protests, and two Arab lawmakers were sanctioned for remarks related to the Hamas attack.
Baker’s client, singer and neuroscientist Dalal Abu Amneh, didn’t expect to find herself behind bars when she went to Israeli police to file a complaint about threats she received in response to an online post. But like Khateeb, she found herself in shackles and in jail after posting “No victor but God” on social media, with an emoji of the Palestinian flag, on the day of the Hamas attack.
“Dalal believes in God. It means he is the only one who can bring justice, who can bring peace,” Baker said. “This sentence was interpreted wrongly as if she said Palestine will win.”
Jews aren’t immune from punishment, although it is rare. Earlier this month, a court extended the remand of a Jewish teacher who posted anti-war and anti-occupation messages on Facebook and was fired from his job, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported.
Videos posted on social media by Israeli police delivered an unmistakable message: There will be zero tolerance for any identification with the Gaza Strip and the enclave’s Hamas rulers.
“We are at war and the orders are unequivocal: There will be zero tolerance for any incident,” Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said in one video.
“Anyone who wants to be a citizen, ahlan wasahlan,” Shabtai said, using the Arabic phrase for welcome. “Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is also welcome — I’ll put them on a bus and send them there.”
Danny Danon, a lawmaker in the ruling Likud Party, said only a small number of Israel’s Arab minority have crossed the line. “But when you see those incidents of radicals trying to promote violence, I think it’s necessary to stop it at the initial stages,” he said.
Asked whether officials may have gone too far in their crackdown, he said: “I trust our legal system.”
The arrests have unfolded under the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and amid the trauma of the Hamas attack, which killed at least 1,200 people and resulted in over 240 others being taken hostage.
The violence has not spared Israel’s Palestinian citizens: At least 21 were killed in the initial attack and by rocket and mortar fire launched by Hamas and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally, said Atta Abu Mtegem, mayor of the Bedouin city of Rahat. Seven are missing, and possibly captured by Hamas, he said. Others, including soldiers, have died in the fighting.
At the same time, the images of devastation coming out of Gaza have been wrenching for a community with close ties to Palestinians there and in the West Bank. The death toll from Israel’s assault on Gaza has topped 13,000, according to health authorities there. Airstrikes have leveled wide swaths of the territory and displaced more than two thirds of its 2.3 million people.
Following the Hamas attack, some Palestinians have been afraid to go to work or mix with Jews, and lawyers and professors are afraid of running afoul of undefined new limits on speech, Jabareen said.
More than 100 Palestinian citizens have been suspended or expelled from universities and colleges over posts, according to Adalah. Arab students at one college had to be extricated from their dormitory after hundreds of Jews, some chanting “Death to Arabs,” protested outside, accusing them of disrupting a Sabbath prayer service and hurling eggs, Israeli media reported.
Many Palestinian citizens are afraid to post messages online for fear they will be detained.
“The reality is so bleak that if you call for a cease-fire, you must be a supporter of terrorism,” Hanin Majadli, a journalist and editor at Haaretz, wrote in an Oct. 29 opinion piece. “This is the way they continue to deepen the idea of ‘the enemy within us.’
More than 50 of the Palestinian citizens who have been arrested have been indicted. Indictments have also been filed against eight Jewish defendants alleging racially motivated violence, but not for online behavior or the dorm incident.
Lawmakers have also entered the fray with new legislation criminalizing the “systematic consumption of terrorist content” and allowing the government to block or shutter foreign media deemed hostile to the state.
Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, meanwhile, has instructed authorities to look into stripping a Palestinian actress of her Israeli citizenship for posting material that included laughing emojis on a photo of an elderly woman being taken into captivity by Hamas militants, with the caption, “She is going on the adventure of her life.”
For now, Khateeb is living in limbo. Her suspension from her data science and engineering program is open ended. She’s unemployed, living with her parents and waiting to see if she gets indicted.
“Besides the war that we are experiencing right now,” she said, “I am personally experiencing another war — a war between us, between the citizens of Israel.”