It has taken us a few weeks at HRDF to gather ourselves, unravel the coils of our grief, and begin to adjust to a new reality on the ground. We are not only horrified by the cold-blooded massacre of Israeli civilians carried out by Hamas on October 7, but also in deep mourning that so many members of our beloved and peace-loving human rights community were directly affected by that terrible day and by the ongoing hostage crisis in the aftermath.
At the same time, we are unimaginably pained to see that this moment of national grief has been immediately weaponized into bloodthirsty calls to “flatten Gaza,” from citizens and government ministers alike, and that the international community has given the Israeli government carte blanche to carry out a campaign of war crimes against the Gazan civilian population in turn, including the denial of water, forced starvation, and use of white phosphorous gas bombs. Our hope lies in the voices of the brave family members of victims calling for an end to violence and speaking out against the brutal war of retaliation that has already claimed thousands of Palestinian lives.
At HRDF, our convictions remain unshaken – if you condemn one war crime you condemn them all. Even during these times, when our threshold for pain seems like it can’t possibly take any more, we choose to reject blind nationalism in favor of humanity, to choose solidarity with each other above all else. We don’t stand with states or flags — we stand with human rights, and the people who defend them.
In a beautiful piece penned in the first days of this war, our Chair of the Board Sahar Vardi describes what it’s like to straddle all sides of these imaginary lines drawn in the sand:
“Dual loyalty” is seeing both this and that with tears in your eyes.
It’s that moment when you talk to a friend who doesn’t know whether their relatives are dead or kidnapped and what they should even hope for, and to see the helplessness, the fear, the deep pain. And a moment later, it’s talking to a friend from Gaza who can only say that every night is now the scariest night of his life; that he calculates his chances, and those of his daughters, of waking up alive the next morning.
… It’s feeling the urge to donate blood and organize food packages for the south, and also to be in the West Bank village of Susia when settlers shoot any shepherd who dares to leave the village.
Loyalty may not be the right word. It’s dual pain, dual heartbreak, care, love. It is to hold everyone’s humanity. And it’s hard. It’s so hard to have humanity here. It’s exhausting, and it feels like time after time the world is just asking you to let go. It’s so much easier to “choose a side” – it almost doesn’t matter which side, just choose, and stick to it, and at least reduce the amount of pain you hold.
As if that’s really an option.
As if we don’t understand that our pains are intertwined.
And this pain that some of us in our small community hold, this “dual loyalty,” may be the biggest hope for this place yet.
The Targeting of Political Leaders and Dissidents
It should come as no surprise that this war is being exploited by state authorities, the military, right-wing nationalists, and settlers to achieve their own ultimate aims. While settlers are executing strings of ethnic pogroms in the West Bank (invading Palestinian villages, uprooting Palestinian land, and shooting Palestinians at point blank range), state authorities are systematically targeting outspoken political dissidents and human rights defenders, arresting them and persecuting them in defiance of international law. As dozens of human rights organizations have reported over the past several weeks, we are not only witnessing a sharp escalation of West Bank violence and ethnic cleansing, but a total crackdown on civil society and closure of civic space across the entire country.
On Friday, October 20, Issa Amro was expelled by soldiers from his home in Tel Rumeida, Hebron-H2, after he hosted the veteran peace activist Yehuda Shaul (co-founder of Breaking the Silence) and a journalist from Channel ABC Australia in his home. The purpose of the visit had been to report on the changing on-the-ground reality in Hebron since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Soldiers in the vicinity of the home arrived soon after and ordered the two guests to depart immediately from the area, claiming it had been designated as a “closed military zone.” However, when Yehuda Shaul asked to see a hard copy of the closed military zone order, as required by law, the soldiers failed to produce one. The soldiers left only to return a few minutes later with the area lieutenant and brigadier general, bursting into the home and ordering that Amro be transferred to H1 (the area of Hebron under the Palestinian Authority), and took him there by force. (You can read Hagar Shezaf’s reporting on the incident in this Ha’aretz article.)
Amro has been a leading human rights defender in Hebron for more than a decade. He was one of the founders of the organization Youth Against Settlements, and has campaigned for years against the settler takeover and sprawling checkpoint regime in H2, which includes streets and areas deemed “sterilized” from Palestinian presence. Amro has long been a target of military harassment, and has experienced unrelenting political persecution at the hands of the occupation courts, brutal assaults at the hands of soldiers, and arbitrary abductions and detentions, the most recent of which occurred on the very first day of the war on October 7.
HRDF-funded lawyers Michael Sfard and Alon Sapir filed an emergency petition to the Israeli Supreme Court a day later, on October 21, 2023, for the court to order the army to provide a legitimate reason for the removal of Amro from his home, and to immediately rescind the order of Amro’s eviction from Tel Rumeida “until the end of the war.” They cited several grounds for petition, among which were:
Amro was evicted from his home within a matter of minutes, with no reason provided, and no due process or procedure.
The displacement of Amro from his home was carried out without pretext and violates his right to residence, freedom of movement, property, and livelihood. Expulsion of a protected population is forbidden by international law.
No signed order was presented to Amro at the time of eviction, and even if there had been a signed order presented, there would be no legal basis for it.
The decision to remove his from his home was influenced by external matters that had nothing to do with him specifically.
The Court ruled on October 23 to reject the emergency petition, on the ground that the petitioners did not allow enough time for the Civil Administration to render a response to their request for Amro to be allowed to return to his home. The Courts ruled that upon receiving a reply from the military, Amro may submit a petition again.
Screenshot of Issa Amro recording the encounter with Hebron police for his social media followers before they forcefully evicted him from his home on October 20. (Click to view post). Credit: Issa Amro.
On October 10, Rabbi Arik Ascherman was accompanying residents of the Bedouin community of Wadi A-Siq in the Jordan Valley, when he was harassed by two settlers in military uniforms, and arrested shortly thereafter by border police. He was interrogated on suspicion of aggravated assault, assault of a public servant, and obstruction of a public servant, none of which had occurred during the confrontation with the settlers or during the time of arrest from the village. Ascherman remained in detention for two days, initially refusing to sign a release agreement that would ban him from the area for 15 days, and beginning a hunger strike against the restrictive release condition that would prevent him from visiting the communities vulnerable to displacement. Ultimately, Ascherman acquiesced to release conditions. HRDF-funded lawyers Riham Nassra and Nasser Odeh provided Ascherman with legal counsel and representation throughout his detention.
Rabbi Ascherman is an instrumental human rights defender in the Jordan Valley and the northern West Bank, supporting Palestinian rural communities there for years and coordinating shifts of Israeli and international protective presence to document longstanding settler violence and military harassment. He founded the organization Torat Tzedek, and was formerly the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights. Ascherman’s arrest was a targeted attempt to prevent him from his solidarity and protective work with Palestinian rural communities in Area C of the Jordan Valley, as state forces and settler groups aim to expedite their displacement and dispossession to illegally expropriate the land for Israeli settlement. Painfully, this attempt to expedite Palestinian displacement in large part has succeeded – since the start of the war, the communities of Rashah and Wadi A-Siq, both communities to which Ascherman organized daily protective activities, are among those that have been completely displaced, joining a growing list of villages that have completely disappeared due to Israel’s policies of forcible transfer and settler land theft.
Crackdown on Civil Society inside Israel
Since the start of the war, there has been almost a complete zero-tolerance policy for any voices of dissent opposing the government and military response. This includes voices calling for a ceasefire, those calling for a hostages exchange deal, and those speaking out about the human rights catastrophe in Gaza and Israeli war crimes against Palestinian civilians.
Mass Arrests for Exercising Freedom of Speech and Expression
Rhetoric and policy shifts from above have overtly green-lit mass crackdowns on political expression. In the first week of the war, the State Attorney Amit Aisman waived a regular protection that requires police to obtain permission from the prosecutor’s office before opening freedom of speech-related investigations. Between October 7 and October 17, Israeli Police reported that they had arrested more than 170 Palestinians on the basis of “identifying with Gaza” on an online platform, according to +972 magazine. The legal advocacy organization Adalah reports that between October 7 and 23, they have monitored 89 cases of disciplinary action taken against Palestinian students in Israeli academic institutions for expressing sympathy with Palestinians in Gaza. They have received reports of more than 50 Palestinian citizens of Israel who have been fired from their employment on the basis of online expression. In the past week, these numbers have grown.
At HRDF, we have provided legal support in 5 cases of arrests relating to freedom of speech on social media. The most notable of these cases is that of Amer Al-Huzail, a Palestinian doctor of political science and former deputy mayor of the Bedouin city of Rahat, who posted on Facebook his analytical interpretation of the various possibilities that could arise from an Israeli ground invasion and re-occupation of Gaza. He was arrested on suspicion of “aiding the enemy during wartime” on October 13th and detained for six days. HRDF-funded attorney Shahde Ibn Bari provided legal counsel and representation, ultimately securing Al-Huzail’s release from detention without any restrictive conditions.
The police have also been instructed to take a zero-tolerance policy to any form of public expression of political dissent. In a meeting with several senior police chiefs on October 17, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai was filmed threatening that “if anyone wants to identify with them can get on the first bus straight to Gaza.” Indeed, demonstrations of all shades have been met with immediate police violence. An October 12 protest in West Jerusalem calling for a hostage exchange deal resulted in three arrests of HRDs by brute police force (HRDF board member Yossi Wolfson was one of the HRDs arrested). An October 19 protest in the northern city of Umm al Fahm calling for a ceasefire was met with brutal dispersion tactics by police, including rubber bullets and stun grenades, and resulted in the arrest of 12 demonstrators, including a Palestinian human rights attorney who has worked closely with HRDF. Prominent Israeli HRD Gil Hammerschlag was also among those arrested, and received legal counsel from HRDF-funded attorney Riham Nassra, who secured his release following his detention hearing. We are especially concerned about the recent news that the government will pass new measures to allow police to shoot live ammunition at any protestors inside Israel who block roads or entrances as part of their political demonstrations, authorizing lethal response to peaceful civil disobedience.
Doxing of Voices of Political Dissent
Members of the human rights community also face dangerous targeting from fellow citizens, as right-wing groups have been given free reign to track, target, harass, and assault those on the Left. Just this past Saturday, an attempted lynching occurred at Netanya College, when hundreds of Israelis tried to break into the dormitories of Palestinian students on campus, while chanting “Death to Arabs.” For years, the right-wing NGOs Ad Kan and Im Tirzu have compiled lists of those who they deem “traitors,” mostly left wing journalists, activists, and employees at human rights organizations, and these lists have only grown in the past weeks and are circulating on right-wing Telegram and Whatsapp chats. The phone numbers, ID numbers, and addresses of several members of the human rights community have been made available and “doxxed” in these digital groups, accompanied by rape and death threats by members of the group chats.
The case of journalist Israel Frey has been widely reported on after his home was targeted by right-wing thugs and members of the group La Familia, raiding and shooting at it with fire blasters, in the first week of the war. Frey and his family were forced to go into hiding because of it.
On October 24, 10 polices officers raided the home of Jerusalem resident Jack Greenfeld and arrested him for a banner that he has had displayed on his balcony for several years which reads “There is no holiness in an occupied city,” the slogan of the peaceful protest movement against the settler takeover of East Jerusalem. The arrest occurred after a throng of right-wing men attacked his home and attempted to break in to remove the sign. Greenfeld, who was interrogated by police on suspicion of “behavior with potential to endanger public peace” for having an anti-occupation banner on his balcony, was provided consultation by HRDF-funded lawyer Nasser Odeh, and released on the condition that he comply with any further investigative proceedings.
HRDF has also provided legal support to two HRDs who have needed to take out civil protection orders due to violent death threats they have received because of their anti-war activism. According to the Palestinian digital monitoring organization 7amleh, there have been more than 500,000 instances of violent anti-Arab hate speech on Hebrew-language social media since the start of the war.
Image of the balcony of Jack Greenfeld, who was arrested by ten armed policeman from his Jerusalem apartment after a right-wing gang attempted to break into his home, for displaying an anti-occupation banner on his balcony that reads “there is no holiness in an occupied city.” Image courtesy of Shaul Greenfeld twitter.
Ethnic Cleansing and Lethal Settler Violence Reaches Unprecedented Heights in West Bank
In addition to the massive crackdowns on voices of political dissent and Palestinian citizens of Israel inside sovereign Israel, settler violence and state-backed ethnic cleansing in the West Bank has reached terrifying new heights since the start of the war.
B’tselem has documented at least eleven rural Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley and South Hebron Hills that have been completely displaced and expropriated by settlers because they could no longer withstand settler and military violence. For a full list of communities that have been fully or partially displaced, see B’tselem’s real-time updated report on forcible transfer occuring now.
- Hagar Shezaf also reports on severe abuse perpetrated by hilltop youth and settlers against residents in the village of Wadi A-siq last week, during which time five Israeli HRDs were also cuffed, illegal detained, and had their property stolen from them. You can read the firsthand experience of Mohammad Matar, one of the Palestinian victims of the settler abuse in Wadi A-Sik, in Jewish Currents here.
- Yesh Din has recorded 93 incidents of Palestinian murders in the West Bank between October 7 and October 23 by Israeli security forces and settlers (the actual number is higher than this, as these are only of the cases documented by the organization). To view a full itemized description of these events, view their report here. Since October 23, the number of Palestinian deaths in the West Bank has grown, with some numbers exceeding 115, including the murder of a Palestinian farmer outside of Nablus by a settler this past weekend while harvesting olives.
Settlers continue to invade the village of A-Tuwani in Masafer Yatta, specifically targeting the home of the Huraini family, a prominent human rights defender family that leads the movement against land expropriation and settler expansion in Masafer Yatta.
- On October 12, settlers dressed in army uniforms invaded the village and began to shoot in the direction of residents. Prominent HRD Hafez Huraini sustained several blows to his arm by settlers, and though injured could not access an ambulance due to threats that if he left his home the army would arrest him.
- On October 13, settlers invaded Tuwani, and shot Zacharia Al-Adra at point blank range inside the village unprovoked. Zacharia Al-Adra is the cousin of +972 journalist Basel Al Adra. (View footage of the incident from B’tselem here.)
- On October 25, settlers invaded the private land of the Huraini family in order to uproot the garden and expropriate the private land. Tal Sagi, a prominent human rights defender of Breaking the Silence, was present to document the violations in the field, and reports that settlers began to shoot at her while she was documenting their actions on the Huraini land. You can read her recounting of the incident here.
- On the evening of Saturday, October 28, settlers invaded the village of Susiya in Masafer Yatta and threatened all Palestinian residents that if they do not leave of their own accord within 24-hours they will return to murder every village resident. You can sign this Zazim petition calling on the Israeli government to prevent a settler pogrom in the village.
The events and developments recounted above should terrify any person committed to defending human rights and open civil society in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. We urge you to continue pressuring your governments to call for a ceasefire and to hold the Israeli government accountable to international human rights law. A totalitarian crackdown on freedom of expression and policing of freedom of speech are happening at unprecedented rates. Ethnic cleansing by settler and military forces is occurring at an irreversible pace.
All of this is being justified under the auspices of “emergency measures” due to the war, which is providing cover for the fascist right in government to implement and realize the very aims that Israelis have spent the past year protesting against en masse in cities across the country.
There is no military solution to this conflict – only a political solution, which will require real and courageous political imagination. Time is running out.
We welcome your interest and support. For questions or matters relating to HRDF’s work, please contact us at: [email protected]