Last month, Israel’s top law enforcement authority told Palestinian citizens that a call for their beheading was not “necessarily” violent–and ruled out any reprimand of Avigdor Lieberman for the comment. The Attorney General’s office announced it would not be opening an inquiry into Lieberman’s statement that some Palestinian citizens should have their heads cut off.
At a March 8 election rally, the former Foreign Minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party said that for “those who are against us, there is no other option before us – we must raise the axe and cut off their heads; otherwise we will not survive here.”
In response, Adalah’s Nadeem Shehadeh called for the Attorney General to open up a criminal investigation to determine whether Lieberman had violated Israel’s law against incitement to violence. The Attorney General office’s responded curiously. In a letter to Shehadeh (PDF), the office said that “Lieberman sought to send a message that it is imperative that the authorities struggle – not a private individual – and not in a violent manner necessarily – against anyone who is disloyal to the state.”
Scholars around the world have long debated the lines between free speech and incitement to violence. It’s worth asking whether Israel’s incitement to violence law, which prohibits speech that encourages violence or terrorism, impedes freedom of expression. But for Palestinian citizens, questions of free speech are less important than what the reaction to Lieberman’s comments highlights. Like virtually all aspects of life in Israel, how the incitement law is applied depends on ethnicity. Palestinian citizens are routinely investigated and arrested for incitement to violence for comments that don’t come close to the edge of violent speech.
“There is a double standard here between citizens of Israel–you have the Arab citizens and Jewish citizens. You can see the difference,” Shehadeh, an attorney at Palestinian civil rights group Adalah, told me last week in Haifa.
Shehadeh recalled how Palestinian Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi was the target of a criminal inquiry by the Israeli police earlier this year. Zoabi’s offense was to insult Palestinian police officers. She reportedly said the officers were “collaborators with the oppressors of their own people” and that they should be used to “wipe the floor.” Perhaps both Zoabi and Lieberman were using metaphors. The Attorney General’s reaction to both comments, though, is a window into the unequal application of Israel’s incitement law.
“That is a lot less inciting than what Lieberman said,” Shehadeh said of Zoabi’s comments, “but in the case of Lieberman, it’s the opposite result.” No decision has been issued on the case, though in February, YNet reported the Israeli Supreme Court was in talks with Zoabi’s lawyer to settle the case. Shehadeh noted that while the Attorney General noted Lieberman was immune from prosecution since he is a Knesset member, the office said no such thing in the case of Zoabi.
“Double standard” on freedom of expression
The arrest of Razi Nabulsi is an even clearer case of what Shehadeh called a “double standard” on freedom of expression and the law on incitement. On the morning of October 9, 2013, Nabulsi, a Palestinian activist, writer and journalist, woke up to Israeli police officers standing in his room who entered his house. They asked him whether he would go with them willingly, and he agreed, not wanting to be manhandled. The police took his laptop, his phone, and books by writers like Naji al-Ali and Ghassan Kanafani. He was being investigated because of Facebook posts that the police claimed were “incitement.”
Nabulsi was hauled into custody and spent the next eleven days in prison and an additional six days on house arrest, where he was not allowed to use any technological connection. Both the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, and the police questioned him. Israeli courts repeatedly extended his detention while he was in jail. The police gave the court a secret list of evidence against him–even though that evidence was publicly available Facebook posts.
In an interview, Nabulsi said the police told him he was “inciting” people to go to the streets to protest against Israeli policies on Palestinian prisoners and on Bedouin rights, and that he was a threat to Israeli security. It later emerged that the police had been tracking his posts on Facebook and Twitter, and they interrogated Nabulsi about his Facebook posts. They were particularly interested in a Facebook post in which he wrote that “one day the nightmare will be over”–a quote from a song by the Lebanese-Palestinian artist Julia Boutros.
“They arrested me for my political activism. They were searching for something to arrest me. And they found the Facebook. He didn’t have anything else,” Nabulsi, who is all smiles when talking about his ordeal, told me.
It’s true that members of the right-wing group Lehava were arrested for incitement last year after calling for “death to Arabs” at a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a Palestinian. But there is no comparison between Nabulsi–or that of the Palestinian arrested for a Facebook post calling the Jerusalem mayor the “mayor of the occupation”–and the likes of Lehava. And yet, they have both been investigated for the same crime.