The Independent / May 20, 2021
The message warns anyone receiving it of imminent arrest.
But the simmering tensions which has gripped the contested city reached boiling last week, amid scenes of Israeli forces repeatedly storming the mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, with stun grenades and teargas. Outside Palestinian protesters threw back rocks and bottles.
It sparked international outcry and the militant group Hamas in Gaza said it was the reason for their barrage of rockets towards Jerusalem, triggering a near war.
For Omar, it meant he went from tending to elderly worshipers to patching people up wounded by tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
And then after a particularly heavy day of violence last Sunday, when 300 Palestinians were injured alongside members of the Israeli police force, he received the message on his mobile phone.
“Hello!” it read in Arabic.
“You have been identified as someone who participated in acts of violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will charge you. Israeli intelligence.”
Omar is just one of dozens of Palestinians The Independent is told have received a similar message.
In his case, nothing has happened but others who received the exact same worded text have been arrested afterwards, according to Adalah – The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
The NGO was so concerned about the threatening nature of the messages and the violation to privacy that it sent an urgent letter last week to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Nadav Argaman, director of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, demanding a halt to the agency’s reported practice.
The Shin Bet has not outrightly denied its involvement in these messages, telling Israeli media : “We do not comment on operational activities”.
The Israeli police told The Independent they had no information about the messages.
Adalah’s Myssana Morany said they were particularly concerned as it comes amid an almost unprecedented wave of arrests in Israel, alongside a crackdown, on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Despite the fact there has been well-documented evidence of a wave of violence perpetrated by both Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens including near-lynchings, shootings, stabbings and fire bombings, as well as heavy-handed police tactics, the overwhelming majority of the arrests are of Palestinians. Videos have been shared with The Independent showed Jewish residents trying to break into a house in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, or marking doors in Lod to come back and attack later.
“In Israel the number of arrests is one we have never faced before, maybe since the Second Intifada,” Ms Morany told The Independent.
She added police data cited by Israeli media shows prosecutors have charged 116 people – all of them Arabs – in the violence, mostly for assaulting police officers.
Only two Jewish people, The Independent understands have been actually criminally charged. It was over a particular brutal near-lynching of an Arab citizen in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv which was broadcast live on-air and made headlines worldwide.
And so across Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, rights groups say Palestinians are bracing themes for a fierce crackdown, particularly after the fighting between the Israeli army and militants in Gaza eventually ends and Israel’s political leadership turns its attention inwards.
There were unconfirmed rumours Wednesday night that a ceasefire between the two sides was imminent.
“We are expecting the mass arrest campaign in Jerusalem and in the West Bank will then start,”’ said Sahar Francis of Addameer, a Palestinian NGO working on prisoners.
The Independent did not have confirmation of the exact numbers of the arrests in the West Bank, although there are reports they are in the hundreds.
Micky Rosenfeld, Israel’s police spokesman confirmed to The Independent that 1,080 people in Israel have already been arrested, many of them for assaulting police officers.
“The vast majority are Arab citizens of Israel,” alongside “only a few 100 Jewish residents,” he said, adding the police believe Arab-Israelis were overwhelmingly responsible for instigating the violence.
Rights groups refute such claims and say that in areas like Jaffa-Tel Aviv, for example, Palestinian residents have contended with mobs of angry extremist Jewish Israelis attacking homes and religious buildings.
Abed Abo Shhadeh, a member of the city council and prominent member of the Muslim community there, said that he had joined Telegram groups where extremist right-wing youth were last week organising and carrying attacks on the area. It is a phenomenon also documented by Israeli watchdogs Fake Reporter and Habloc Org.
There were instances of Arab citizens attacking homes and people: an Arab man in his twenties was arrested this week by Israeli police over his alleged involvement in firebombing an Arab home in the Jaffa neighbourhood which hospitalised a 12-year-old with severe burns.
Shhaddh claimed the police rarely protect Arab citizens, and so Palestinian citizens of Israel feel “the state is not yours, the police are not for you.”
“We are worried that once the Gaza offensive ends they are going to start the real crackdown,” he said.
“We are worried they will impose martial law.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in the occupied West Bank where there have been fierce clashes between furious protesters throwing rockets and Molotovs at security forces using stun grenades, rubber bullets and in some instances, according to witnesses, live fire.
There, against the apocalyptic fire-filled landscape around Ramallah, the West Bank’s administrative capital, a 22-year-old student told The Independent that he expected the authorities “to come after them” in reprisal for the sudden uprising by Palestinians across Israel, and the Palestinian territories.
“They thought the old would die and the young would forget but guess what? We are here,” he said.
“And so once they stop focusing on Gaza they will come for us. They want us to be frightened.”
Although a ceasefire may be imminent in Gaza, that appears likely to do little to calm tensions outside the strip.
One Jewish man was killed in Lod in Israel on Monday after Arab citizens hurled rocks at his car, as the fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas raged into its first week,
It was exactly a week after a Palestinian man was shot dead likely by Jewish extremists in the same town. On Wednesday security forces in riot gear were dispatched to Umm al-Fahm city in northern Israel after a young man who was reportedly shot in the head by police last week died from his injuries.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry says nearly 30 Palestinians have been killed in clashes since 7 May.
The most recent was teacher Tarek Snobar. His family claim he was shot in the stomach when residents of his village just outside Nablus, protested a new illegal Israeli settler outpost and the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque.
He died on Sunday, just two days after his first son was born.
But amid the protests, violence and fighting of the last few weeks – and any crackdown in the weeks ahead – something has changed said Tarek’s uncle Ahmed, speaking from his funeral. Events of the past few weeks mark the first time in a while that all Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank were united.
“We have never felt more like there was some kind of awakening,” the uncle said.
“Everyone was distracted by their own life, their problems, but Al-Aqsa mosque focused everyone.”
Bel Trew – Middle East Correspondent, in Jerusalem
With additional reporting by Samir al-Sharif
* Not his real name