Palestinian protesters run for cover from Israeli tear gas during clashes near the border between Israel and Gaza in May. (Mohammed Saber/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American freelance journalist.

The images and video of Israeli soldiers shooting live ammunition into masses of mostly unarmed Palestinians on the other side of the Gaza border fence over the past several weeks horrified observers around the world. Starting March 30, Israeli troops suppressing protests in Gaza killed 118 people and wounded more than 13,000, including 1,136 children.

The deaths and injuries, Israel Defense Forces international spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus lamented recently, have “done us a tremendous disservice, unfortunately, and it has been very difficult to tell our story.” Now Israel’s government is moving to make sure there are no more videos of mass shootings in the future — not by ordering a stop to the shootings, but by considering a law that would ban anyone from filming or photographing any military operations “with the intention of undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and Israel’s residents.” 

Even if that bill never becomes law, the fact that the Knesset is contemplating it underscores the current state of freedoms in Israel: Maintaining its decades-long occupation depends on systematic suppression of dissent on both sides of the boundary fences. Just as Israel exercises varying levels of control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it also permits varying levels of dissent and criticism depending on who you are, what you are protesting and where.

Within Israel’s 1948 borders, for the most part, when Jewish citizens protest, it’s tolerated; when Palestinian citizens protest, it’s “disturbing the peace” or worse. Days after the events in Gaza, for instance, Israeli police violently arrested 21 protesters — most of them Palestinian citizens — as they demonstrated in the northern Israeli city of Haifa against the mass shootings. Video, images and testimonies from the protest show police using barricades to herd people into one spot and then shoving them, punching them and rounding them up. Seven of those arrested had to be hospitalized after being beaten by police, reportedly most while in custody . Jafar Farah, a civil-society activist and director of an organization that promotes equal rights for Palestinians, had his knee broken by an officer at the police station. One detainee testified that an officer called him a “terrorist” and told him: “Go to Gaza. This is a Jewish state.” The arrestees, two of whom were Jewish, were all released by a judge after more than 48 hours in detention. This was effectively extrajudicial punishment for exercising their freedom to protest.

Meanwhile, several hundred Israelis, predominantly Jews, had gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a couple of days earlier, also to protest Israeli military tactics in Gaza. Not a single arrest was made, and no police brutality was reported. They even blocked roads, but police did not interfere.

There has always been police violence against Palestinian demonstrations in Israel. The most notorious came when protests nationwide in October 2000 (some of which turned into rioting) ended with an incident in which police killed 12 Palestinian citizens and one Gaza resident. An Israeli commission investigated and found there was no justification for live fire, but not a single officer was indicted. It also censured the government for systematic discrimination against Palestinian citizens. But Fady Khoury, a lawyer with the rights group Adalah who recently represented the detainees in Haifa, told me that the beatings in the station were extreme.  

While Farah was in the hospital, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List (a political alliance comprising Israel’s Arab parties and one Arab-Jewish party) was barred from visiting him. Israel Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted at the time: “Every day that Ayman Odeh and his partners are roaming free and cursing police is a failure of law enforcement. These terrorists belong in jail, not in the Knesset. It’s time they paid a price for their actions.”

Such nonchalant incitement against Palestinian members of parliament mirrors the government’s attitude toward the civil rights of Palestinian citizens. In the occupied West Bank, it is essentially illegal for Palestinians to protest. Under a military order issued shortly after Israeli forces occupied the area during the 1967 Six-Day War, any protest, march or even vigil of 10 or more Palestinians requires a military permit — which, like most other permits for Palestinians, is rarely issued. Most nonviolent resistance by Palestinians is quashed; the leaders of their movements shot at (sometimes killed), jailed and their families harassed. Jewish Israeli activists who have joined this struggle over the years have also been arrested

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli security forces typically use what they categorize as “nonlethal” weapons (primarily tear gas and rubber bullets, which, when shot at the upper body, sometimes prove lethal) to quell protests. But in Gaza, lately they have used live bullets, shot in very high numbers at men, women, children, journalists and paramedics. Israeli officials and their supporters just utter the magic word “Hamas” to justify the mass shooting of thousands of people who are attempting to call attention to the fact they live in an open-air prison. (Israel’s High Court of Justice has sided with the military, sanctioning the use of live ammunition because the IDF says it acts only in self-defense.) Hamas’s attempt to piggyback off the recent Great Return March, as its organizers — who demanded nonviolent resistance — called it, does not absolve Israel of its responsibility to treat protesters fairly. Nor does the fact that dozens out of tens of thousands of demonstrators were armed (and many of them only with wire cutters).

Israel also tries to bully foreign nationals who document and monitor its human rights record. Human Rights Watch’s director for the Palestinian territories, Omar Shakir, is fighting in court to stay in the country, in the first legal challenge to Israel’s 2017 amendment barring entry to those who call for boycotts. In recent weeks, Israel has also denied entry to four leading American civil rights activists, among them the director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a Columbia University professor. 

Whether in Gaza or Haifa, in Bethlehem or at Ben Gurion International Airport, the message Israel is sending is the same: It can do whatever it wants, and people need to shut up about it. 

So far, the tactic is mostly succeeding in undermining dissent. According to an Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index poll from April , 83 percent of Jewish Israelis found the military’s open-fire policy in Gaza “appropriate.” (Just hours after 60 Palestinians were killed on May 14, thousands of Israelis went out into the streets of Tel Aviv — but they were there to celebrate Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai, not to protest the violence.)

As a longtime activist and journalist in Israel, including for the grass-roots news and commentary site +972 Magazine, I have been arrested for documenting and trying to prevent human rights violations in the West Bank. I have reported for years on how Israel silences dissent, even among its Jewish citizens, and how it is moving to outlaw human rights organizations it deems traitors. With time, these artificial divisions between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” protest will probably collapse. The question is, what will it take for other privileged Jewish Israelis to wake up? 

In a statement responding to the incidents in Haifa, the police said that they “will continue to allow the public to exercise the right to protest and freedom of expression, but will prevent any attempt to disrupt public order and endanger public peace and security.” But who is going to stop Israel from committing its own disruptions of the public order and endangering public peace and security?

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