Palestinian artists stifled as Israel ‘weaponizes fear and fame’

Death threats, arrests, and self-censorship are creating a repressive environment for Palestinian cultural figures and institutions in Israel.

Empty seats in Haifa's Sard Theater. (Courtesy)
Empty seats in Haifa's Sard Theater. (Courtesy)

The persecution commenced almost immediately. Within days of the Hamas-led October 7 attack and the onset of Israel’s Gaza assault, the renowned singer Dalal Abu Amneh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was arrested for a post on social media. 

“There is no victor but God,” she wrote, after her social media team in Cairo asked her to try to find the words to convey what she was feeling. The intended sentiment was that no good would come from violence by Hamas or by the inevitably brutal Israeli retaliation. Without explicitly notifying her, the social media team added a Palestinian flag to the message, as they usually do for all her posts. But as this one spread in the supercharged post-October 7 social media landscape, threats and harassment against Abu Amneh quickly mounted. 

The folk singer, who is also a neuroscientist, approached the police in the hope that they would put a stop to the threats. But at the police station, she learned that she was under investigation for the post. She was arrested on the spot and held in a cell for three days with her hands and legs cuffed, before being released.

For over two months after her arrest, protesters gathered daily outside Abu Amneh’s home in the predominantly Jewish northern city of Afula — often led by the mayor, Avi Elkabetz — demanding she and her family be expelled from the country. “Since the beginning of this case, there have been 85 demonstrations in front of my house,” she told +972. “They are trying to intimidate us — my children, my husband, and myself. We are living through a very difficult period. My husband was also persecuted at his workplace, and some extremists even tried to send people to buy our house in Afula. Through persecuting me, they aim to intimidate all Palestinians.”

Dalal Abu Amneh. (Courtesy)
Dalal Abu Amneh. (Courtesy)

On Feb. 12, the state closed the case against Abu Amneh. “The persecution against me and my arrest were arbitrary, as a few of the judges even acknowledged,” she explained. “In the end, the file was closed because not only was there no evidence; there was not even an accusation.”

“The police’s treatment of Dalal Abu Amneh echoes their behavior toward anyone who posted in support of Gaza when the war began,” Abeer Baker, Abu Amneh’s lawyer, told +972. “Like dozens of others, Dalal faced incitement on social media, followed by complaints against her from right-wing groups dedicated to reporting on Palestinians.” But given her public profile, Dalal was a more potent target. 

“Dalal’s fame and influence provided a convenient tool for intimidation,” Baker continued. “By arresting an icon with a wide following, authorities send a chilling message that no one is safe. The targeting of Abu Amneh demonstrates how authorities weaponize fear and fame to silence Palestinian voices.”

Indeed, although fighting in the current war is concentrated in Gaza, it has sparked a crisis for Palestinian citizens of Israel — and artists in particular have been caught in the crosshairs. Their freedom of expression stifled, Palestinian artists have faced attacks by the state and its Jewish-Israeli citizens in the form of incitement, discrimination, legal prosecutions, and physical threats. Often, this has come as a result of the mere expression of solidarity with the people of Gaza or of peacefully opposing Israel’s brutal onslaught. 

“An artist’s strength lies in creative protest through their work,” Baker added. “But the climate of fear causes severe self-censorship, leading many artists to lose the ability to channel their helplessness into creativity, as is often their instinct. By stifling artists, this panic undermines their essential role in channeling action, solidarity, and dissent.”

Police officers walk out of Al-Midan Theater in Haifa after Israeli Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen ordered the cancellation of a memorial event for Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader George Habash, February 1, 2009. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Police officers walk out of Al-Midan Theater in Haifa after Israeli Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen ordered the cancellation of a memorial event for Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader George Habash, February 1, 2009. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

A legacy of repression

Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian culture and art long predate the current war. They were prevalent at the state’s founding and have ebbed and flowed ever since. But the crackdown since October 7 is so severe that numerous critics say its closest analogue is the era of Israel’s military rule over Palestinian citizens, which lasted from 1948 until 1966.

“Fear is not an instantaneous phenomenon; it is something deeply ingrained, inherited from generation to generation,” Abeer Bishtawi, an independent journalist and theater creator, told +972. “A prevalent sentiment among people is captured in the phrase, ‘How are we living under military rule?’ This feeling stems from a perceived lack of clear laws and boundaries, where the distinction between permissible and forbidden actions has become blurred, fostering a pervasive sense of insecurity that permeates all aspects of life.”

In recent years, the crackdown has severely impacted theaters and artists who have asserted their Palestinian identity. In 2015, for example, the prominent Arabic-language theater in Haifa, Al-Midan, had its funding frozen by Israel’s Culture Ministry. The controversy revolved around the theater’s production of “A Parallel Time,” which focuses on the story of the Palestinian prisoner Walid Daqqa, who recently passed away while serving a life sentence for his involvement in killing an Israeli soldier in the 1980s. 

After temporary closure and public uproar, Al-Midan’s funding was partially restored in 2016, though at a lower level, and the theater reopened with the hope that political pressure would not stop it from giving voice to Palestinian culture and identity. But ongoing financial and political pressure caused it to permanently close just two years later. 

Similar pressures have impacted the film industry. In 2014, Palestinian filmmaker Suha Arraf faced severe criticism when she registered her film, “Villa Touma,” as “Palestinian” at the Venice Film Festival. The film had received most of its funding from Israeli bodies, including the Israel Film Fund, the Economy Ministry’s Small Business Administration, and the National Lottery; it also received some German investment. Arraf was eventually forced to return the funding she received from Israeli state-affiliated bodies.

A still from “Villa Touma,” a film by Suha Arraf. (Courtesy)
A still from “Villa Touma,” a film by Suha Arraf. (Courtesy)

In an article at the time, Arraf argued: “Films belong to those who create them. They never belong to the foundations that helped fund them, and they certainly never belong to countries. I define my film as a Palestinian film because I am first of all a Palestinian, and its story is told from my point of view, which is a Palestinian point of view.”

In 2021, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a ban on screening the documentary “Jenin, Jenin,” which explores the Israeli army’s 2002 raid on the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city and the war crimes it committed against Palestinian civilians — allegations denied by Israel. The film’s director, Mohammed Bakri, was ordered to pay damages for the film for allegedly distorting the truth. The film was banned soon after its release in 2002, before the Supreme Court overturned the decision. In 2021, the ban was reinstated following a soldier’s lawsuit claiming defamation by fabricated claims. 

Arraf told +972 she believes that if the controversy over her film occurred today, rather than a decade ago, she would likely face imprisonment by Israeli authorities instead of simply being forced to return the film’s funding. “This is a dark period,” she said. “Palestinians are suffering from intimidation. It terrorizes free thought and expression. The situation will likely worsen.” 

‘The goal is to crack down on celebrities to send a message’

Mouna Hawa, a Palestinian actress, faced backlash a few weeks after October 7 after expressing concern on her private Instagram account about the situation in Gaza, saying that children in Gaza may soon die from thirst. After she posted, her friend and colleague responded privately and attacked her for supposedly supporting Hamas, telling her “Let them free the hostages first.”

In this private correspondence, Hawa suggested media coverage of the October 7 attack contained misinformation, such as the unfounded claim that 40 Israeli babies were beheaded by Hamas militants. She indicated that the attack could have been a response to the oppression, occupation, and imprisonment of Palestinians. Her friend told Hawa to “go to Gaza,” after which Hawa blocked her on Instagram.

Mouna Hawa. (Courtesy)
Mouna Hawa. (Courtesy)

Despite Hawa clarifying in a public statement that she opposes harming innocent people on any side, her colleague continued publicly attacking her in the press by taking her statement out of context. Her colleague shopped the conversation transcript to various outlets before it was eventually published by the right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom. Other colleagues also attacked Hawa, and the production company behind her latest TV series — along with the Israeli Public Broadcasting Service (Kan 11) where it was broadcast — said they would not work with Hawa again.

Things quickly spiraled out of control. Her phone number was leaked online, and she received threatening phone calls for over a week. Her social media pages were flooded with graphic threats of violence: rape and death threats against her and her family. “I was terrified to even leave my house,” she said. 

Hawa was not surprised to receive such treatment. “What happened to me is an example of something bigger and deeper,” she said. “Just one post was enough for my colleagues to judge me. In times of conflict, latent racist ideas against Palestinians resurface prominently. We’ve long faced marginalization, with stereotypes depicting Arab artists as terrorists or as somehow backward — which are amplified by shows like ‘Fauda.’

“Budgets for Arab art remain minimal, if not slashed entirely, though some independent Palestinian projects pursue foreign funding to allow more freedom of expression — yet even this limited platform for our voices risks further compromise,” she continued. But Hawa is not dispirited: “Every challenge will force us to discover a new path.”

In a disturbing parallel to Hawa’s experience, Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi also faced severe backlash and legal consequences for comments made on social media. Abd Elhadi was arrested on Oct. 12 and charged with incitement to terrorism after sharing two Instagram posts that Israeli police say expressed support for Hamas’ October 7 attacks. 

Maisa Abd Elhadi. (Mehran Falsafi/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)
Maisa Abd Elhadi. (Mehran Falsafi/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

In one post, the actress shared a photo of Palestinian militants breaking through the fence surrounding Gaza, which she captioned “Let’s go Berlin-style,” referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In another, she posted a photo of the kidnapping of an 85-year-old Israeli woman, with the caption “This lady is on the adventure of her life.”

After her arrest, Israeli police photographed Abd Elhadi handcuffed under an Israeli flag, an act criticized by many as deliberately humiliating. Most distressingly, Israel’s Interior Minister Moshe Arbel has reportedly initiated proceedings to revoke Abd Elhadi’s Israeli citizenship, directing the Population and Immigration Authority to review the case.

Abd Elhadi’s lawyer, Muhammad Dahleh, told +972: “It’s clear there is persecution against Abd Elhadi. Even some judges acknowledged her posts may not actually be illegal, even if [they are] disturbing or tactless. Abd Elhadi is far removed from the ideas the police claim she expressed.” 

Dahleh emphasized that Abd Elhadi’s fame makes her a prime and powerful target: “It’s clear the goal is to crack down on celebrities in order to send a message, since it resonates widely. These kinds of actions against celebrities lead to suppression and discourage any form of protest. It results in a chilling effect: the discouragement of free expression due to intimidation, censorship, or punishment by authorities.”

A precarious environment

The political climate of legal and social persecution has heavily impacted Palestinian cultural production amid the Gaza war. Self-censorship permeates the performance arts community, with many preferring to remain silent instead of distorting their work to conform to others’ standards. 

Mahmoud Abo Arisheh, the manager of the Saraya Theater in Jaffa, told +972 that the theater shelved its regular performance schedule for several months after the war began. Instead, it held unpublicized activities, fearing that any public promotion could spur an outcry among the public or politicians. 

A stand-up performance at Jaffa's Saraya Theater, January 17, 2024. (Courtesy)
A stand-up performance at Jaffa’s Saraya Theater, January 17, 2024. (Courtesy)

“Most theatrical productions that had started before the war halted entirely,” he explained. “The closure of Al-Midan Theater in 2021, for instance, made [us] cautious about staging plays that could prompt backlash.” 

Saraya reopened publicly in late December 2023, producing Arabic-language plays accessible to the general public but intended primarily for the local community in Jaffa. The theater’s productions address current political issues and the chilling climate affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel, and have included a protest performance by the rapper Tamer Nafar and several stand-up shows by Nidal Badarneh

Reflecting on what its own role can be amid the current crisis, the theater decided to run workshops using Forum Theatre — an interactive form of theater where the audience takes on roles of oppressed characters to publicly explore alternatives and stimulate social activism. Audiences have packed recent shows, apparently eager to unite and collectively express their grief, anger, and solidarity. 

“Theaters dedicated to Palestinian and Arabic art and culture operate in a precarious environment,” Ayman Nahas, director of the Sard Theater in Haifa, told +972. “Any attempt to close or censor them could deal a major blow to the fragile field.” 

These cultural institutions preserve and showcase Palestinian identity, narratives and the Arabic language, but they depend on public funding and support, as well as a favorable political climate. The theaters cannot easily withstand major disruptions such as closure or financial distress. 

Attendees participate in a discussion during the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival at El-Hakawati Palestinian National Theater, Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem. (Samir Shareef)
Attendees participate in a discussion during the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival at El-Hakawati Palestinian National Theater, Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem. (Samir Shareef)

“Any disaster like sudden budget cuts, lawsuits, restrictions or shutdowns could irreparably damage these important but vulnerable artistic spaces,” Nahas continued. “Once lost, these cultural platforms and the stories they tell may be impossible to rebuild. Sard will face great challenges after the war, just as it did before  — not only political challenges but also economic ones. 

“Unfortunately, there will be political self-censorship at times, because we decided to stay, face the challenges, build a theater, and create theater for the public,” Nahas added. “Art is part of the people’s process — it must return and it must find a way to return.”

Rebuilding what has been destroyed

Amid all of these challenges, several important questions arise: What lies ahead for Palestinian art? How will it evolve in the coming years? And what role will artists play?

Arraf, the director of “Villa Touma,” described the last few years as being marked by a “cultural transfer”: many Palestinian artists have left the country in order to be able to produce and create more freely. Those who remain are in a collective state of grief, rendering artistic production difficult.

Samer Asakli, a Palestinian artist and member of the band Darbet Shams, relocated to Berlin a few weeks after October 7. In an interview with +972, he explained: “Before the war I was already feeling trapped. Economically, it’s complicated for Palestinian artists in Israel — even if you get state funding, you have to follow restrictive rules limiting freedom of expression. And our natural cultural connections to the Arab world are heavily restricted by living there as Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Samer Asakli performs as part of the band Darbet Shams. (Courtesy)
Samer Asakli performs as part of the band Darbet Shams. (Courtesy)

Asakli said that he had already been in “survival mode” for the past four years. When the war started, the possibility of arrest for holding and expressing his opinions — and the lack of artistic freedom — led him to conclude that he had to leave.

“I felt frustrated seeing what was happening in Gaza, and also afraid to freely express my views and feelings because of the risk of persecution or jail — look what happened to Dalal Abu Amneh,” he said. “I received anonymous threats on my social media. In Berlin, I can at least connect with the Arab cultural sphere, and the city embraces you artistically — which is impossible where I was before.”

Ali Mawasi, a poet and the editor-in-chief of Fusha Cultural Magazine, told +972 that the targeting of artists and intellectuals at home and abroad has created a climate where artists and cultural institutions are on high alert. With no existing safeguards, any civilian can now take the law into their own hands, raising the reach and intensity of the crackdown on Palestinian cultural freedom. The sight of university students carrying weapons on campus, for example, instills fear and has a chilling effect, discouraging free expression and activism among the student body.

“In this environment of silencing, repression, and intimidation, any ordinary work of art becomes an act of protest,” Mawasi said. “Society must first recover from the shock and the helplessness. Then it can address the impact of the policies of silencing and establish measures to recover its culture.” The ongoing onslaught against Palestinian art and culture — not to mention the violence in Gaza — have thus far precluded this rehabilitative process from beginning.

Yet, according to Mawasi, the role of artists in this healing process is indispensable. “Artists and intellectuals must play an active role, promoting collective healing through organization and encouragement. [We must] strengthen the immunity of artists and intellectuals by creating projects, inclusive frameworks, and paths for them to produce, innovate, and break the barrier of fear.” 

Abu Amneh, for her part, is continuing to use her art as a means of resistance. “Recent events have unequivocally demonstrated the ongoing persecution faced by Palestinians in Israel,” she said. “There’s an attempt to disfigure the Palestinian collective consciousness. But we, the artists, are part of building and strengthening it. 

“The Palestinians in Israel have played a pioneering role in shaping this consciousness, utilizing art as a means to express our culture and affirm our identity,” she added. “Through art and music, I have tried to rebuild what has been destroyed by the occupation.”