She immediately checked in on Jewish friends in southern Israel, she said. At the request of her social media team in Cairo, she looked for words to convey what she was feeling — that nothing good would come from the Hamas attacks or the war in Gaza sure to follow.
“The only victor is God” seemed safe, she said. It reflected her beliefs as a pacifist and an adherent of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. Her team posted it in Arabic: “La gha-leb il-la lah.” Without telling her, she said, they also added a Palestinian flag to the message, as they usually did to posts about her music.
When she viewed the post the next day and saw the flag, her heart sank. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she wrote in an immediate text to the team that she later showed to police. “This makes the sentence seem biased.”
The death threats started soon after — on social media and in menacing phone calls and, finally, in furious protests on her doorstep. Fellow Israeli citizens threatened to rape her, to burn her house down and kill her two children, to get her husband fired from his job as deputy director of the local hospital. When the couple went to a police station to ask for protection, it was Abu Amneh who was cuffed and jailed for three days.
Police said the Facebook post, her only public comment on the horrific events, amounted to an illegal provocation. Abu Amneh took the post down after it went viral, but has not apologized. She stands by the message, she said, which she intended as an expression of her faith. Almost four months later, her life is still upside down as she finds herself dangling from the tightrope that Palestinian citizens of Israel say they have been forced to walk since Oct. 7.
Under emergency laws giving police unprecedented arrest powers, hundreds have been incarcerated, fired, or suspended from colleges for social media posts, protest slogans and even cooking videos that are deemed subversive. Ambiguous statements have been enough to launch criminal prosecutions; harassment campaigns continue even when charges are dropped.
Israel’s free speech crackdown: ‘War inside of a war’
As the war in Gaza grinds on, the attacks on speech haven’t abated, according to rights activists. A parliamentary committee on Monday voted to expel a Knesset member who signed a petition supporting South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.
“The binary approach that you are either with us or against is becoming institutionalized in the public sphere and in Israel’s approach to its Palestinian citizens,” said Ari Remez of Adalah, a civil rights group based in Haifa that is staffed by both Jewish and Arab attorneys. The group is following more than 270 cases of arrests, interrogations and “warnings” related to speech, he said.
Arab citizens of Israel make up more than 20 percent of the country’s population. They have long struggled to reconcile their Palestinian identity and their Israeli citizenship, and say the clampdown is just another example of how they can never satisfy either camp. The fury of her Jewish critics, Abu Amneh said, has been accompanied by anger from some hard-line Arabs over her post’s “neutrality.”
“We know the language of both sides; we are connected to both sides,” said Abu Amneh, 40, who speaks fluent Arabic and Hebrew and grew up with Jews, Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. “It is easier to be black or white, but we are gray.”
Although her case was quickly thrown out by two judges months ago, Abu Amneh remains under siege at her family’s elegant stone house overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Crowds of protesters gather outside most nights, blasting music through concert speakers and shouting obscenities through bullhorns.
Their water is cut off for hours several times a week. The city confiscated their household garbage bin and parked a leaky construction dumpster in front of their gate, inviting neighbors to drop their trash. The family’s security cameras captured a city worker tossing a dead cat into the unemptied dumpster.
One crew mounted an enormous light-up Star of David on a pole outside Abu Amneh’s front door. “Entrance to Israel lovers only,” reads a sign mounted on the fence across the street, amid a string of Israeli flags and pictures of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Last week, the city changed the name of her road to “IDF Street,” after the Israel Defense Forces.
Afula’s mayor, Avi Elkabetz, is leading the charge against Abu Amneh. With municipal elections scheduled for late this month, the controversial incumbent has made Abu Amneh a campaign issue, demanding that other candidates join the protests at her home. The city’s website has posted information on scheduled demonstrations there and at her husband’s hospital.
Elkabetz has been at the center of other pushes to “preserve the Jewish character” of Afula in recent years, as more Palestinians have moved to the city. He has opposed the sale of property to Palestinian citizens of Israel and tried to restrict them from using a city park.
The mayor, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed or to respond to questions.
“It is our government,” said Anan Abbasi, Abu Amneh’s husband. “We pay taxes for services and protection, not to be attacked every day.”
Both husband and wife grew up in mixed Palestinian-Jewish communities. Abu Amneh’s father was a restaurant owner in Nazareth, where she was a star science student and budding singer. She nursed both passions during the years it took to complete a doctorate in neurobiology at Israel’s oldest university, the Technion.
But as folk music and singing grew more central to her life, she said, her Palestinian identity bloomed. In 2021, she launched a full-time singing career and quickly found an audience. She had toured the world, released three albums and amassed more than a million followers on Facebook and Instagram by the time her team in Cairo asked for her to weigh in on Oct. 7.
“The only victor is God.”
She said she was stunned by the ferocity of the backlash. One person suggested she had borrowed the phrase from the 8th-century Islamic conquest of Spain. Others compared it to a jihadist battle cry. The threats started on about Oct. 11, after the criticisms caught fire on Israeli social media.
On Oct. 16, the couple went to the police station in Nazareth to ask for help. While there, a group of officers from Afula arrived, handcuffed Abu Amneh and took her to a holding cell.
The charges mounted quickly, according to her lawyer and court documents: threatening public peace (the Facebook post), resisting arrest (demanding to know why she was being detained) and threatening an officer (telling him, “God will give you what you deserve,” a phrase she said she frequently uses on her children).
The three days in dirty cells, often in restraints, were among the worst of her life, she said. But the courts denied a police request to hold her longer, throwing out all three charges and chastising police for keeping her in shackles.
The night after she returned home, the first car pulled up to the house, blasting one of her songs and yelling for her to “go to Gaza.” The next night, there were three protesters, then a dozen. Now, up to 30 people gather around 7 o’clock most nights.
The police told her the gatherings were considered “prayer services” for the troops in Gaza. When they did send a car, the officers often joined the demonstrators, Abu Amneh said. So she and her children, 13 and 15, lower the blinds and retreat to a back room. Even with their headphones on, they can hear the shouts of “whore.”
In a statement, the district police office said it could not stop the protected gatherings and that it had received no complaints of threatening behavior. Amu Amneh’s lawyer, Amir Bakr, said the state prosecutor for the region has not responded to repeated requests to declare the protests illegal harassment. The prosecutor, Amit Aisman, declined to comment.
Her husband is often away when the protests start, working at one of his evening ophthalmology clinics. He has diplomas from medical school, the Technion and Harvard on his office wall; during the pandemic he appeared in a video with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promote vaccinations.
None of that seems to matter to those calling for him to resign or be fired. A neighbor who once hugged him for saving her son’s life now joins those shouting, “Go sing for Hamas!” he said.
“Nothing is enough for the extremists,” said Abbasi, who, at his boss’s request has written two public statements denouncing Hamas.
Abu Amneh said she deplores the killing of innocents on Oct. 7, which goes against everything she believes in as a Muslim and a Sufi. She recognizes the pain of her fellow Israelis, she said, and expects they would also condemn the killing of thousands of innocents in Gaza.
“Palestinians have pain as well,” she said, looking out from her house on a recent night, waiting for the return of her tormentors.
“Nothing I am going through can compare with those who have lost loved ones, in Israel or in Gaza. Yes, I don’t feel secure in my home. But I’m a proud Palestinian, and they cannot silence my voice.”
Sudilovsky reported from Jerusalem.