Arrest of Gazans by Hamas for Zoom chat with Israelis sparks free speech row

Former Amnesty International researcher defends tagging Hamas officials in post criticizing activists for ‘normalization,’ denies responsibility for arrests but doesn’t oppose them

Hamas policemen carry out a raid in Nuseirat, south of Gaza City on March 22, 2018, that resulted in the arrest of a suspect in a recent bomb attack against the Palestinian prime minister, officials said. ( AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)
Illustrative: Hamas policemen carry out a raid in Nuseirat, south of Gaza City, on March 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

A fierce dispute has divided the Palestinian community after Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, arrested six local activists for chatting by video conference with left-leaning campaigners in Israel.

The Islamist terror group Hamas bans all communications with Israel and last week arrested the six members of the Gaza Youth Committee on charges of “treason” and “normalization” of relations with the Jewish state.

The arrests have sparked a fierce free-speech row that has drawn in a former Gaza-based contractor with human rights group Amnesty International who had criticized the activists online.

In the two-hour call via video conference service Zoom — the latest in a format they have called “Skype with your enemy” — the participants had discussed their daily lives and expressed hopes for better leadership for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Rami Aman, 36, the founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, was detained and accused of “treason” along with five others after speaking to the dozens of Israeli activists online.

Rami Aman, founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, was arested by Hamas security services, April 9, 2020, after organizing a video call with Israeli peace activists. (Facebook)

Gaza’s Hamas-run interior ministry said that “establishing any activity or communication with the Israeli occupation under any excuse is a crime punishable by law, and is treason against our people.”

Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel and most Western states, seized control of Gaza in a 2007 near civil war.

Since then the Jewish state has fought three devastating wars in Gaza while maintaining a crippling blockade on the coastal strip, arguing it must isolate Hamas and prevent it from obtaining weapons that could be used to launch attacks on Israel.

‘Not a mistake’

A key player in the row has been the former Amnesty activist Hind Khoudary, who on Facebook criticized Aman over the alleged act of “normalization” with Israel.

Khoudary tagged several Hamas officials in the online post, ensuring Aman’s Zoom call would come to their attention.

Gaza’s interior ministry has however denied that Khoudary’s posts tipped them off to the video call.

“It is not true what was published, saying citizens or journalists publishing posts on Facebook and social media were responsible for the arrests,” ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bozm said. “Rami Aman and his group are under surveillance all the time by the security services. Unfortunately, Rami tried to carry out activities that violate the law and the culture and customs of our people.”

Hind Khoudary (Screen capture: YouTube)

Khoudary told AFP she did not regret her posts and did not oppose Aman’s arrest, while stressing that she was not responsible for his detention.

“I didn’t make a mistake,” she said, criticizing him over what she described as his attempt to speak on behalf of all Palestinians.

“As a Palestinian, before I became a journalist, I am against normalization,” said Khoudary.

Amnesty confirmed that Khoudary had been a “short-term freelance contract worker” who helped document protests in Gaza last year, but said she no longer works for the organization.

A screenshot of video shown by the Kan public broadcaster of a protest in the Gaza Strip over the cost of living on March 15, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

“We absolutely condemn arrests of individuals because of practicing their right to peaceful expression and assembly,” said Saleh Hijazi, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East.

Former Human Rights Watch official Peter Bouckaert removed Khoudary from an online group and told her she should be “ashamed” of herself.

UN Watch, a Geneva-based organization originally set up to confront alleged anti-Semitism at the United Nations, praised Aman as a “courageous Gaza peace activist.”

Dialogue or not?

Khoudary herself was detained by Hamas last year for posts supporting Gaza street protests.

Illustrative: Palestinians burn an Israeli flag during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza-Israel border, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Aman was briefly detained two years ago on similar charges.

Debate has flared on social networks, with some Palestinians condemning the latest arrests and others congratulating Khoudary for working against normalization.

Collaborating or even communicating with Israelis is controversial among Palestinians, with many seeing such dialogue as a waste of time.

Others argue that shutting down dialogue makes a solution between the warring parties even more unlikely.

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