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‘From friend to enemy’: Palestinians in Israel suspended from jobs over war

On Saturday, October 7, Noura* went to work as usual early in the morning at the hospital in Israel where she’s been employed for more than two years.

The Palestinian health care professional had taken a quick glance at the news, but in the rush to make it to work in time, she had not fully understood the magnitude of what was happening in the country: an attack by the Palestinian armed group Hamas on southern Israel that would leave at least 1,300 people in Israel dead. In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a deadly bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 2,300 Palestinians, and enforced a complete siege on the enclave, blocking supplies of food, medicines and fuel. A ground invasion appears imminent.

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But on Saturday morning, Noura had no knowledge of any of this. Palestinian armed groups periodically fire rockets into southern Israel that are mostly intercepted by the country’s missile defence system, known as the Iron Dome.

So, when a visibly shaken co-worker spoke to Noura about what had happened, she responded by telling her, “This is not the first time” — a response she now recognises lacked empathy.

But as more details began to come through, and the unprecedented nature of the attack became clearer, Noura was summoned to her manager’s office, told to leave her work and not come back until further notice – because of that earlier conversation with her colleague.

“I felt very insulted, I couldn’t believe this is happening to me,” said Noura, who is one of 1.2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel – about 20 percent of the country’s population.

“I feel discriminated against,” she continued. “Day by day, you don’t feel it. But you feel it when something like this happens. You know that automatically you turn from a friend to an enemy.”

Shortly afterwards, she received a letter from the hospital’s management, which Al Jazeera has reviewed, in which she was called to a hearing to formalise her suspension on grounds that she had violated the institution’s disciplinary code, by allegedly supporting the Hamas attack.

Noura denied ever uttering the words she was accused of saying.

“What insulted me the most is that when they called me for the meeting, they had their mind set, the decision had been made. They didn’t want to listen,” Noura said of the hearing, which is expected soon.

She spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because, despite everything, she hopes to be able to be heard fairly and keep her job.

‘Dozens’ of complaints

Noura is not alone. Lawyers and human rights organisations in Israel have received dozens of complaints from both workers and students who, since last Saturday, have been abruptly suspended from schools, universities and workplaces over social media posts or, in some cases, conversations with colleagues.

Letters sent by some of their institutes or offices, reviewed by Al Jazeera, cited posts written on social media and alleged support for “terrorism” as the reason for the immediate suspension “until the matter is investigated”. In some cases, recipients have been summoned to appear before a disciplinary committee.

“People who have been working for three, four, five years found themselves getting letters saying don’t come to work because of what you published,” Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told Al Jazeera from Haifa, a city in the country’s north.

In some of the cases, “they say hearings will be held at a later date, but they don’t [specify] when,” he said. “The hearing should be held before you get the decision.”

Adalah is aware of at least a dozen workers who were suspended since last Saturday in similar circumstances, mostly over social media posts. It also received complaints from around 40 Palestinian students at Israeli universities and colleges who have received letters of expulsion or suspension from their institutions.

Wehbe Badarni, director of the Arab Workers’ Union in the northern city of Nazareth, also told Al Jazeera that the union is following up on more than 35 complaints, including students as well as workers in hospitals, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and call centres.

In one letter seen by Al Jazeera, a company had summoned an employee to a telephone hearing to “examine the possibility of terminating the employment with the company” over “posts that support terrorist activity and incitement”.

“Incitement to terrorism is a serious charge that would need to be proven in court,” said Salam Irsheid, a lawyer with Adalah. “In our opinion, what is happening right now is not legal.”

‘Atmosphere of terror’

Another health worker Al Jazeera spoke to in Tel Aviv said he was doing everything he could to keep a low profile, for fear of retribution. “No one is talking about the situation, I’m being faced with grumpy and angry faces every morning considering I am the only Palestinian working there,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The news is horrifying but when I’m at work I try to put a face that everything is just news. I can’t really express or talk about what’s going on,” he said. “Since the last war [in 2021] everyone is keeping a low profile.”

Physicians for Human Rights Israel, a non-profit founded more than three decades ago in Jaffa, has handled several cases of suspensions of medical workers since 2021, after the last war between Hamas and Israel, according to board chairperson Dr Lina Qassem Hasan.

In one high-profile case, Ahmad Mahajna, a doctor at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, was suspended for offering sweets to a Palestinian teenager who was under police custody at the hospital, where he was being treated for gunshot wounds after an alleged attack. “There is an atmosphere of terror, people are afraid,” Dr Qassem told Al Jazeera.

She was scheduled to go on a bi-monthly visit to Gaza with her human rights group on October 12. That visit by physicians and psychologists this month was cancelled after the Hamas attack. Instead, she found herself treating patients evacuated from their homes in southern Israel.

A local radio station interviewed her on her visit. “In this interview, I said that what Hamas did is a war crime in my eyes, and also that I see that what Israel does in Gaza is a war crime,” she said.

“Two hours after the interview, I got a call from my employer,” said Qassem, who also practices as a physician at a clinic. She wasn’t asked to stop speaking to the media, but “it was like a warning for me that I have to be careful, you know, that [they] follow what [I] do.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel have historically faced systemic discrimination, including chronic underinvestment in their communities and — according to Adalah — more than 50 laws that are prejudiced against them.

Yet “racism has accelerated” further, attorney Sawsan Zaher told Al Jazeera. “What we are seeing now is something that we haven’t seen before.”

“The mere fact that you express your opinion, even if it’s not necessarily incitement based on the criminal code… it’s enough now to express any kind of support for not only Hamas, but the Palestinian people,” she added.

Zaher said people were increasingly “afraid to speak Arabic” in public.

Keeping her head down is what Noura usually does too, she said.

“In every situation where there is an incident or something that happens, we try not to talk about it at all. We try to just to forget it, put it in the back of our heads because we know we will get judged if we say a word,” Noura said.

“This time, it was my mistake that I replied.”

*Name has been changed at the person’s request to prevent potential retribution.

Source: Al Jazeera

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