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Israel's Palestinian citizens speak out, holding antiwar rallies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Turning overseas now. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 20% of that country's population, and many grieve the suffering in Gaza and oppose the war. Expressing that view has been perilous. But after six months of fighting, Palestinian voices in Israel are growing louder. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has more.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday afternoon, there was this rare sight.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

LUDDEN: Hundreds of people marching through the hillside town of Deir Hanna in Israel's Galilee, loudly opposing the war in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

LUDDEN: After the brutal Hamas attack last October, which Israel says killed 1,200 people, anti-war demonstrations were quashed. Palestinian citizens of Israel were even arrested on their way to events. Indeed, for this march, police banned the Palestinian flag - black, white and green with a red triangle. But like many here, 25-year-old Haj Amir defiantly hoists one over his shoulder.

HAJ AMIR: (Non-English language spoken).

LUDDEN: "This will be the flag of our independent country at some point," he says. This is an annual event called Land Day, to commemorate opposition to Israeli expropriation of Arab land. But this year, it's also about opposing the war in Gaza.

Nagm Madi brought her four young children wearing a headscarf and large, stylish sunglasses. She says it's her first chance to raise her voice against the fighting.

NAGM MADI: (Non-English language spoken).

LUDDEN: "We are not extremists," she says. "We want peace, and we want to express ourselves." Madi says one of her sisters, a student, is still under disciplinary review for posting a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, considered Palestine's national poet. Another sister switched her online profile to all black, like a sign of mourning, but work colleagues messaged her to change it.

MADI: (Non-English language spoken).

LUDDEN: "I think they don't feel safe," Madi says, meaning Jewish Israelis. "They support the war," she says, "because they think only violence will protect them and their children." Despite this rally's success, one marcher told me she was disappointed turnout wasn't bigger. She says she has friends who were too scared to come.

NOA SATTATH: It's shifting, but it's still a very grim picture from where I'm standing.

LUDDEN: That's Noa Sattath, who heads the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has documented hundreds of arrests of people speaking out against the war. Lawyers have won permits for a few recent anti-war demonstrations, but they've been small and often done jointly with Jewish groups, which are more likely to get permission. And Sattath says other kinds of expression are still being suppressed. Last month, a Palestinian professor at Hebrew University was briefly suspended after comments critical of the war in Gaza.

SATTATH: Every time something like that happens when people express their opinions, then they're less likely to do it next time.

SHAHD BISHARA: Hey.

LUDDEN: Hello. How are you?

BISHARA: I'm fine.

LUDDEN: I visit 30-year-old Shahd Bishara at her apartment in a suburb of Tel Aviv. She tells me how in those first weeks of the war, she stopped speaking Arabic in public.

BISHARA: I was scared that I will be attacked somehow.

LUDDEN: It was so stressful that one of her friends, also a Palestinian citizen of Israel, created an online podcast as a way for people to speak out.

BISHARA: It was called we "Will Not Be Silenced." He gave me a fake name.

LUDDEN: All these months later, Bishara feels comfortable dissenting in public. She's with Standing Together, a group of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel which has organized several of those anti-war rallies.

BISHARA: To show that we demand a cease-fire agreement, which is the only way that will bring the Israeli hostages back home. This is, first of all, and second of all, to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

LUDDEN: Still, there are moments, like at a cafe where I met Bishara another time, and she suddenly froze mid-sentence. She'd spotted a man in a T-shirt and shorts with a large gun on his hip. After the Hamas attack, Israel's far-right national security minister loosened gun laws to armed civilians. He recently celebrated giving out 100,000 new gun licenses.

BISHARA: The arming is to target Arabs at the end of the day. So I think it is normal to be afraid in such situations, you know.

LUDDEN: Bishara says it's painful to see the destruction in Gaza, the more than 33,000 people killed. But Israeli media do not show that, she says. People are in a bubble. And for her, it feels like the relationship between Israel's Jewish and Palestinian citizens is at a critical junction.

BISHARA: It's going to change something. I'm not sure to which direction it's going to change, but we're definitely going to witness a new era after this war.

LUDDEN: She says she'll keep raising her voice to try to shape that era away from more violence. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.