Pro-Palestinian Voices Face Threats, Harassment As Gaza Death Toll Grows

On the day of Hamas’ Oct. 7attack and the beginning of Israel’s ongoingretaliation, Reema Wahdan, a cancer researcher who for decades has advocated for the humanity of Palestinians, including as director of the Colorado Palestine Club, attended an emergency rally at the Colorado state Capitol, calling for de-escalation and “advocating peaceful security for both sides,” she told HuffPost.

A few days later, on Oct. 11, an unidentified person or persons called her family’s business several times, saying some variation of, “Death to Arabs, all Palestinians are going to die,” she said.

Two days later, Wahdan found a bullet lodged in her living room wall.

Wahdan said she’s been frustrated with the police response to the bullet; the Greenwood Village Police Department, she said, told her their investigation is inactive and that they believe the 9mm bullet lodged in her wall was actually fired 3 miles away from her house. The Denver Police Department referred HuffPost’s questions to the Greenwood Village Police Department, saying they were the lead investigating agency.

After this article was initially published, City of Greenwood Village Communications Officer Megan Copenhaver confirmed that the city’s police department “could not conclude that the incident was a result of a concerted or deliberate act or that Reema Wahdan or any member of the household was specifically targeted,” and also that police were unable to conclude where the bullet came from.

Wahdan, whose parents were both born in Al-Bireh, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, told HuffPost she believes she was targeted because of her activism. Now, she’s taking unnerving security steps that are brand new to her ― planning routes ahead of time, ensuring she isn’t being followed to her car, and planning to check in with friends after arriving at each destination. “In all my 40 years of advocacy, I’ve never had to look over my shoulder,” she said.

Wahdan is one of the many Americans who’ve said they have been threatened, intimidated or doxxed over their pro-Palestinian activism since the the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and the retaliation campaign initiated by Israeli forces that has killed more than 11,000 Gazans, according to Palestinian authorities.

Activists, students and regular people said they are paying the price for their advocacy. College students, particularly Arabs and Muslims, said they felt unsafe and unsupported by their universities. Some said they have lost their jobs for their social media posts.

“We’ve been extremely overwhelmed and are understaffed in just trying to support everyone from students to professionals of all ages, who are facing backlash and feel unsafe in their workplaces and or being fired for speaking out for Palestinian human rights,” said Jasmine Hawamdeh, the communications manager at the Arab American Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Despite her sense of unease, Wahdan is stillspeaking up for what she believes is right.

“If someone was intentionally targeting me so I cannot speak up to what’s going on, then they failed,” she said. “I’m going to keep on doing it. If I have to die for that work, that’s fine too. But I’m not going to be silent.”

Across the country, people standing up for Palestinian rights have faced similar attempts at silencing and intimidation.

Last month, a Hilton hotel in Houston, Texas, canceled a conference set to be hosted by the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), citing “escalating security concerns.” Right after the cancellation, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) falsely referred to the group as “Hamas supporters.” An Islamic Center in Rochester, New York, also pulled out of an event that was set to feature USCPR’s executive director as keynote speaker because of threats it received, Jewish Currents reported.

Such venue issues have become commonplace: The Council on American-Islamic Relations moved its annual banquet from a Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, to an undisclosed location because anonymous callers “threatened to plant bombs in the hotel’s parking garage, kill specific hotel staff in their homes, and storm the hotel in a repeat of the Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol if the events moved forward,” the group said. Another event, hosted by the Palestine Literary Festival at Union Theological Seminary and featuring well-known speakers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mohammed El-Kurd, struggled to find a space in New York City.

“This is the fifth space we approached to host us this evening,” co-producer Yasmin El-Rifae said on stage. “The difficulty is not because of availability.”

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they march through the Manhattan Bridge during a rally supporting Palestinians in New York City on Nov. 7.
Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they march through the Manhattan Bridge during a rally supporting Palestinians in New York City on Nov. 7.

Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they march through the Manhattan Bridge during a rally supporting Palestinians in New York City on Nov. 7.

Several people told HuffPost that they had been kicked out of Facebook groups and threatened to have their social media posts sent to their employers; one person told HuffPost that someone called their employer after they’d posted online about the conflict ― to ask what their work schedule was. A Muslim woman told HuffPost that after she posted “I stand with Palestine,” the pharmacy that she owns was inundated with negative reviews and harassment. One imam, after sharing activists’ videos on the conflict, received a slew of negative and abusive comments ― including two messages from an unknown sender that included his home address and a photo of his 12-year-old daughter.

Ayat, a Palestinian restaurant in New York, criticized Israeli “apartheid” on Instagram and was soon flooded with one-star reviews and “nonstop” threatening voicemails, forcing it to disconnect its phone, its co-owner Abdul Elenani told The Associated Press.

Among Jews, the backlash to pro-Palestinian activism can be especially harsh. 

A dispute recently broke out on a large email listserv of U.S. Jewish leaders concerning the now-ubiquitous posters showing photos of Hamas’ Israeli hostages. Rafael Shimunov, a longtime activist and an American Jewish critic of Israel’s military retaliation in Gaza, had published a video highlighting a cluster of the posters next to a Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn, suggesting an alternative poster that “shows everyone, or calls for a cease-fire and says ‘missing: peace.’” That led others on the listserv to falsely claim he’d endorsed tearing down the posters.

The argument escalated to the point that someone messaged Shimunov a screenshot of a Google Street View image of his home. “I wish no harm on your family, even though you address is publicly available maybe you should have thought of that before siding with Hamas,” another message said. Shimunov said he is concerned the tenor of the broader debate is discouraging fellow Jews from calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“What we need right now is radical solidarity with each other,” Shimunov said. “The [right’s] goal is to break this coalition, and our goal must be to radically maintain it.” 

The Truck 

Across college campuses, students said they have experienced first-hand the impact of advocating for the Palestinian cause.

At Harvard University, the conservative group Accuracy In Media has targeted pro-Palestinian activists by featuring their names and faces on a digital mobile billboard truck under the banner “Harvard’s Leading Anti-Semites.” Similar trucks have visited other colleges around the country ― including Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California at Berkeley ― as well as students’ parents’ homes as far away as Texas.

“There were points where, from my own bedroom window, I could see the truck and my face on it,” said Sara, a Harvard student who is being identified by a pseudonym because she’s concerned for her safety. “It was Orwellian to look out my window and see my headshot under the title ‘leading antisemite.’ It was just so jarring because, obviously, none of us are antisemitic. It was crazy to have my own face looking into my room with this claim under it.” On the day HuffPost interviewed her, Sara said she’d been called a terrorist twice while grocery shopping. 

Another student, Diya, who is identified by a pseudonym, first saw her face on the truck as she walked to class. “You suddenly feel so hypervisible, so vulnerable,” she said. “A lot of us were skipping classes, not wanting to eat meals in the dining hall, because you feel so perceived in a really negative light, and you feel as if everyone’s eyes are on you,” Diya said she’d received online threats that included specific information about her. 

Accuracy in Media says the students it’s targeting “issued a statement in support of Hamas.” However, the Oct. 7 statement from several student groups just said its signatories “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” and an Instagram post from Harvard’s Palestine solidarity groups stated, “We lament the devastating and rising civilian toll.” Sara and Diya told HuffPost that “unfolding violence” referred to Israel’s retaliatory attack, which began the same dayHamas attacked Israel, well before the full death toll in Israel ― now at around 1,200 people, in addition to over 200 hostages held in Gaza, according to Israeli authorities ― was known. 

“We do not refer to the ‘right to resist,’ and that’s not language that has shown up in [Palestine Solidarity Committee] statements or will show up in PSC statements,” Sara said, referring to the concept that the use of violence against Israel is justified.

Sara and Diya also said they knew of students featured on the truck who weren’t involved in crafting or signing onto the statement, as well as students who’d already graduated. 

The targeting of students critical of Israel has happened for years, though the past month has seen an explosion of such activity. Canary Mission, a website that compiles digital dossiers of students it believes hold anti-Israel or antisemitic views ― including many who’ve simply been involved in pro-Palestinian activism ― told HuffPost, “Outing Hamas supporters and apologists at Harvard is just the beginning. When we say Never Again, we mean it.” Sara and Diya said individuals who were featured on the truck and Canary Mission appeared to be disproportionately Muslim, Arab, South Asian, brown and Black students.

The students, who’ve faulted Harvard for not condemning Accuracy in Media more forcefully, wondered why a similar statement hadn’t received the same backlash: An Oct. 8 Haaretz editorial proclaimed, “The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu.” 

Diya said, “I think the fact that we’re being put in an environment where people are afraid to speak out about things that they believe strongly in ― for fear of violence against their person, their communities, their families ― is definitely a threat to free speech, and it happens specifically when you’re speaking about Palestine.”