Federal law enforcement agents have questioned and detained Palestinian nationals and made visits to mosques in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel, according to civil rights advocates.
Abed Ayoub, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC, said that his organization has fielded multiple reports of individuals and mosques being visited by the FBI this week. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a police accountability group, also said it had received reports of federal agents intimidating Palestinians and their supporters.
The interactions are reminiscent of surveillance and targeting of Muslim and Arab communities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and Ayoub told The Intercept that they are contributing to a resurgence of fear among Muslim communities. “Like, ‘Oh my god, this is happening again, how are we going to protect ourselves?’”
The reports come after President Joe Biden issued a warning this week about potential “domestic threats” across America. “This is not some distant tragedy — the ties between Israel and the United States run deep,” Biden wrote on Tuesday. “In cities across the country, local and federal law enforcement partners are closely monitoring for any domestic threats in connection with the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel.”
In a press call Thursday, Department of Homeland Security officials said they do not have any specific credible intelligence indicating a potential threat to the United States, but that they are monitoring “a variety of threat actors who might be driven by anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or anti-Arab sentiment.” The officials also said they were monitoring potential threats in relation to a video statement by former Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, who called for a broad, global mobilization in support of Gaza on Friday. Meshal’s statement prompted mass speculation and hysteria about a “Day of Jihad” across the United States, with schools in some places shutting down.
Ayoub said that the reports that the ADC received included FBI officers visiting a Texas mosque to meet with leadership and ask about any “troublemakers” in the community, and FBI agents seeking to question an individual who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement two months ago for a green card issue. That individual, Ayoub said, “has never had any issues” prior to his run-in with ICE. Ayoub added that the ADC received a report of the FBI visiting a mosque in a different state from a partner civil rights organization.
The FBI declined to specifically comment on The Intercept’s questions about the reported visits. “The FBI can never initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email.
ICE deferred questions to DHS, its parent agency, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Human rights attorney Azadeh Shahshahani told The Intercept that greater surveillance and targeting of Muslim and Palestinian community members wouldn’t come as a surprise — and is rather a part of a pattern of federal law enforcement practices. “We get contacted by community members saying that the FBI has come to their house without any type of prior notice or any type of prior suspicion or any reason whatsoever, other than the fact that they’re Muslim or Palestinian or Iranian.” These visits often take place in response to an event happening somewhere in the world, Shahshahani said, or simply because the FBI is engaging in a “fishing expedition.”
Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, said it was important to consider federal targeting of Palestinians in the context of broader U.S. policy on Israel–Palestine. “The U.S. government is not only sending more weapons to kill Palestinians in Gaza; it is going after Palestinians here at home,” he said. “With thousands of Palestinians killed and injured this week by the criminal apartheid regime in Israel, which treats Palestinians as second-class humans, the U.S. government goes on to treat us like second-class citizens in our own country.”
Meanwhile, Muslims and Palestinians have reported incidents of discrimination throughout the nation this week. In New York, for example, a group of men waving Israeli flags assaulted an 18-year-old Palestinian in Brooklyn. Numerous individuals at a rally looked directly into a camera as they exclaimed threats including “Kill all Palestinians, all of them!” and “Flatten them like a parking lot … once and for all.”
On Thursday, when asked what her message is to Palestinians who fear for their loved ones as Israel maintains a siege in Gaza, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called on “law-abiding Palestinians to reject Hamas,” without addressing the question of Palestinians’ own concerns.
While the FBI has activated resources to investigate Palestinians in the span of just a few days, its track record of successfully investigating crimes committed by Israelis against Palestinian American citizens has proved far less urgent, noted Jarrar of DAWN.
He pointed to the cases of Alex Odeh, an activist who was assassinated in California in 1985, and Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist who was killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank last year. “When Palestinian Americans like Shireen Abu Akleh and Alex Odeh are murdered by Israel, the FBI does nothing about it,” Jarrar said. “But when we protest injustice by Israel, the FBI knocks on our doors.”
After the FBI announced an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, which multiple organizations reported was premeditated last year, the Israeli government announced that it would not cooperate with the investigation. Israel’s then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the press that the FBI’s inquiry represented “interference in Israel’s internal affairs” and that he had “made it clear to the American representatives that we stand behind the [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, that we will not cooperate with any external investigation.”
Decades earlier, Odeh, who was the West Coast regional director at ADC, was murdered before speaking at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Reform synagogue in Santa Ana, California. As The Intercept previously reported, two prime suspects in Odeh’s killing escaped to Israel, where they continue to live public lives. The FBI, meanwhile, continues to list a $1 million reward for information leading to the successful arrest and conviction of Odeh’s murderers.