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Death Threats and Intimidation
Arab athletes are facing harassment and allegations of endorsing terrorism and extremist beliefs as a result of their expressions of solidarity with Palestine.
Egyptian swimmer Abdelrahman Sameh envisioned his remarkable triumph in the men's 50-meter butterfly final at the 2023 World Aquatics Swimming World Cup as the pinnacle of his career. Yet, the sheen of his gold medal dimmed significantly as he became the target of death threats and abuse due to his outspoken support for Palestine.
“I have been getting death threats – people have been attacking me all week for supporting Palestine,” he said on Sunday following his victory.
“My family goes to sleep, not knowing if someone is going to break into my room, if somebody is going to break into my apartment. They have to wonder every time I don’t pick up a call, ‘Is he busy or is someone trying to kill him?’”
The 23-year-old Sameh, who is part of the University of Notre Dame’s swimming and diving team, stunned the swimming world by beating favorites Isaac Cooper of Australia and Michael Andrew of the United States to secure his first-ever gold medal at the prestigious event in Greece.
However, the Egyptian’s medal win came days after he posted a message on Instagram claiming critics had accused him of “supporting terrorism” because he had spoken against Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
Sameh’s posts included news and images from the ongoing war in Gaza, where more than 3,300 people have been killed and 11,000 wounded in Israeli air raids. Another 1,200 people across Gaza are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead, according to health authorities.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began on Oct. 7 in response to a surprise attack by Hamas that killed roughly 1,400 people in Israel.
One of the social media posts by Sameh’s that stirred controversy among Israel's supporters was a political cartoon contrasting the perceptions of resistance between Palestinians and Ukrainians. This image, in circulation since at least 2022, draws parallels between the Israeli oppression of Palestine and Russia's oppression of Ukraine.
In addition, Sameh shared Instagram stories that compared the total number of deaths in the Palestinian and Israeli communities over the past 15 years. He also drew a comparison between the American-backed military response in Gaza and the concept of seeking an overpowering martial arts response to a minor incident, likening it to "calling your uncle and his 16 friends who are martial arts experts just because a little kid slapped you at the gym."
Sameh’s posts drew ire from Israel’s Swimming Association, which had released a statement a few days earlier mourning the loss of Eden Nimri, a former amateur swimmer and lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) who was killed while fighting Hamas in Nahal Oz. The organization’s chairman Miki Halika wrote a letter to World Aquatics, urging it to take swift action against swimmers who “support terrorism”.
“It is disheartening to see extremist ideologies tarnishing the reputation of our beloved sport,” Halika wrote in his complaint.
Halika also referenced Tunisian Olympic swimming champion Ahmed Hafnaoui, who had shared a link to a fundraiser collecting aid for the people of Gaza affected by the war. He has since reportedly faced death threats and was accused by American swimmer Eli Cohen of encouraging people to “donate to terror.”
Despite Halika’s claim that the aforementioned Arab swimmers are spreading “extremist ideologies,” Sameh has actively condemned the acts of violence committed by Hamas and openly stated that “the loss of innocent lives in any conflict is a tragedy that should be mourned by all, regardless of their background.”
Nevertheless, he is far from the only athlete who has faced intimidation and accusations of “terrorism” for peacefully supporting Palestine.
On Wednesday, France’s minister of the interior Gerald Darmanin accused former Real Madrid star Karim Benzema of having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood after he expressed support for Palestine in the wake of the ongoing war.
“M. Benzema is notoriously linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, we all know it,” said Darmanin, a right-wing minister who once opposed gay marriage, criticized dedicated isles for halal and kosher foods in supermarkets, and has been a staunch supporter of the country’s police brutality and mistreatment of protesters.
Benzema’s lawyer quickly denied Darmanin’s claim that his client was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that came to power in Egypt after the Arab Spring but was ousted by a military coup in 2013. The extremist group has branches in other countries, including a branch in Palestine in the 1980s from which Hamas would later emerge.
A French senator later called for Benzema to be stripped of his Ballon d'Or—the highest individual award for a football player—and to be deprived of his French nationality.
“We cannot accept that a world-famous French binational can dishonor and even betray our country,” read the senator’s statement on Twitter.
Elsewhere in Germany, Moroccan footballer Noussair Mazraoui faced waves of backlash from local media, who accused him of “supporting terrorism and the mass death of innocent people” after he shared a pro-Palestine post on Instagram. Politicians have since called for his expulsion from Bayern Munich.
Mazraoui later shared a statement on Bild, the leading German tabloid, noting that it is “really disappointing that I have to explain what I stand for.”
“There is a situation out there where thousands of innocent people are murdered. This means that I will always be against all kinds of terrorism, hatred, and violence. And that's something I'll always stand behind”
Egyptian footballer and Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny was also vilified after changing his Instagram profile picture to that of the Palestinian flag. It is also worth noting that Elneny’s teammate, Oleksandr Zinchenko, also received backlash for posting that he stands with Israel.
The reactionary response to athletes showing solidarity with a besieged strip of land under constant bombardment is part of a wider socio-political trend taking place around the world.
Earlier this week, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest forum for books and literature, cancelled a Palestinian author’s award ceremony and public discussion—a clear example of demonizing a fiction writer based purely on her nationality.
Meanwhile, the UK is considering making the act of waving a Palestinian flag a criminal offence while Germany and France have banned dozens of pro-Palestine protests, citing security risks and claims of anti-Semitism. In one case, French police used teargas and water cannons to break up a demonstration.
In response, Amnesty International France stated that a “ban on all demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in France constitutes a serious and disproportionate attack on the right to demonstrate.”
Nevertheless, demonstrations continue to take place around the world while athletes and other notable celebrities have not relented in their support despite the risks entailed. Most recently, Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohamed Salah shared a video calling for an immediate ceasefire and for humanitarian aid to be provided to Gaza.
“Humanity must prevail,” the Egyptian concluded.
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