Among the 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees released during the weeklong cease-fires between Israel and Hamas were 15 women who stood apart from the others: They were citizens of Israel.
The women are part of Israel’s Arab minority. Most were arrested after the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and charged based on their social media posts with identifying with a terrorist organization. None of them had been convicted of a crime, and all but one opposed being released as part of the deal, preferring to defend themselves in court, according to interviews with one of the women and three lawyers involved in their cases.
But in the end, those 14 of the 15 were released against their will, the lawyers said, leaving them confused about their legal status and scared of living with the stigma of being linked to a group that most Israelis consider an abhorrent terrorist organization.
“Socially, it is very problematic,” said Nareman Shehadeh Zoabi, an attorney at Adalah, an Israeli minority rights group, who is representing one of the women. “We anticipate that there is going to be a very complex situation socially for them after being included in this agreement, and we are starting to see examples here and there.”
Some of the women have already paid a price for their inclusion in the deal. Gunshots were fired near the home of one of them, and many are worried they could be attacked on the street.
Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, expelled one of the women, who had been studying computer science.
“It’s very clear: Someone who was released as part of a hostage deal with Hamas cannot study here,” said Doron Shaham, a university spokeswoman.
About one-fifth of Israelis are Arabs whose families were living in what would become Israel before the state was founded in 1948. Unlike the Palestinian refugees who ended up in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring Arab countries, this group remained in Israel and received citizenship.
While they carry Israeli passports, vote and can exercise other civil rights, many Israeli-Arabs accuse Israel of treating them as second-class citizens and sympathize with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and around the Middle East.
The Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 killed more than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and saw 240 others taken back to Gaza as captives, according to Israeli officials. Israel responded by launching a vast military campaign in Gaza against Hamas, which controls the enclave. The health authorities there say the military campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, mostly women and children.
As the war escalated, most of the 15 women made social media posts that led to their arrest.
One woman shared a joke about capturing a female soldier and a post that said, “Where were the people calling for humanity when we were killed?” over photos of Palestinian children, according to screenshots viewed by The New York Times.
Another woman added a beating heart emoji to a post that read “Gaza today” with a photo of Palestinians riding on a captured Israeli military vehicle and shared a photo of Palestinians breaking through a hole in the Gaza border fence on Oct. 7 with text that read: “While the army that can’t be beat was sleeping.”
Those two women and 12 others were arrested and charged with identifying with a terror group and other charges. Another woman in the group had been detained earlier on charges including attempted murder and identifying with a terrorist group, but had not been convicted of any crimes.
On Nov. 24, Israel and Hamas agreed to the first of several cease-fires that would last a week and allow the release of 105 hostages from Gaza, mostly women and children, in exchange for 240 Palestinian women and minors held by Israel.
Most of the Palestinians released were from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but the list also included the 15 Israeli citizens.
Ms. Zoabi, the lawyer, said that Israel had long avoided allowing its Arab citizens to be represented by Palestinian groups like Hamas in such agreements and that it was not clear why the government had acted differently this time.
David Becker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declined to comment on the women’s release.
The government did not ask the women or their lawyers if they wanted to be included in the deal nor did it respond to their lawyers’ requests to keep them out of it, Ms. Zoabi said. Like the other lawyers interviewed, Ms. Zoabi had wanted to defend her client in court for acts she called “definitely in the borders of her freedom of expression.”
The women and their lawyers also worried that being released under a deal negotiated by Hamas could damage their client’s lives.
“I wrote that my client does not want to be released from the deal with Hamas,” said Ahmad Massalha, another lawyer representing one of the women. “Being labeled as affiliated with Hamas is worse than any punishment that the court would have given.”
One of the women, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said she was arrested for posts that the Israeli authorities considered sympathetic to Hamas. During her interrogation, she said, she told police that she opposed Hamas and that she was against any killing of civilians.
A few weeks later, she said, she was released and only learned that she had been included in a deal brokered by Hamas after she had reached home.
She was horrified, she said.
“I kept thinking, ‘How can I convince people that I’m not supporting Hamas after being part of this deal?’” she said.