Egyptian swimmer Abdelrahman Elaraby pulled off a 50 butterfly upset (23.04) against Isaac Cooper, Michael Andrew, and Dylan Carter on Sunday, but the Notre Dame fifth-year found it difficult to celebrate his victory in Athens after facing harassment this week for his support of Palestine.
“I don’t know if I can celebrate this, honestly,” Elaraby said atop the podium after finishing only a tenth shy of his personal-best 22.94 from the 2023 World Championships. “It has been a really mentally tough week for me. I’ve been getting death threats. People have been attacking me all week for supporting Palestine.”
Among Elaraby’s social media posts that enflamed supporters of Israel was a political cartoon that showed the different perceptions of resistance by Palestinians and Ukrainians. The image, which has been around since at least 2022, compares the oppression of Palestine by Israel to the oppression of Ukraine by Russia. Elaraby also shared Instagram stories comparing total Palestinian and Israeli deaths over the past 15 years, and likened the American-backed military response in Gaza to “calling your uncle and his 16 friends who are martial arts experts just because a little kid slapped you at the gym.”
“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,” the 23-year-old added. “They have to wonder every time I don’t pick up a call, ‘Is he busy or is someone trying to kill him?’ I don’t know if I should celebrate this or not. My brothers and sisters are being killed in Palestine, and I’m threatened with death just because it’s a cause I’m standing for.”
Egyptian swimmer Abdelrahman Elaraby responds in a post race interview at the World Cup to criticism he has faced over the last week for his comments on Israel, Gaza, and Palestine. pic.twitter.com/eHXVIsAbHG
— Braden Keith (@Braden_Keith) October 15, 2023
Last weekend, the Palestinian armed group Hamas launched a brutal assault in Israel that killed at least 1,300 people, including dozens of Americans. Israel responded by dropping thousands of bombs and illegal white phosphorus munitions in the densely populated Gaza Strip while cutting off water, electricity, food, and the flow of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 2,670 people in Gaza have been killed and more than 10,000 injured over the past week since Israel began its response to the surprise Hamas attack, including United Nations (UN) workers, paramedics, 10 Palestinian journalists, and more than 700 children.
The UN now says clean water is running out for about two million people living in Gaza, nearly half of whom are children. The situation only appears to be escalating as Israel ordered the evacuation of about a million people from the northern Gaza region with a ground invasion on the horizon. The United States is reportedly attempting to persuade Israel to open a safe passage to let aid in and foreigners out while also trying to broker a similar deal through Egypt’s Rafah crossing, but they have yet to call for a ceasefire.
“The loss of innocent lives in any conflict is a tragedy that should be mourned by all, regardless of their background,” Elaraby wrote on Instagram earlier this week. “I have never condoned or celebrated such losses, as I firmly believe that nothing justifies the suffering of innocent people. War is a tragic reality, and our utmost priority should be to prevent it and protect innocent lives.
“It is disheartening to witness a discrepancy in how individuals are allowed to express their sorrow and empathy,” he added. “Israeli athletes, like their Palestinian counterparts, should have the freedom to mourn the suffering of their own people without facing accusations or labels.”
Elaraby won the ACC title in the 50 free (18.79) last season as a senior at Louisville, the culmination of a remarkable comeback just a year after attempting suicide.
Elaraby isn’t the only Muslim swimmer to face backlash for his support of Palestine amid the current crisis. Tunisian Olympic champion Ahmed Hafnaoui said he has been bullied for promoting a Palestinian emergency relief fund on his Instagram. The fundraiser “strongly condemns all violence against civilians — including the most recent loss of lives” and emphasizes that “all Palestinians and Israelis, regardless of religion or ethnicity, have the right to live in safety and dignity, and to have their fundamental human rights upheld.” That didn’t stop him from experiencing harassment on social media.
“Let me get it very clear for you,” Grand Canyon University sophomore Eli Cohen captioned an image of Hafnaoui’s Instagram page promoting humanitarian aid. “The money is going straight for building rockets and weaponry. You donate to that – you donate to terror.”
Miki Halika, the president of the Israel Swimming Association, wrote letters to World Aquatics urging the global governing body to investigate Elaraby and Hafnaoui for supporting “terrorism and extremist ideologies.” Halika went so far as to call them “a potential threat to our national security.”