How Israel is digitally policing Palestinian minds
This incitement, they say, comes in various forms: Facebook posts, media articles, even songs and poetry – and in recent months, all have landed their authors in jail.
Palestinians say that such posts and writings are vital expressions of their frustration over Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and its policies, especially as the space for dissent shrinks.
This heightened digital policing has left one Palestinian citizen of Israel embroiled in a legal fiasco. Dareen Tatour, a 36-year-old poet, spent three months in jail and remains – more than two years in – under house arrest over a poem she posted on Facebook in 2015 about Palestinian resistance.
On Monday, an Israeli judge rejected her lawyer’s appeal to release Tatour from home detention, instead extending the hours she is allowed out under supervision.
She will be allowed “out of the house from 9am to 10pm, but only with an authorised supervisor accompanying her at every step,” said Yoav Haifawi, a Haifa-based activist and blogger who has been campaigning for Tatour’s release.
“So she can’t work or have any normal life,” he told Al Jazeera. “She is still prevented from accessing the internet and from publishing any of her works.”
Many Palestinians like Tatour have been arrested over their social media posts, particularly on Facebook, which has become the main conduit for discussion and dissent. Indictments for online incitement, which seem to target younger Palestinians, have tripled since 2014, according to the Israeli Justice Ministry.
Palestinian rights groups say this alarming trend is aimed at stifling freedom of expression. In Israeli military courts, West Bank Palestinians can be prosecuted for their views; an actual crime does not have to be committed as a result of the social media posts.
Israeli authorities “use Military Order 101 that bans any publication if it includes incitement as the legal basis for arresting tens of Palestinian activists and criminalising their activities on social media”, said Sahar Francis, director of the Ramallah-based rights group Addameer.
“Of course, the definition of incitement is so vague and can include any statement, or sharing any poster or article, or a poem,” she told Al Jazeera.
In one instance, this broad definition, coupled with inaccurate online translation tools, led to the arrest of a Palestinian worker who posted a picture of himself captioned “good morning” in Arabic.
Facebook incorrectly translated his words to “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English, and the worker was only released after police became aware of the error.
Israel began arresting Palestinians in noticeably large numbers as a wave of knife and car-ramming attacks began in October 2015.
As authorities failed to curtail these apparently uncoordinated attacks, perpetrated mostly by disgruntled youth, its security and intelligence arms began to extensively monitor the web for social media activity that they consider tantamount to incitement to violence.
Since then, around 400 Palestinians have been detained for social media activity – posts they wrote or shared online critical of Israel, according to rights group Adalah. Of those, 200 were Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the rest were from the West Bank, including 60 who were convicted on incitement charges.
“Israeli allegations of incitement in the online sphere, especially on Facebook, are increasing rapidly,” said Nadim Nashif, Executive Director of 7amleh, The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement.
“Israeli authorities are not only imprisoning Palestinians for alleged ‘incitement’ but … are creating an atmosphere of fear that effectively restricts the freedom of speech,” he told Al Jazeera.
Palestinians singled out
For years, Israeli leaders have been citing Palestinian incitement as a main obstacle to peace. But recent research by 7amleh indicates that incitement charges single out Palestinians. The group found that very few probes have been made into threats or attacks made by Israelis in libellous posts (they tallied 675,000 – more than double the amount in 2016).
“Israeli incitement against Arabs on social media, posted at an interval of every 46 seconds, is not only ignored, but entirely denied by the Israeli authorities,” Nashef said. “The incitement charge against Palestinians thus is clearly a politically motivated instrument.”
Freedom of speech advocates charge that suppression of venues and forums by Israeli authorities translates to thought-policing – attempts to control the parameters of acceptable political discourse.
They cite, as an example, the case of Professor Imad Barghouthi, a leading astrophysicist from Beit Rima, near Ramallah, who previously worked with NASA.
Barghouthi was sentenced to seven months in prison for Facebook posts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During his trial, his lawyer said that prosecutors used the numbers of “likes” and “shares” that his political posts received as evidence for incitement on social media.
But incitement charges have not just focused on Facebook. Rights groups say that often, this claim is used to target any dissenters: activists, students, even journalists.
In October, the Israeli army raided and closed several media offices in the West Bank, and arrested at least two employees of a satellite broadcasting facility, on suspicion of incitement to violence. Some were shut down for providing services for Hamas-affiliated channels Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds TV.
“This is a tool to control society – to make people fear and make self-censorship,” Francis said. “Of course this is a violation to the international law and the right to freedom of speech and opinion, but Israel is violating international law systemically without any accountability from the international community.”