Between 2015 and 2016, Israel arrested more than 400 Palestinians because of content they circulated online, often on Facebook, that Israel alleged amounted to “incitement”. Around 200 are embroiled in court cases. One of the best-known cases is that of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who faces up to eight years in prison for a poem she posted on her Facebook page in 2015. The last witnesses in her case testified on March 28, and a verdict is expected in a few months.
At the same time, Facebook has been cooperating with the Israeli government to remove content the latter finds objectionable, including briefly shutting down the page of the political party Fatah in March, because of an old photo posted of former leader Yasser Arafat holding a rifle.
On the other hand, Israelis, including government officials, routinely post inflammatory content about Palestinians without censure from Facebook or other media companies. In 2014, just before Israel started bombing Gaza, Ayelet Shaked, an extreme right-wing Israeli parliamentarian, posted a Facebook message stating that the mothers of Palestinian fighters should be killed and their homes destroyed. Neither the Israeli government nor Facebook took action against Shaked, who is currently Israel’s minister of justice.
Being complicit in Israel’s crimes
Facebook does not make explicit its policies of censorship or the details of how it shares users’ account information with governments. However, it does report the number of requests for user data it receives from governments, and the number of cases to which it responds. Between January and June 2016, Facebook responded positively to more than 70 percent of Israel’s 432 requests for user data. By regional comparison, it responded positively to 16 percent of such requests from the Jordanian government, though Jordan asked for only 25 users’ data.
No wonder: Israel is putting pressure on Facebook through strategies such as a law that would make it obligatory for the company to cooperate with Israel on posts that the state deems constitute incitement. In addition, a New York district court case is under way in which 20,000 Israelis are demanding that Facebook block alleged Palestinian incitement. While there is a category for Palestine in Facebook’s government requests report, it has not been active since 2014. This does not mean, however, that hateful rhetoric and calls to violence against Palestinians are not being posted by Israelis.
In aiding the Israeli government, which in its rule of the occupied territory gives Palestinians no political or civil rights, including that of free speech, [Facebook] is supporting an occupier in its oppression of the occupied
The organisation for which I serve as director, The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, or 7amleh (pronounced hamleh), recently published a report on research it conducted on racism and incitement in the Israeli media.
We found that the number of inflammatory posts made by Jewish Israelis against Arabs and Palestinians more than doubled in 2016 as compared with 2015, to 675,000 posts. These were mainly on Facebook; examples include “rape all Arabs and throw them in the sea” and “a morning with lots of energy to slaughter Arabs”. Not a single case of incitement against an Israeli has been opened.
Facebook says that it maintains political neutrality by following local laws. But in aiding the Israeli government, which in its rule of the occupied territory gives Palestinians no political or civil rights, including that of free speech, it is supporting an occupier in its oppression of the occupied – a politically charged stance. And because Israel is violating international law via such practices as illegal settlement building, Facebook is also by default complicit in those practices. In a more directly complicit move, the company allows advertisements for settlement homes in the West Bank on its pages.
Facebook would do well to rethink its collaboration with Israel. In lieu of such a bold move, the company could, as a coalition of US social and racial justice organisations recently urged, adopt reforms that would target abusive content but cease the censorship of political speech. Or it could simply make its policies on censorship and information sharing explicit so that users know the risks of using its services. The rights – and lives – of Palestinians are at stake.