Palestinians decry increase in arrests for ‘incitement to violence’ on social media

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Ahed Tamimi, the 17-year-old who became a symbol of Palestinian oppression after she was detained for slapping two Israeli soldiers at a demonstration in the West Bank, accepted a military court plea deal last week sentencing her to eight months in prison. 

Her mother, Nariman, was also sentenced to several months in jail on charges of incitement – because she live streamed the incident on Facebook.

Both plea bargains were immediately decried by rights activists as an unfair outcome of an unfair system. The military court sentencing of Ahed, a minor, is illegal under international law. 

Nariman Tamimi’s punishment, however, reflects a growing trend in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, for which there is little legal precedent. 

The number of people arrested for “incitement to violence” through online activity or social media posts has skyrocketed in the last few years, sparking increasing worries over freedom of expression from Palestinian rights organisations. 

“It’s a growing problem,” Mousa Rimawi, director of the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (Mada), told The Independent. 

“Social media sites are … an efficient window to empower journalists and Palestinians in general to express their opinions freely,” he added. “Systematic surveillance and observation by the Israeli authorities [means they have become] an open platform for persecution and oppression relating to users’ opinions.”

The state, worried that inflammatory content online has fuelled a spike in recent Israeli-Palestinian violence known as the “Jerusalem Intifada”, created a cybercrime unit in October 2015 to monitor and censor what is published on the internet. 

A delegation from Facebook also met with Israeli government officials last year for what were were described as “successful” talks by interior minister Gilad Erdan’s office. 

“Online extremism can only be tackled with a strong partnership between policymakers, civil society, academia and companies, and this is true everywhere,” a representative for Facebook said at the time, adding that the company meets with governments all over the world to combat hate speech and incitement to violence. 

Facebook did not respond to The Independent’s latest request for comment, but the company has previously denied there is any formal arrangement between the platform and the Israeli authorities. 

While digital rights groups warned legislation would be unworkable, a “Facebook bill” currently being debated by the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, would force internet giants such as Facebook and Google to remove content by police recommended court orders.

The law is waiting for a second reading. From an Israeli perspective, the other task force results so far have been incredibly successful.

A new report from 7amleh (pronounced Hamleh), The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, found that since October 2016 at least 150 arrests have been made on charges of online incitement to violence – almost double the number in previous years. There are hundreds of reports of influential activist or journalistic accounts being suspended or shut down. 

“Tracking potential incidents on social media is by far the most effective way to deal with the terrorist threat,” superintendent Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesperson, told The Independent. “We don’t wait for a red alert to act. As a result, the public are much safer.”

While the number of attacks has decreased, critics say the monitoring mechanism is an opaque system and fraught with problems. Palestinians and digital rights monitors say that in many cases flagged posts are not relevant, or are critical of Israeli government policy, rather than direct calls to violence. 

In one highly publicised case in October 2017, a West Bank construction worker’s “good morning” post – accompanied by a picture of him leaning against a bulldozer – was translated by Facebook’s artificial intelligence-powered translation service as “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English. The man was arrested and questioned for several hours before it was realised that a mistake had been made. 

Teenagers in particular have run afoul of the new law for posting cryptic messages. Fifteen-year-old Tamara Abu Laban from occupied East Jerusalem recently posted “Forgive me”, which the Israeli authorities interpreted as a sign she was about to carry out a resistance attack. 

The minor was interrogated for 11 hours, ordered to remain under house arrest for five days and charged a combined bail and fine of 11,500 shekels (£2,300). 

Facebook activity is also increasingly being used as evidence in military trials of Palestinians, according to rights group Addameer. 

“Prosecutors use the numbers of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ of specified posts, while failing to connect these posts or these individuals, to acts of violence,” Sahar Francis, Addameer’s director, recently told The Independent. “The trend is an alarming one.” 

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Many Palestinians have called for boycotts of the company for perceived collusion with the Israeli authorities and worries over the fact Facebook activity could be used to target activists – but the platform remains central to Palestinian civil society. 

A 2015 report found that 96 per cent of Palestinians said their primary use of Facebook was for following news. Mada says that this shows the extreme importance of social media platforms and thus the potential impact disabling or monitoring accounts could have for the dissemination of information relevant to Palestinian interests.

“This a new venue to prosecute both activists and normal Palestinians,” Mr Rimawi said. “These allegations are usually vague and imprecise. Israel has once again failed to abide by its legal obligations as an occupying power to ensure the protection to civil rights of the Palestinian people.”–