The Israeli government is frequently accused of silencing Palestinian activists. In the past year, more than 400 Palestinians have been arrested for material they’ve posted online. This is a brutally effective form of censorship in the Middle East, where online communication is a popular organizing tool that’s generally seen as independent of government interference. Palestinians often use social media to spread information about people who have been arrested or killed by government forces.
“Things like demolitions, tree uprootings, incursions into Gaza, shooting, harassing and taking captive our fishermen, shooting tear gas at school children walking to class ― the world would never hear about these things without social media,” said Saleema, a Palestinian activist who asked to be identified by her first name only, in a Twitter message to HuffPost. “With a giant like Facebook trying to shut us down & censoring us I feel like we are being shut off behind another wall that we can’t break through.”
The Israeli government also has a history of jailing Palestinians over online postings. In July, 25-year-old Samah Dweik was arrested for sharing a Facebook image that she said was only meant to express support for people who have died at the hands of Israeli military personnel. Members of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a network of nongovernmental organizations, raised the concern of censorship to the United Nations on Tuesday.
Israeli officials say they are simply trying to prevent violence inspired by social media posts. The meetings between Facebook and Israeli officials followed a wave of Palestinian knife attacks on Israeli civilians and military personnel over the past year, which Israeli officials have blamed on social media incitement. From September 2015 to July 2016, Palestinian attackers killed 34 Israelis. (In the same time frame, Israeli forces killed 200 Palestinians.)
“Just as ISIS video clips are being monitored and removed from the network, we want them to take the same action against Palestinian material that incites terrorism,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said at the International Conference on Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv earlier this month.
But Palestinians say the violence is not occurring because of social media posts ― it’s happening because of the deep anger that many people hold over 50 years of military occupation and human rights violations.
Blaming social media for the aggression allows Israelis to focus on something other than their own state’s role in the occupation, experts say. When the debate is framed around social media, it means technology companies like Facebook have to worry about their own alleged liability in the fighting in the region ― and thus have an incentive to repress even innocuous posts that could one day get them in trouble. The pressure on social media providers is real: In July, the families of Israelis killed by a Palestinian sued Facebook for $1 billion.
“What’s really upsetting about all this [talk of online incitement] is how it sterilizes Israel’s own role in creating these conditions, and attributes it to Palestinian culture ― saying Arabs and Muslims are inherently violent,” said Noura Erakat, an assistant professor at George Mason University. “The unfortunate part is that Facebook has been responsive to this, because they’re trying to protect themselves from a lawsuit.”
If Facebook makes it harder for Palestinians to describe their own reality, social media will fail to deliver on its promise to help amplify the voices of oppressed communities, Erakat argued.
Still, the Palestinians say they are not deterred. Abu Arafeh plans to continue reporting in the region and using Facebook when he can, he told HuffPost.
“Treat the Palestinians as you treat the Israelis ― we don’t want any violence, we just want our messages to be heard,” Abu Arafeh said. “We are only asking to have the freedom to express our opinion.”