Israel takes on Facebook to stop incitement to violence

Palestinian under house arrest for posting poem on social media.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked delivers a speech on "Internet usage and responsibility - legal means to curb online hate speech" in Budapest, Hungary, on June 6, 2016. Tamas Kovacs / MTI via AP
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JERUSALEM // Nine months ago, Dareen Tatour, an Arab citizen of Israel, posted a poem on Facebook about her frustration over the increasing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. A few days later, Israeli police banged on her door in the middle of the night and arrested her, accusing her of inciting violence.

She was also charged with supporting a terrorist organisation because — according to the indictment — she once expressed support for a Palestinian uprising She spent three months in jail and has since been held under house arrest near Tel Aviv. She was allowed only one 48-hour pass to visit her family on the first day of Eid. She also has to wear an ankle tag. .

She may soon not be the only one. Israel is now preparing to introduce legislation restricting content on social media, including Facebook, on the pretext that it is the driving force behind the escalation of Palestinian attacks in the last ten months. According to Israeli reasoning, social media provides a valuable platform for those wishing to spread violence and sites such as Facebook should be made accountable for any damage arising from posts which drive others to commit violence..

“Where is the democracy here? Voicing your opinion is the only medium for an individual in a democracy,” said Ms Tatour, 34, speaking by telephone. With no access to the internet and the restrictions on her movements, it is her only tool of communication.

Before her arrest, Ms Tatour worked as a carer for the elderly — a job she has since lost. Writing poetry was a hobby which she shared with close friends and 4,000 followers on Facebook. She has only ever read her poems in public on three occasions. The one that got her into trouble contained the lines “Resist, my people, resist them ... and follow the caravan of martyrs.” But she insists it was not a call to violence but an expression of anger at what she perceived as excessive force by the Israeli authorities. “I never thought I would be arrested for poetry,” she said.

It has, however, attracted the attention of more than 150 literary figures, including pro-Palestinian authors Alice Walker and Naomi Klein, calling for MsTatour’s release.

Ever since the tensions over a site regarded as holy by both Muslims and Jews boiled over into violence last September, Israel has repeatedly blamed allegedly inflammatory social media content — such as drawings depicting Jews being killed, or instructions on the most effective way to stab an Israeli for ramping up the attacks. A police monitoring team — the authorities won’t say how big it is, how long it has been operating or what search tools they use — scour hundreds of thousands of posts on social networks, searching for any that might be deemed as an incitement to violence. Posts that directly call for or encourage murder immediately set off alarms, but they also look for certain keywords, the type of exposure a post gets in terms of followers or likes and whether the user is affiliated with a militant group.

Shlomi Avramzon, a Justice Ministry official who heads a team that assesses content for incitement, says the process has built-in checks so as not to infringe the right to freedom of expression.

He says that unlike other crimes in Israel, police need to receive permission from the state attorney’s office before they can launch an investigation. If the state attorney’s office wants to issue an indictment, it must first receive clearance from the attorney general.

The Palestinians contend that any content deemed objectionable is a direct result, as well as e the violence itself — — of frustration and hopelessness after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation.

According to police figures obtained by the Israeli Movement for Freedom of Information, 426 Arabs were arrested for incitement between 2011 and 2015, much of it on social media. The figures did not differentiate between Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. During that period, around 64 Jews were also arrested. The Justice Ministry said 45 indictments had been served in the last 18 months, the majority against Arabs.

Palestinians in the West Bank are bound by Israeli military law, which has its own rules on incitement. The military says 100 indictments have been issued against Palestinians for incitement offences since last November.

Suhad Bishara, the acting director of Adalah, an Arab legal rights group, said that some investigations into incitement are justified but others challenge posts “that fall clearly within the realm of free expression.”

The new social media law, dubbed “the Facebook Law,” the Israeli authorities would be able to apply to the courts for permission to order social networks to remove posts in cases where the user cannot be found or is not under Israel’s jurisdiction.

As a test, Israel had asked Facebook to remove 74 posts deemed to amounted to incitement. Facebook agreed to remove 24. This, said Mr Erdan, showed that social networks need to be made accountable by law for the content on their sites. It was preferable to investigate people for posting potentially incriminating posts, even if they proved innocent, than to risk violence.

“We are left with no choice to protect the public other than advancing a law that will give us a legal tool to act against internet companies,” he said. “I’ve called on Mark Zuckerberg to take responsibility.”

* Associated Press