Social media, another face of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Friday 27/11/2015
Palestinians access social media networks to express their grievances. (Photos: Malak Hasan).

Ramallah - Fifteen minutes after she posted a comment on Fa­cebook, a special Israeli security unit stormed into the house of 14-year-old Tamara Abu Laban and arrested her for suspicion of plotting an attack.
After spending a night in a mili­tary vehicle for writing “forgive me if I upset anyone”, Tamara was placed under house arrest for five days and fined 2,000 shekels — about $514.
The authorities assumed Tamara was asking for forgiveness because she planned to carry out a suicide attack against Israelis but Tamara’s father ridiculed the Israeli no­tion, saying the teen was expressing her feelings in the virtual world, like her peers do.
In October, the Hebrew news website Walla! said 80 Palestinians were arrested under the pretext of incitement on Facebook. At the same time, an Israeli set­tler who blatantly threatened to kill Arab member of Israeli Knesset Ahmed al-Tibi was interrogated briefly and released.
Palestinians and Israelis re-en­tered a cycle of violence in mid- September. This time the dispute spread to social networks, which were transformed into battle­grounds.
Besides a war of words, social networks featured graphic images and videos of Palestinians, covered in blood, who were killed by Israeli soldiers during a spate of attempt­ed stabbings.
In response, Israeli Prime Min­ister Binyamin Netanyahu formed an Arabic-speaking cyber unit to monitor Palestinians’ personal Fa­cebook accounts to anticipate po­tential attacks. He linked online ac­tivity with tensions on the ground, saying “the incitement on the so­cial networks is what is causing the wave of terror”.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Minis­try of Foreign Affairs published a statement on its website saying, “the culture of hate in the Palestin­ian media, schools and social networks, together with the statements of Pales­tinian leaders, has reached new and gruesome heights”.
However, Israeli journalist Avi Is­sacharoff said in a report that after interviewing a number of arrested Palestinians, he concluded that tra­ditional ways of “incitement”, such as the word of mouth, were more ef­fective than social media.
Although Palestinians believe social media, especially Facebook, has become a battlefield where ac­tivists garner international support, disseminate information faster and, most importantly, motivate people to become more politically ac­tive and aware, they seem to support Issacharoff’s idea that social me­dia is not the rea­son behind recent events.
Activist Layan Mohammed, 29, who said she avoids political posts on her Facebook page, argued: “Those who choose to carry out at­tacks are driven by their own con­victions, beliefs and desire to resist Israel. They would have still done the same thing without social me­dia.”
Mohammed said: “During the first and second intifadas, Palestin­ians didn’t have Facebook or Twit­ter but that didn’t stop them from resisting Israel’s attempt to under­mine their rights and violate their holy sites.”
With about 2.9 million accounts on Facebook, Palestinians consider the social network as a prime source of information. They use it to share news and images and express their thoughts, which Israel considers to be a form of incitement.
From a point of view shared by many Palestinians, to praise a “martyr” or share news on a cer­tain incident is not incitement but a reflection of the reality, explained Tala Halawa, a researcher in digital media.
Mahmoud Hrebat, a radio talk-show host focusing on social media, said with around 84% of Palestinian Facebook users are aged 12-21 — the same age group participating in the recent incidents — it is likely that some were provoked by gruesome images of killings.
Palestinian and Israeli users of social media are utilising this ad­vanced platform to support their narrative. Within minutes, every­one can watch videos and see imag­es of battered and killed Palestinian youth or Israelis stabbed to death and start hashtags to convey a cer­tain message.
Mamoun Matar, a lecturer and re­searcher in digital media at Al-Quds University, said the main reason behind the spike in violence is not incitement on social media but dec­ades of Israeli oppression of Pales­tinians.
Israel accuses Palestinians of in­citement simply for resisting the oc­cupation. But Hrebat insisted it was the opposite with “Israel waging a war against Palestinian activists and threatening their lives because of their activity on social media”.
Hrebat said in the first two weeks of October Israelis shared more than 10,000 posts that encourage killing Palestinians, an increase of 300% over September.
Blogger Mohammad Abu Allan said that Israel’s social media war on Palestinians is as intense as in actual life, adding: “It’s unending!”.