Social media, another face of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
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!”.