By Ramzy Baroud
It is ironic that even right-wing former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Knesset bill that proposed giving the government greater power to control and suppress online content. This was in 2016, when the bill was introduced by Netanyahu’s Likud party rival, Gideon Sa’ar.
Some analysts argued that Netanyahu feared that a law aimed at suppressing Palestinian freedom of speech online could be exploited by his enemies to control his own speech and incitement. Now that Netanyahu is no longer in the picture, the bill is back, and so is Sa’ar.
Sa’ar is currently Israel’s justice minister and deputy prime minister. While his boss, Naftali Bennett, is moving rapidly to expand settlements and worsen the already horrific realities for Palestinians on the ground, Sa’ar is taking the Israeli military occupation of Palestinians into the digital realm. What is known as the “Facebook law” is set to grant “Israeli courts the power to demand the removal of user-generated content on social media content platforms that can be perceived as inflammatory or as harming ‘the security of the state,’ or the security of people or the security of the public,” according to the Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition.
The PDRC and the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council stated last month that Israeli censorship of Palestinian content online has deepened since 2016, when Sa’ar’s bill was first introduced. In their statement, the two organizations highlighted the fact that Israel’s so-called cyber unit had submitted 2,421 requests to social media companies to delete Palestinian content in 2016. That number has grown exponentially since and the cyber unit alone has requested the removal of more than 20,000 Palestinian posts. The groups suggest that the new legislation, which was last month approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and will next go before the Knesset, “would only strengthen the relationship between the cyber unit and social media companies.”
However, that relationship is already strong, at least with Facebook, which routinely censors Palestinian content and has been heavily criticized by Human Rights Watch and other similar organizations. After examining numerous allegations of censorship, Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at HRW, concluded that “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine.”
Facebook’s involvement in Israeli efforts to silence the Palestinian voices that call for justice, freedom and an end to the occupation comes from an agreement the company reached with Tel Aviv in September 2016. Then, the Israeli government announced that it had signed a deal with the social media giant “to work together to determine how to tackle incitement on the social media network.” Within days, the accounts of many prominent Palestinian journalists and activists reportedly began being deleted.
The proposed Facebook law does not just pertain to controlling content on Facebook-owned platforms, including Instagram. According to a Haaretz editorial published on Dec. 29, the impact of this particular bill could be far-reaching, as it would grant district court judges throughout the country the power to remove posts “from any website at all.”
Unsurprisingly, Israel’s censorship of Palestinian content is justified under the typical pretense of protecting “national security.” We all know how Israel interprets this elusive concept to include anything from a Palestinian calling for Israel to be held accountable for its crimes in the Occupied Territories to another demanding the end of Israeli apartheid and a third writing a poem. A case in point was the humiliating imprisonment of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour. The Israeli citizen was jailed in 2018 for writing a short poem entitled “Resist, My People, Resist Them.”
Judging by past experience, the proposed Facebook law will almost exclusively target Palestinians. Moreover, based on Israel’s previous successes, many digital and social media companies will simply comply with the demand to censor Palestinians everywhere.
In a Jan. 11 report, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement detailed some of the practices that Israel engages in to monitor, silence and spy on Palestinians. The report, entitled “Hashtag Palestine 2021,” discusses the increasing use of surveillance technologies, particularly in the context of a proposed Israeli law that would expand the use of facial recognition cameras in public spaces. It is worth noting that such technologies have been used against Palestinians at Israeli military checkpoints throughout the West Bank for at least two years.
Moreover, the Israeli Pegasus spyware, which has recently made headlines throughout the world for its use against numerous high-profile figures, has also long been used to monitor Palestinian activists. In other words, Palestine continues to be the testing ground for Israel’s various human rights violations, whether in new weaponry, crowd control or surveillance.
Expectedly, what applies to Palestinians demanding their freedom online does not apply to Israelis inciting violence and spreading hatred against those same Palestinians. According to the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement’s “Index of Racism and Incitement,” published last June, “incitement in Hebrew against Arabs and Palestinians increased by 15 times” during the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip and subsequent anti-Palestinian violence in May 2021 when compared to the same period the previous year. Much of this has gone unnoticed and it is hardly the subject of the proposed Facebook law or the sinister activities of the cyber unit. For Sa’ar and his ilk, anti-Palestinian incitement, along with the daily violence meted out against the occupied Palestinians, is a non-issue.
While Israel is permitted, thanks to the deafening silence of the international community, to maintain its military occupation of Palestine, cement its apartheid and deepen its control of Palestinian life everywhere, it should not be permitted to expand this matrix of control to the digital realm. Civil society organizations, activists and ordinary people everywhere must speak out to bring an end to this travesty.
Moreover, as our experiences of the Pegasus spyware and the facial recognition surveillance technologies have taught us, what is usually first applied to Palestinians is eventually normalized and applied everywhere else. Israel should, therefore, be confronted over its abuses of human rights in Palestine. If they are allowed to become normalized, they will become a part of our daily lives, regardless of where we are in the world.