Digital Rights Denied: Palestinians, ICT, and Shrinking Cyberspace

Photograph by the Author, Nabi Samuel (West Bank), 2018

A Palestinian and a Jewish Citizen of Israel write a post on Facebook. The Jewish Israeli expresses the intention to commit an attack on Palestinians. The Palestinian expresses the intention to commit an attack on Jews. They release the posting at exactly the same time. A few hours later, the Jewish Israeli finds his post being celebrated with 600 likes and hundreds of comments. Meanwhile, the Palestinian finds himself stuck at the local Police office for interrogation.

What sounds like a morbid joke is, in fact, the result of an experiment conducted by an Israeli news station. And it is only a glimpse in into the realities of ICT for Palestinians.

Arrests for Facebook Posts are on the Rise… for Some

According to the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association “Addameer”, Israel arrested around 300 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on the grounds of Facebook posts In 2017 (7amleh 2017, p.5). Among them is Nariman Tamimi, who was charged for incitement after she live-streamed on Facebook her daughter Ahed’s infamous confrontation with an Israeli soldier. Her charge: incitement. In another incident, a Palestinian man was arrested for posting “good morning”. Facebook had mistakenly translated his greeting to “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English. Most recently, the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour made the headlines when she was charged for incitement after sharing her poem “Resist my People, Resist” on social media.

The extent of online incitement charges depends not only on the content of the post, but also on the amount of interaction it received. The more likes and shares a post receives, the higher the charge (Adameer, 24 August 2016).

The grounds on which content is seen as incitement are vague, and the debate over the legitimacy of incitement sentences exceed the scope of this blog. What is clear however, is that incitement is not a Palestinian phenomenon. According to a study conducted by 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement for Social Media,  an inciting post against Palestinians is uploaded every 71 seconds. While Israelis are rarely persecuted for hate speech and calls to violence, Palestinians face persecution for their online activities from more than one side.

Three Big Brothers Watching

Out of 530 violations against media freedoms recorded by MADA in the West Bank and Gaza, 376 were committed by Israel. The remaining 154 cases account for violations by Palestinian entities, namely the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas (MADA, 2017, p.2).

On 24 July 2017, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas signed the so-called “Cybercrime Law”, which provided the PA with legal instruments to enforce real-life consequences on everything said or done online. Ever since the law has been passed, 29 websites have been banned and countless journalists, activists and critics of the Palestinian leadership have been arrested for expressing their opinions online. Palestinian civil society organizations have condemned the law for its infringement on freedom of expression (p.16). While the law has since been amended, their concerns remain.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmy7DNAV6RU&t=3s[/youtube]

Facebook, Google & Airbnb: Deepening the Division

While incitement became a central buzzword in debates about the digital rights of Palestinians, it remains only a fraction of a larger debate. Of particular concern to Palestinian Human Rights organizations, is the alleged favouritism that big tech companies exhibit within the conflict. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked herself praised her cooperation with Facebook, announcing that the platform has followed through with 85% of the Israeli government’s requests to remove Palestinian content (7amleh 2017 report p.32).

Driving through the West Bank and some Palestinian villages in Israel, Google Maps is not of much use, as the application decided not to display Palestinian areas. Israeli villages, cities and even settlements in the West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law, are displayed to the smallest detail.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/BaA_MDMWakI[/youtube]

And then there is Airbnb. The Fourth Geneva Convention clearly prohibits any economic benefits as a result of the occupation. Yet, Airbnb has so far refused to distinguish between rentals in illegal settlements in the West Bank, from those in Israel, possibly misguiding consumers who may not be aware they have spent their holiday in a settlement on occupied territory (Fatafta, p.30).

A Struggle over (Cyber) Space

Yet another restriction to Palestinian digital rights is the Israeli control over Palestinian telecommunication under the pretext of security coordination. This means, for instance, that Israel continues to control the electromagnetic sphere. As a consequence, Palestinian transmission stations such as radio channels can be restricted at any time. Moreover, the import of ICT equipment also remains under Israeli control, which puts Palestinian ICT providers at a severe disadvantage vis-a-vis widespread and highly developed Israeli operators (Fatafta, p. 9)

Despite these restrictions, ICT is all-encompassing among Palestinians. In 2017, a total of 1,110,582 Palestinian citizens of Israel used the internet, and 3,018,770 internet users were registered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, making 60,5 % of population ICT-literate. (7amleh, 2017, p.4). Facebook and WhatsApp are the most widely used social media platforms, closely followed by Instagram and YouTube  (p.9). These platforms are an important tool for Palestinians to comment on political developments, document Human Rights violations, express frustration with their situation, and convey their own narratives vis-à-vis powerful news outlets that often forget to consult them.

However, with the PA’s cybercrime law and recent efforts by the Israeli government to pass a law that prohibits the filming of Israeli soldiers, 90% of Palestinian journalists say they practice self-censorship (MADA).

Space for Palestinians to express themselves is shrinking, both online and offline. Development and Human Rights Organizations who are active in Palestine and claim a commitment to participatory approaches, good governance and media development thus have an obligation to address this issue.

If you found this blog post interesting, stay tuned for my next one, which will pick up the debate where this text left of and discuss development agencies’ mandate in advancing digital rights.


About this blog post:

This blog post has been inspired by a meeting with Palestinian civil society representatives that work in the field of Freedom of Media in which many of these issues were raised. Part of this blog has been written from a cafe, close to my room in East Jerusalem. When I asked the Palestinian owner for the WIFI password, he looked at me with a straight face and said, “Jerusalem is ours – all small and written together”. I paused for a while before I typed the password into my computer to continue my research on digital incitement. Is it incitement when a Palestinian, or an Israeli, says “Jerusalem is ours”? Is it enough to get in trouble? After five trips to this place, I know very well that it is, that some see this sentence as incitement. Books could be written about what is or isn’t incitement, but this is not the purpose of this blog post. This text aimed to highlight some restrictions and inequalities Palestinians face when expressing themselves through ICT. During my research, I became aware that there is, as always, a very different narrative on the other side and there is no lack of writings about anti-Israeli bias on Facebook. To follow up on this narrative, read more and more.

Key Sources: 

7amleh: 7AMLEH is the only Palestinian non-governmental organization dedicated to utilizing online resources to empower marginalized Palestinian communities and enhance their capacities in advocacy and raising social awareness. Our values are based on the unwavering belief of freedom of speech, we work to protect the digital rights and freedom of speech for Palestinians. 7amleh, through its dynamic and community-based approach, works in response to the subjugation of Palestinian voices and aims to build a Palestinian society that is able to breach geopolitical boundaries and use digital platforms en masse to advance the community’s rights and well-being.

Addameer: Addameer is the Arabic word for conscience is a Palestinian non-governmental, civil institution that works to support Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. The center offers free legal aid to political prisoners, advocates their rights at the national and international level, and works to end torture and other violations of prisoners’ rights through monitoring, legal procedures and solidarity campaigns.

MADA: An independent, non-governmental, and non-profit organization with its headquarters in Ramallah. The center operates throughout the Palestinian territories, working to develop the Palestinian Media and to promote and defend media freedoms and freedom of expression.

The Aljazeera Listening Post: A weekly TV program that examines and dissects the world’s media, how they operate and the stories they cover.

 

9 Comments

  1. I recently listened to an NPR Fresh Air podcast on the ways in which the Israelis serve in the Israeli Defence Forces as part of their military service. On that podcast, two authors of a new book, ‘LikeWar’ (PW Singer and Emerson Brooking) talked about the different tactics employed by the IDF online, particularly on social media, which they call “viral marketing campaigns”.

    While it’s known that Israel both restricts hardware import and software download, not to mention bandwidth and access to social channels at times, he also brings up an interesting point that I was not aware of as an official IDF position. Instead of serving on the front line of the next offensive, young troopers can choose to serve out their national service on special IDF social media teams. These teams are formed to monitor and track conversations, not just of Palestinians, but also wider trends which they can use to piggyback their own content and ‘plant’ ideas in discourse. (Read more here: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-buys-social-media-monitoring-system-that-can-plant-ideas-1.5454695)

    They’ve now taken that even further and created an app that any person can download and sign up as a member of the ‘online’ IDF. Users are sent messages that they need to push on their own channels, which are of course in line with the approved IDF message on a particular topic, in order to earn small online rewards like points and badges.

    They also use the 2012 Pillar of Defence Operation as an example of how the IDF is using social media marketing to take their combat online, sometimes head to head with the leaders of ‘enemy’ group Hamas. There was incitement to combat in a war of public opinion, to let a global online population decide which side’s message went viral. They even correlated battlefield decisions as to what was playing out well on social media–what tactics and content was getting the most traction–and used that to develop next tactics.

    This is truly the “weaponisation” of social media and although absolutely fascinating it is terrifying to see this unfold against a restricted Palestinian online population who are punished for innocuous social posts as Israel spreads its propaganda.

    • Iuna

      Thank you so much for your comment Isobel. This is indeed a world that one should explore. Considering that a majority of Israelis enter the army with 18, it would be interesting how the army deals with the social media usage of their soldiers. From what I know, the positions in the army are incredibly diverse so spending your service dedicated to fields like radio journalism, public diplomacy and social media communication is a possibility – this definitely has the potential for great ComDev research, don’t you think?

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  5. Ashley

    The range of legal texts governing Palestine’s occupation, ranging from Ottoman, to British Protectorate, to Jordanian to International Humanitarian Law leave plenty of scope for ‘cherry-picking’ by an occupying force to serve its own interests, whether applied to security, settlements, or sovereignty. It is unsurprising that a double-standard arises. Compare and contrast the suspension of an Arab-Israeli Member of the Knesset (MK) Zoabi on the grounds of ‘incitement’ following her protest against the 2014 War with the words of MK Shaked on social media around the same time:

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/police-recommend-putting-zoabi-on-trial/?fb_comment_id=680250912050226_680856188656365#f348d0170674038

    https://www.dailysabah.com/mideast/2014/07/14/mothers-of-all-palestinians-should-also-be-killed-says-israeli-politician

    It would be interesting to read a post around how cameras are being used as a means of protection for Palestinians living in the different administrative divisions of the West Bank.

    • Iuna

      Thanks for your comment and the links you shared Ashley! Good to see that someone else is following the entire incitement debate! The usage of cameras is indeed extremely interesting in the context of conflicts. Just like any of the technologies I mentioned in my post they can be used for documentation of HR violations, documentation and advocacy on the one hand, and for surveillance or one-sided propaganda on the other hand. My next post will continue with this topic, assessing the potential that is forgone if development agencies ignore these ICT developments – hope you stay tuned :)!

  6. Alexandra

    Interesting to see the conflict enter into cyber-space and how the exact same problems around inequalities, freedom of expression, freedom of movement can also apply in this context.

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