by Miriam Deprez
Ahmad Shalalda had barely taken off his shoes and entered his home in the Old City of Ramallah before Israeli military officers had surrounded his house.
Fearing he’d be another arbitrary arrest by Israeli military, the then-twenty-one-year-old fled, climbing onto his roof, jumping to a neighbor’s house, and running down the street. He was unaware at the time—this was in November 2015—why the Israeli Defence Force was after him.
With Shalalda on the lam, the force detained his father, keeping him for twenty-four hours, a controversial tactic which, according to the human rights group Addameer, Israel sometimes uses as a mechanism to coerce people to surrender.
“I didn’t want to turn myself in. It stayed like that for one week, every day [the Israeli “Defence” Force] calling me, every day threatening my father,” Shalada tells me. “They were threatening to come to destroy my house. They threatened to kill me, to shoot me.”
After one week, Shalada delivered himself into Ofer, a military prison located near Ramallah. “They began asking me about other Palestinians, about who throws stones, and who owns guns,” Shalalda recalls during a meeting at a cafe in Ramallah in June. “They wanted me to give them names, but I didn’t give them any.”
And then the authorities, according to Shalalda, “opened my Facebook on my phone, without me showing them or granting them permission.”
For the next five months, Israeli military kept Shalada in administrative detention with no charge. During his first month in Ofer, he told me, eighteen sets of investigations were leveled against him regarding his Facebook posts from 2015. The charges were channeled through Israel’s military court system, which according to a 2011 report has a 99.7 percent conviction rate.
Shalalda’s arrest and detention occurred during a surge of violent activity between Palestinians and Israelis that caused some to worry about a “third Intifada.”
“Every day, there was an operation in Jerusalem,” Shalalda says. “Every day, someone was being killed. Every day, they [Israelis] were invading Al Aqsa. And I was making posts, calling for an end to the occupation and end to the suffering.”
Shalalda shrugs. “Just normal stuff,” he tells me.
Ater five months of investigations, Shalalda says he was charged with incitement and an attempt to conceive a violent operation against Israel, which he denies. His sentence was ten months in prison and a 2,000 shekel ($570 U.S.) fine.
7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, reported in 2018 that Israeli authorities arrested around 350 Palestinians in the West Bank on charges of “incitement” because of their posts on social media—up from 300 arrests in 2017.
“This is part of the [Israeli] occupation,” says Nadim Nashif, executive director of 7almeh. “[It’s] not just the physical occupation, but now the occupation of the online space.”
In contrast, Nashif’s organization highlights a “staggering” increase in incidents of racism and hate speech in pro-Israeli social media, calculating that an inciting post is made against a Palestinian every sixty-six seconds. The group counted 474,250 posts calling for violence, racial profiling, and insults against Palestinians, and that in all posts about “Arabs,” one out of ten contained an insult or call for violence against Palestinians.
Nashif also explains how the lack of enforcement on Israeli social media means they are emboldened to incite.
“The general atmosphere in Israel is that if you are saying things against Arabs and Palestinians you can keep saying them, because, at the end of the day, nobody will hold you accountable,” Nashif says, adding that there have only been a few cases where Israelis were charged with incitement but, in the end, didn’t serve jail time.
“If you say certain things as Palestinians you probably very quickly will be jailed,” he says. “But if you are an Israeli and you say the same thing, nobody will say anything to you.”
Governments around the world are grappling with how to draw the line between what counts as free speech in social media posts and what constitutes real security threats. In the United States, for example, there have been several incidents in recent years in which political activists have been arrested and even jailed due to the content of their Facebook posts.
In Australia, sweeping legislation was brought in to regulate social media platforms after a gunman posted a hate-filled manifesto online before using Facebook to live-stream the massacre of fifty people at two mosques in New Zealand in March this year. The new laws threaten social media companies with huge fines and jail time for executives if they fail to quickly remove “abhorrent violent material” from their platforms.
In Israel, broad language in laws regarding “prohibition of incitement and hostile propaganda” enables authorities to easily bring charges for speech they don’t like. In addition, citizens of Israel, including Palestinians from East Jerusalem, face up to five years in prison if an “inciting” social media post has allegedly caused violent or terrorist activities. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, under military law, face up to ten years of imprisonment.
Israeli Knesset introduced in 2017 what became known as the “Facebook law,” allowing Israeli courts to force Facebook and other social media sites to remove any content they might deem as “inciting.” Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu halted the progress of the bill in July 2018, according to Maaddi, because he considered the law project’s vocabulary “not precise enough” such that it might affect the freedom of expression of Israelis.
In December 2018, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan instructed the Knesset to advance a “leaner” version of the Facebook Bill. The bill, according to the The Times of Israel, “aims to empower the courts to issue an order for the removal of online content that constitutes a criminal offense or that could harm an individual’s or the country’s security.”
Shalada’s case highlights the dual legal system Israel imposes on the West Bank. Palestinians who live there are ruled under military law, whereas settlers are charged under civilian law. In other words, there are two separate sets of laws and court systems for people living in the same territory.
Israelis can still be charged for “incitement” under civilian law; however, this rarely happens.
The double standard is evident in Facebook’s own policies, swayed by the Israeli government. In 2016, far-right Israeli ministers, Gilad Erdan and Ayelet Shaked, held a meeting with Facebook’s administration, including Monika Bickert, director of global policy management at Facebook.
They agreed to work together to tackle incitement on the social media network, by creating teams to figure out how best to monitor and remove inflammatory content.
Afterward, Shaked said that between May and August 2016, the Israeli government made 158 requests to Facebook to delete Palestinian content, and that Facebook responded favorably to 95 per cent of them. In 2017, Facebook and Twitter accepted 85 per cent of the Israeli cyber units’ 12,351 requests to remove content deemed “harmful or dangerous.”
According to Qassam Maaddi, the media coordinator for Addameer, an organization that works on behalf of Palestinian prisoners, no anti-Palestinian Israeli content was deleted by Facebook during this time.
“This is part of the long-standing Israeli policy of suppression of Palestinian freedom of expression,” Maaddi says. “In short, this is what the occupation does.”
Or, as Shalalda puts it: “We used to be arrested for throwing stones, and now, we can’t even talk. Now, if anybody dreams, they will put him in prison.”