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Tech Giants Help Israel Muzzle Palestinians

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Israel's caretaker prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, sought to shut down all use of the popular video-sharing app TikTok in Israel last month. The attempt to censor TikTok, details of which emerged last weekend, is one of a number of reported attempts by Israel to control social media content during last month's military assault on the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu tried to impose the blackout as Israel faced an international social media outcry over its 11-day attack on Gaza, which killed more than 250 Palestinians, and the violent repression by Israeli police of Palestinian protests in occupied East Jerusalem and inside Israel. Government law officers are understood to have resisted the move.

Benny Gantz, the defense minister, also lobbied senior officials at Facebook and TikTok to crack down on posts critical of Israel, labelling them incitement and support for terror. The tech giants responded by agreeing to act "quickly and effectively," according to a statement from Gantz's office.

The revelations follow widespread reports last month that social media corporations regularly removed posts that referred to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Israel recently stepped up moves to force out Palestinian families and replace them with Jewish settlers. Social media users and digital rights organizations also reported censorship of posts about the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

Threats of expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah and an invasion by Israeli soldiers of al-Aqsa were the main triggers causing Hamas to fire rockets into Israel last month. Israel responded by destroying swaths of Gaza.

Shadowy cyber unit

Israel's success in manipulating social media last month follows warnings from Israeli human rights groups about the longer-term threat of Israeli censorship faced by Palestinians. Adalah, a legal rights group in Israel, said a shadowy Israeli government "cyber unit" - which works hand in hand with tech giants like Facebook and Twitter - had been given "a blank check" to police social media and muzzle online dissent. Israel's supreme court ruled in April that the cyber unit could continue its often secretive operations from inside the justice ministry, arguing that its work contributed to national security.

Since 2016, the cyber unit has removed many tens - and more likely hundreds - of thousands of Palestinian social media posts in collaboration with global tech corporations. The posts are erased without any legal oversight and usually without notifying users, Adalah pointed out. In many cases, users' accounts are suspended or removed entirely, or access to whole websites blocked. The vast bulk of those being silenced are Palestinians - either those under a belligerent Israeli occupation or those who live inside Israel with degraded citizenship.

The cyber unit was established in late 2015, part of a raft of measures by Israel purportedly intended both to identify "terrorists" before they strike and to curb what Israel describes as "incitement". Given the opaque nature of the process, it is impossible to know what content is being taken down, Rabea Eghbariah, one of the Adalah lawyers who filed a petition against the unit to Israel's high court, told The Electronic Intifada. Examples in the Israeli media, however, suggest that Israel regularly targets posts critical of Israel's belligerent occupation or express solidarity with Palestinians.

The court petition to end the cyber unit's work was filed in November 2019 by Adalah, which represents 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of Israel's population. According to Adalah, the unit's methods violate "the constitutional rights of freedom of expression and due process".

In approving those methods, Adalah observed, the courts had conferred on the Israeli state the "unchecked" power "to govern online speech" and had allowed private tech companies to usurp control of the judicial process. Eghbariah said Palestinians could rarely challenge their silencing on social media. The tech companies do not reveal when Israel is behind the censorship or what "terms of service" have been violated.

In court, Israeli officials defended their sweeping suppression of online content by arguing that ultimately social media companies like Google and Facebook were free to decide whether to accede to its requests.

News sites shuttered

However, Israeli officials have previously boasted that the tech giants almost always agree to remove whatever content Israel demands. In 2016, the justice ministry reported that Facebook and Google were "complying with up to 95 percent of Israeli requests to delete content" - almost all of it Palestinian. Eghbariah told The Electronic Intifada that some 80 percent of Israel's referrals for removing content relate to Facebook and its other major platform, Instagram, both of which are heavily used by Palestinians.

The next most targeted site was YouTube, where Palestinians often post videos showing attacks by Jewish settlers illegally taking over Palestinian land or Israeli soldiers invading Palestinian communities. The accounts of Palestinian news agencies and journalists have also been repeatedly shut down. Eghbariah noted that submissions by Israel's cyber unit to social media platforms had skyrocketed since it was set up. In 2019, the last year for which there are figures, some 19,600 requests to remove content were submitted - an eightfold increase on three years earlier. He added that each referral to a tech company could relate to tens or hundreds of posts, and that the removal of a whole website typically counted as a single request.

"What's noticeable is the increasing cooperation rate of the social media platforms," he said. "In 2016, three quarters of Israeli requests were complied with. By 2019 that had risen to 90 per cent."

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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