Update: This story has been updated to include Facebook’s denial of any formal agreement with the Israeli government.
Abed al-Salam Jihad al-Masri was working on a construction site in Nazareth, Israel, when Israeli Police officers arrested him.
Al-Masri, a 22-year-old geography major from Jenin who studies at An-Najah National University in the West Bank, did not have an arrest record. But on that day last August, he was handcuffed and sent to jail, he said, for exiting the Israeli military-occupied West Bank and entering Israel illegally.
While being interrogated by the police, al-Masri was asked to show an officer his Facebook profile, a controversial tactic that civil rights groups say has grown increasingly common in Israel and the West Bank. After looking at al-Masri’s Facebook, the government threw another charge at him: “incitement” on social media. He was then transferred to a military jail, and later sentenced to three months in prison.
“They accused me of posing a danger to the security of the Hebrew state and of incitement, of being a destroyer,” al-Masri said. “What does that mean? Basically, it’s code for terrorist.”
The charges stemmed from three Facebook posts, all of which were written before al-Masri’s arrest. One honored his “martyred” cousin, Izz al-Din Shahil al-Masri, a Hamas terrorist who carried out the 2001 bombing of a Sbarro pizza restaurant that killed 15 people. Another post expressed a young man’s frustrations and anger over Palestinians’ dwindling control of Jerusalem. A third showed a stock photograph of a handgun, and declared that some, unspecified, people learn respect only through violence.
Al-Masri is one of 470 Palestinians the Israeli government has imprisoned for social media “incitement” since 2015, according to Addameer, an organization that works on behalf of Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli Defense Forces declined to provide an exact figure of incitement charges, but acknowledged that there have been “a few hundred” since October 2015.
“In the past five to six years, we've seen more arrests from speech on Facebook or social media, in general.”
Advocacy groups say that many of these arrests are unjustified, and part of a growing effort by the Israeli government to criminalize dissent within its borders and extend its occupation of the West Bank into the digital sphere. The evidence of this, monitors say, is that policing extremism online tends to be one-sided.
“There are just a few cases concerning incitement by Jewish Israelis, and hundreds on the other side,” said Nadim Nashif, executive director of 7amleh: The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media. “It's about silencing voices that are critical.”
Adding to the concern is the broad language in Israeli military law that allows for incitement charges to be brought.
The new "city square"
This new form of policing puts social media companies that have long positioned themselves as champions of free speech — especially in the Middle East — in the crosshairs of politicians and governments looking to take the war on terror online.
In this regard, Facebook has been the epicenter.
“In the past five to six years, we've seen more arrests from speech on Facebook or social media, in general,” said Fady Khoury, an attorney for the Palestinian legal aid group Adalah.
Israel State Attorney Shai Nitzan addressed the new use of Facebook in a speech at Tel Aviv University this past June. “For us, the idea that we must change our conception of social networks has begun to spread,” Nitzan said. “This is the new ‘city square,’ which has a great and destructive influence.”
In September of 2016, Facebook and the Israeli government announced they had reached an agreement to work together on monitoring incitement on the platform’s pages. The announcement came at a time when Facebook was facing mounting pressure from Israeli politicians to do more to help stem a growing wave of violence, which officials largely attributed to social media.
A few months after the announcement, the state attorney’s office revealed in its 2016 annual report that it had requested the removal of 2,241 posts across all online platforms. About 91 percent of those posts were identified as “inciting terror or violence,” but the agency does not keep its own records on the posts that are removed. And according to Adalah 1,575 of those posts — 70 percent — were removed in violation of Israeli free speech protections.
The Israeli government’s collaboration with Facebook has been heavily scrutinized from the start, with rights groups and journalists warning that such agreements could quickly slide into censorship. Facebook, for its part, seems aware of the controversy. In January of last year, one of its executives denied “any agreements between Facebook and Israel.” Facebook denied any formal agreement with the Israeli government, and declined to comment further for this article.
But with more and more arrests falling under the "incitement on social media" charge, rights groups worry Israel is trawling Facebook, looking for reasons to censor Palestinian speech or arrest political dissidents, regardless of the credibility of threats.
Israel isn’t alone in this regard. Governments around the world are increasingly treating Facebook posts like public speech that can be targeted by law enforcement. Over the past few years in the U.S., for example, political activists have been jailed for critical social media posts that law enforcement claims constitute illegal threats. And in Egypt, President Sisi’s government has been among the worst offenders, repeatedly arresting political activists for posts on Facebook, a tactic human rights monitors warn erodes basic freedoms.
Fighting terrorism or policing dissent?
For al-Masri, a Palestinian in the West Bank, the progression from Facebook post to prison sentence has been especially daunting, as he’s outside the purview of the Israeli Ministry of Justice and thus denied the due process rights afforded to Israeli citizens. Instead, he was taken into custody by the Israeli Police, and then processed through Israel’s military court system — which has a conviction rate of nearly 100 percent and allows Palestinians to be held in prison indefinitely.
“They didn’t understand my poem.”
For Israeli citizens or for those who allegedly commit crimes on Israeli soil, the process can also be intimidating, even if they enjoy greater protections under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice’s state attorney’s office.
Dareen Tatour, a poet who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was arrested on incitement charges for posting her poetry.
“They didn’t understand my poem,” Tatour said to Reuters in October. “There is no call for violence. There is a struggle; they cast it as violent.”
Tatour’s arrest has drawn international condemnation from writers, artists, and academics, but advocates say it’s hardly unique. In October, the Israeli Police arrested a Palestinian worker for a Facebook post in which they believed he threatened a terrorist attack, but they released him after they realized they'd mistranslated the phrase “Good morning.”
In April 2017, a 16-year-old Palestinian named Nour Issa was placed under administrative detention and charged with incitement on Facebook. More recently, in December, the mother of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager arrested for slapping an armed soldier, was arrested and later charged with “incitement” for broadcasting the incident on Facebook Live.
These cases are part of a broader effort by Israel to combat extremism online, which it argues helps in their fight against terrorism but which critics say appears more often like a campaign against political dissent. An IDF spokesperson insisted that they are not interested in stifling freedom of speech and are only focused on calls for violence or speech linked to terrorist activity.
A “significant increase”
Many of these “incitement” cases are handled by the Ministry of Justice, whose state attorney’s office established a dedicated Cybercrime Unit in 2015, one of several programs the Israeli government claims has been a vital tool in stopping terrorists before they strike. The unit was created to prosecute a variety of crimes committed online, including computer virus creation and online scams, though it has drawn the most attention for its incitement cases.
In June 2017, State Attorney Nitzan said there had been a “significant increase” in social media incitement prosecution, in two key respects: a higher volume of investigations, indictments, and requests for detention; and an increase in the severity of the punishments handed down.
Nitzan justified this new enforcement regime as an effective and proactive method for stopping terrorists, citing reports from the Israeli security service that link inciting content with terror attacks.
Much of the Cybercrime Unit’s work, which critics contend to be unlawful, is what the unit calls “alternative enforcement” — or online censorship — in which Palestinians’ posts on social media are removed.
“They just monitor or review certain posts on social media, and if they determine internally that a certain post constitutes a criminal offense, they would seek to have it removed,” said Khoury.
Beyond the state attorney’s office, the Israeli security agency the Shin Bet and the IDF are ramping up their social media-based arrests. About 400 Palestinians were arrested by the Israeli military and the Shin Bet earlier in 2017 after being identified by an Israeli algorithm meant to catch “lone wolf” terrorists on social media before they acted, according to an April story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. An additional 400 were arrested by Palestinian authorities, acting on names given to them by the Israelis.
“They make them open Facebook, and they look for posts of incitement.”
Increasingly, Palestinian rights’ advocates say, Israeli forces are throwing social media incitement charges onto initial offenses that are far less serious — like they did with al-Masri, who was pulled aside for entering Israel without a permit only to be locked up for three months on “incitement” charges.
An IDF spokesperson defended the practice, suggesting it was no different than standard policing procedure elsewhere.
“It’s like getting pulled over for a busted taillight, and then having contraband in the vehicle, in a sense,” said the IDF spokesperson. “He did one thing that was the severe violation, and then something else became apparent.”
Al-Masri’s lawyer characterized it differently, suggesting that Israeli forces were looking for more severe penalties to slap onto more minor infractions.
“It’s not normal, but recently we’re seeing a policy of following Palestinians and their social media posts,” said Mahmoud Hassan, an Addameer attorney who is representing al-Masri. “They make them open Facebook, and they look for posts of incitement.”