Israeli Mob Organized Destruction of Arab Business on WhatsApp

Israeli online extremism researchers say they tried to warn police about the attack before it happened.
May 19, 2021, 5:18pm
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Image:  GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images.

A video posted to Twitter by the Israeli news channel Kan 11 on May 12 captured a mob of people destroying an Arab-owned ice cream shop in the city of Bat Yam. The video shows people kicking and swinging sticks to smash its glass storefront, tearing down a fence, and throwing it into the shop.

"I don't feel safe," Henry Sassin, the Arab owner of the ice cream shop, called Victory, told Israel's Channel 12. "They broke the entire place, all the glass. I have no idea what the damage is. We need to see what we can fix and what we can do."

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The mob in Bat Yam, the same city where a mob dragged a man out of his car and nearly beat him to death, was one of many that caused chaos and destruction across Israel and in particular in its "mixed" cities, which have both large Jewish and Arab populations. Israeli and international media have said that cities like Bat Yam "erupted" in violence after protests in East Jerusalem against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, and Israel's brutal bombing campaign against Gaza, which so far has killed more than 200 people, according to the health ministry in Gaza

But it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the mob violence by Israelis against Arabs in cities across the country is not spontaneous, and organized in private WhatsApp and Telegram groups. 

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Israeli extremists have formed more than 100 new groups on Facebook's Whatsapp to target attacks. Motherboard has also obtained a screenshot from one of these Whatsapp groups that specifically organized the destruction of Sassin's Victory ice cream shop.

"Shalom to all of Israel's Jewish citizens," the message, written in Hebrew, said. "I am honored to invite you to take part in a massive attack on Arabs that will take place today at 18:00 in the Bat Yam boardwalk (at Victory). Please arrive with the appropriate gear brass knuckles, swords, knives, sticks, pistols, and vehicles with bull bars."

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Motherboard first saw the Whatsapp message shared on Facebook by a user who was condemning it. The Facebook user did not respond to a request for comment.

The Telegraph previously reported that the owner of the ice cream shop Sassin saw the message.

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The message was shared in a Whatsapp group called "attacks on Arabs." FakeReporter, a group that monitors and reports disinformation and extremist content online, told Motherboard that it has seen the same message spread across many Whatsapp and Telegram groups. FakeReporter is partnered with the Democratic Bloc, an organization dedicated to defending democracy in Israel. Ori Kol, FakeReporter's cofounder, told Motherboard that the Whatsapp group is influenced by and includes members of "La Familia," the name for fans of Jerusalem's Israeli soccer team Beitar. Beitar's fans are infamously racist against Arabs, and are known to chant "death to the Arabs" at their soccer games. Another video of mobs in Bat Yam captures the same chant.

"Of course: wear a kippah, tzitzit, talit, and Israeli flag," the Whatsapp message said.

The kippah, tzitzit, and talit are Jewish garments that are worn by some observant Jews, and many Jews wear the tzitzit and kippah especially on a daily basis. The video of the mob destroying the Victory ice cream shop shared by Kan 11 shows that some of the people breaking the glass storefront are wearing the tzitzit (the white long threads hanging down the side of the legs), and in the kippah (the knitted cap on their head).

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Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter, told Motherboard that FakeReporter tried to warn Israeli police about the attack. 

"The Victory message was circulating hours before the attack, and we sent it to the police," Schatz said. "The messages are explicitly calling for people to get armed, and to attack people, and how to not get caught by the police."

FakeReporter also showed Motherboard multiple messages that were shared across multiple Telegram and Whatsapp groups that were nearly identical to the one that called for the attack on the ice cream shop in Bat Yam. These groups, Kol said, have already been removed. One message, which was shared before the message calling for the attack on the ice cream shop, contained the exact same language but called for an attack in Tel Aviv. FakeReporter speculates that this attack was redirected to Bat Yam because there was too much police presence in Tel Aviv.

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This message is identical to the one above, but was shared a day earlier and calls for violence in Tel Aviv instead of of Bat Yam.

Schatz said that FakeReporter tried to warn Israeli police about this online organizing for violence, but was initially ignored. 

"The police still doesn't understand that this is taking place online and that they need to stop it," he said. "We directed them to 20 specific locations where people were planning attacks."

Today, Schatz said, the police is more responsive to its reports, and FakeReporter has a “direct connection” to the city of Haifa, which has a large Arab population.

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“There's a ray of light here,” Schatz said. “The violence is surging, but a group of people got together [FakeReporter researchers], and without exaggeration, I think saved lives.”

Schatz also said that Telegram has not responded to its reporting, and that Facebook, which owns Whatsapp, has been slow to respond.

A WhatsApps spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement that "As a private messaging service, we do not have access to the contents of people's personal chats though when information is reported to us, we take action to ban accounts we believe may be involved in causing imminent harm. We also quickly respond to valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us."

However, both Schatz and Kol believe it's primarily the government's responsibility to stop the violence.

"It shouldn't be our job to do this," Kol said. "The same way the Iron Dome protects us from rockets, it's the government's job to protect us from how the violence in the streets is being organized online."

Joseph Cox contributed reporting to this piece.

This piece has been updated to include a statement from WhatsApp.