As digital activism grows across the occupied territories, with social media serving as a crucial tool of accountability for those in power, Palestinian social media users often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
More and more Palestinians are using social media as a political tool. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter offer a space where Palestinians can follow and disseminate the latest news, express their opposition to the ongoing Israeli military occupation, and criticize policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.
But as more Palestinians enter the digital sphere, the past few years have seen an increase in the violations of privacy rights, access to information, and freedom of expression.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested by Israel, the PA in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza for their social media posts.
In some cases, people were detained for simply liking or sharing a post deemed by authorities as threatening or as “incitement to violence.”
Activists, journalists, and local Palestinian and international rights workers gathered this week at the the Palestine Digital Activism Forum in Ramallah, organized by 7amleh (pronounced Hamleh), to discuss the constantly changing social media landscape and what it means for digital rights in Israel and Palestine.
Panelists including Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, and Sahar Francis, director of Palestinian prisoners rights group Addameer, discussed the challenges Palestinians face in the digital sphere from both the Israeli occupation and Palestinian Authority.
Freedom of expression lost under the PA
The growing discontentment with the PA among West Bank Palestinians was on full display at the 7amleh forum, as panelists and audience members engaged in discussions about the PA’s ongoing violations of the digital rights of their own citizens.
Over the past few years, the PA’s executive authority and security apparatuses have continued to impose restrictions on media and journalists through the Cyber Crimes Law, blocking websites that publish dissenting voices, and detaining journalists and activists critical of Mahmoud Abbas and his regime.
In his statements on the growing violations of Palestinian digital freedoms by the PA and Hamas, HRW’s Omar Shaker slammed Palestinian authorities for their systemic policies of arbitrary arrest and a lack of accountability for those in power.
In 2016, Shaker said, PA security forces arrested at least 220 Palestinians for social media posts, while Hamas authorities detained 45 Palestinians for similar reasons in Gaza.
Shaker highlighted the cases of Hamza Zbeidat, who was detained by PA forces in May 2016 for posting “we will struggle against the PA like we will struggle against occupation” on social media.
In Gaza, Palestinian journalist Amr Balousha was detained for 15 days in 2017, for a social media post in which he asked Hamas leadership “do your children sleep on the floor as ours do?” Balousha was threatened with death by Hamas authorities.
“These trends have continued despite statements by the PA and Hamas saying that they will hold people to account,” Shaker said, adding that on the same day PA officials issued such statements, security forces detained a Palestinian man for a social media post about protesting municipal elections in the West Bank.
According to Shaker, PA forces printed out a picture of President Mahmoud Abbas and told the man “this is God.” “He was threatened, beaten, and made to sign a commitment not to write about the PA and Fateh,” he said.
“Palestinians are stuck between authorities intolerant of dissent; there is no real accountability for PA arrests,” Shaker continued, adding that between 2016 and 2017, not a single member of the PA security forces was convicted of torture or arbitrarily arresting someone.
“So long as there is impunity the abuses will continue,” Shaker said.
‘Facts don’t lie’
Despite the efforts of Palestinian parliament member Abu Rohman and Alaa Tamimi of the Palestinian General Attorney’s office to focus the discussion on Israeli violations of digital rights, PA violations were the main topic of discussion for other panelists and audience members.
During her statements, Addameer’s Sahar Francis mentioned the case of Palestinian journalist Jihad Barakat, who was arrested by the PA after he filmed Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s motorcade passing an Israeli military checkpoint.
In response, Tamimi insisted that Barakat was released after 24 hours, saying that as per PA policy, the detention of any individual can only last for 24 hour is there are no official charges made against the accused.
Tamimi continued, saying that he was personally in charge of Barkat’s file, and that the journalist was released after 24 hours.
The crowd erupted in gasps and laughter as Barakat, who was in the audience, announced that he was actually detained for four days.
When Tamimi insisted that the actions of the PA are not a systemic issue, Shaker responded by saying “facts don’t lie.”
During a question and answer portion of the forum, several audience members directed their questions and criticisms at Alaa Tamimi over his talk, which was titled “Protection of Digital Rights Through the Palestinian Law.”
In a passionate statement, one audience member called out Tamimi and the PA for their “hypocrisy,” citing the case of activists like Suha Jbara, and Basel al-Araj, a vocal critic of the PA who was assassinated by Israeli forces in 2017 months after being released from PA prison.
“Is the PA really convinced that there is freedom of speech here?” one person asked Tamimi, while another questioned “why are there 67 websites that are blocked off by the Palestinian Authority?”
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian digital space
According to 7amleh, Israeli forces arrested more than 300 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem over online content in 2017.
Since a wave of violence erupted across the occupied Palestinian territory in 2015, Israel has passed a series of legislations aimed at tightening its grip on the Palestinian digital sphere, which the state argues serves as a source of “incitement” to violence against Israelis.
In her talk about “Israeli anti-internet freedoms legislation,” Palestinian parliament member Niveen Abu Rahmon highlighted the a series of Israeli legislations such as the controversial “Facebook law” that are aimed at stifling Palestinian freedoms of expression under the guise of quashing “incitement.”
“Israel occupies the digital space just as much as they occupy physical space in Palestine,” Abu Rahmon said, adding that “any action in the digital space is as dangerous as any act in a physical space.”
Several of the panelists highlighted the case of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who Israeli authorities sentenced to nearly three years under house arrest and five months in prison for a poem she posted on Facebook, entitled “’Resist, my people resist them.”
According to Abu Rohman, requests to remove Palestinian posts on Facebook increased by 500% in 2017, and in 2018, over 12,000 posts were requested to be removed under allegations of “incitement.”
Addameer’s Sahar Francis noted that between 2015 and 2018, Israel’s arrest of Palestinians for their social media posts have increased by 300%.
Meanwhile, she noted, only 10 Israelis have been detained through such procedures for incitement against Palestinians on social media.
By contrast, a 7amleh report documented that slanderous, provocative, and threatening posts made by Israelis against Arabs and Palestinians more than doubled in 2016, reaching 675,000 posts made by 60,000 Hebrew-speaking Facebook users — without a single case being opened against an Israeli.