‘Incitement’ and ‘indecency’: How Palestinian dissent is repressed online
On Oct. 11, 2019, Facebook shut down the Palestinian Information Center, a news page with five million followers, without prior notice. Six days later, at the request of the attorney general of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Ramallah Magistrates Court ordered the blocking of 59 websites under the pretext that they were threatening “national security, public order, and public manners.”
Shortly afterward — ironically, on the morning of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists — Twitter blocked three accounts of the Quds News Network, an independent Palestinian media outlet with a large online following. Metras, another Palestinian website on the PA’s blacklist, reported that a number of their Facebook posts were flagged and deleted, and that they received a warning that their page might be taken down.
WhatsApp, the messaging app now owned by Facebook, also blocked or shut down around one hundred accounts belonging to Palestinian journalists and activists, and banned them from sharing information and updates during Israel’s military attacks on Gaza last month.
Such censorship of Palestinian online content is escalating at an unprecedented and dangerous speed. To express your political views as a Palestinian, you must now tiptoe around three different authorities: Israel, the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank, and the de facto Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, each of which suppresses political speech according to their own varying definitions of incitement and unwanted dissent.
Legal cover for repression
The crackdown on Palestinian free speech on social media began in late 2015 in the aftermath of the “knife intifada,” during which social media platforms were blamed for allowing communications that encouraged the outbreak of violence and so-called “lone-wolf attacks” by Palestinian youth. As a result, social media platforms became fresh grounds for suppression and surveillance by governing authorities.
Since then, Israel has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Palestinians for posts they wrote or shared on social media. Using “predictive policing” tools to monitor social media accounts and flag suspects of future attacks, Israel has targeted Palestinians — both citizens of Israel and residents of the occupied West Bank — for jail sentences based on broad and vague charges of “incitement to violence.”
The PA joined this repressive wave in 2017 when President Mahmoud Abbas enacted the controversial Cybercrime Law, which drew heavy criticism across the board and was reformed a year later after pressure from Palestinian civil society. The law provides legal cover for the PA’s increasing crackdown on political dissent, particularly from its political rivals, and on criticism and calls for accountability by ordinary Palestinians.
It is no wonder, then, that most of the websites targeted in the PA’s recent ban are either affiliated with Fatah’s rival Hamas, or are independent sites critical of the Palestinian leadership and which have exposed corruption within the PA. The law has also been used to prosecute Palestinian activists, journalists and, last month, a lawyer, Muhannad Karaja, for criticizing the PA’s relations with Israel on Facebook.