Ramallah - When Haneen Zoabi learned that she had been incited against more than anyone else on Israeli social media last year, she was unfazed.

"I don't pay any attention. I don't even read these messages. I let my assistants handle it," she told Al Jazeera.

A Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament since 2009, Zoabi has been verbally and physically assaulted since she participated in a flotilla attempting to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010. She has also received threats by telephone and email to her office.

According to a recent study by the Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh, Zoabi was the subject of 60,000 hateful online posts in 2016. Her fellow Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, was the subject of 40,000 posts, while President Mahmoud Abbas appeared in 30,000 posts.

"The police do not pay attention to the incitement, even though it is directed, and it is so obvious that it can threaten my life," Zoabi said, noting that she used to refer the most serious threats to police, but stopped when she found that it did not lead to investigations or charges against the inciters.

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The 7amleh study, released this month, tracked Hebrew-language posts on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, along with comments on news stories. It flagged certain keywords associated with hate speech or incitement to racism and violence.

The index revealed that the number of hateful posts against Palestinians reached 675,000 in 2016, more than double the previous year's total.

"There's a strong correlation between news events in 2016 and the level of incitement," said Nadim Nashif, cofounder of 7amleh. Indeed, online incitement spiked during and after a number of major news stories in Israel, including a shooting incident in Hebron when an Israeli soldier killed a wounded Palestinian assailant, the recital of a Mahmoud Darwish poem at an Israeli cultural awards ceremony, and the wildfires that swept across Israel in November. 

As these events unfolded, a number of senior Israeli ministers made public remarks, which were followed by an outburst of hate speech and incitement online. An example cited by Nashif took place when Israel's culture minister, Miri Regev, walked out of the Ophir awards in September after two artists performed part of a poem written by Darwish, the Palestinian national poet.

"She left the hall and declared something to the press, and then [online] there was lots of cursing and incitement about Mahmoud Darwish . So, you can see it is obviously linked to either the event, or the politician's declaration," Nashif said, adding that 7amleh has been considering presenting its findings to Israeli police.

Israel's public security minister, Gilad Erdan, has also been accused of inciting against Palestinians, both through remarks he made about the wildfires in Israel and in the statements he posted after the death of a Palestinian and a policeman in the unrecognised Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran.

The shift is from politically correct racism and politically correct liberal racism to politically incorrect fascist racism. This is the change.

Haneen Zoabi, Palestinian MK

In December, 10 days after the fires began, Erdan posted on his Facebook page: "Israel has experienced arson terrorism and I won't let anyone sweep this fact under the rug ... Why does it seem unrealistic that Arabs would want to harm Jews?" Three months after the fires, no arson charges have been brought against any Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Then, on January 18 - when village resident Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan was shot before accelerating his car in the direction of a group of Israeli police officers who had arrived to carry out home demolitions in Umm al-Hiran - Erdan took to social media to claim that a "terrorist" attack had occurred.

"The terrorist sharply turned his wheel and quickly accelerated in order to run over a group of police officers," Erdan posted on Twitter. Later that day, he made a statement on Facebook, claiming that Palestinian Knesset members had "blood on their hands" and were "a disgrace to the state of Israel".

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In late January, Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, sent a letter to Israel's attorney general demanding a criminal investigation into Erdan for incitement to racism against the Palestinian population in Israel.

"Everything that he says has a major impact on the public and in the public sphere because he's a minister. So, that's one of the reasons we think that he needs to be held accountable," said Nadeem Shehadah, an advocate at Adalah who drafted the letter. "According to the law, these kinds of statements, without any kind of basis against a group of citizens, adds up to, according to the penal code, incitement to racism. You're targeting a group of people based on their ethnicity."

Erdan has subsequently said that he would apologise for his comments on the Umm al-Hiran incident if it turned out not to have been a "terror" attack.

While online incitement peaked in 2016, Zoabi told Al Jazeera that an atmosphere of intolerance towards Palestinian citizens of Israel has gradually worsened since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term in 2009.

"Something changed dramatically to the political correctness of Zionism. It's like Trump. But Netanyahu and Israel had Trump's model long, long before Trump. They had the Trump model from 2009," she said.

"The shift is from politically correct racism and politically correct liberal racism to politically incorrect fascist racism. This is the change."

Online incitement is one of the results of a wider campaign to discredit Palestinian political leaders and their demands, Zoabi added.

"They are blocking any possibility for these people and ideas to be promoted, because they know that our debate is a legitimate debate," she said. "This is the real fear of our debate, that it is a democratic debate based on democratic and universal values, and they think that letting this debate promote itself within Israeli political discourse, this debate would win."

Source: Al Jazeera