At about this time last year, Israel was facing what came to be known as the "knife intifada" - hundreds of apparently uncoordinated attacks involving Palestinians stabbing Israelis. While 36 Israelis lost their lives, more than 200 Palestinians were killed, during that period, by Israeli security forces. The other weapon, apart from kitchen knives, that drew the attention of the Israeli security establishment was social media.
The rationale offered: because some attackers went online to signal their intent or had been exposed to provocative posts there, the internet required policing for what the authorities called "incitement". The result: hundreds of arrests and prison sentences for Palestinian activists, ordinary citizens, as well as journalists - based on what they wrote or shared - particularly on Facebook.
The occupiers are going through our posts one by one, word by word. They look for words like “martyr”, “hero”, “resistance fighter” or “intifada”. If they find one word they can build an entire case around it and you could end in prison, for nothing.
Facebook itself has reportedly responded to numerous requests from the Israelis to censor its content, but that hasn't stopped politicians pushing for new laws to force social media companies to comply more fully.
Palestinians affected say Facebook is just another place where their voices have been silenced. The Listening Post's Will Yong reports from Israel and the Occupied Territories on the emergence of social media as yet another battleground in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Last March, at the height of a wave of so-called "lone wolf" attacks, Israeli soldiers arrested Palestinian journalist Sami Al-Sa'ee in a night raid on his home. Sentenced to nine months in prison, Al-Sa'ee became one of a growing number of Palestinians charged solely or primarily with the offence of online incitement.
"Due to the nature of my job as a news editor, I'm active on my personal Facebook page. I would share news about a martyr and post his picture, or about a girl who was arrested and post her picture, or about a child killed by the Israelis in Hebron and post her picture. Throughout the entire interrogation they were saying that I was sharing inciting posts that enraged people on the street," Sami Sa'ee told Al Jazeera.
But how does Israel define incitement?
Nadim Nashef, co-founder, 7amleh, says: "Israel defines incitement very loosely. Firstly there is the meaning and content of the post itself, whether it contains incitement to violence according to the criteria of the Israeli courts. Then there is the extent of its influence. According to the logic of these courts, how many friends a person has, how many shares a post has, how many likes - all of these are considered evidence of influence over public opinion and contributing to a discourse that could eventually lead to acts of resistance against the occupation."
With walls, fences, checkpoints and other restrictions coming between the Palestinians in the West Bank and those in Gaza - and separating them from their families and friends among the Arab citizens of Israel - platforms such as Facebook provide a place online to share their stories, opinions and experiences. But arrests, charges and convictions based on social media activity have more than doubled in the past year, leaving Palestinians wondering whether social media is yet another space where Israel gets to make the rules. And, perhaps, where Facebook enforces them.
Last June, when the Silicon Valley giant needed a new head of policy and communication for Israel, it hired Jordana Cutler, formerly Chief of Staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC and, before that, adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The appointment came as top Israeli politicians publicly criticised the company and Israeli lawyers threatened it with a $1bn lawsuit. Cutler’s appointment was hailed by Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan as "an advance in dialogue between the State of Israel and Facebook". Three months later Facebook representatives traveled to Tel Aviv to meet Israeli officials who, after the talks, said that the two sides would “work together” to tackle online incitement.
This begs the question of whether Facebook is neutral on the Palestine-Israel conflict. The giant social network is taking a stand with the occupier, say Palestinian activists.
"Facebook claims that it respects local laws; but when it backs Israeli accusations of incitement we are talking about an occupation state, so this accusation should not exist in the first place. We have reached a stage where there is high-level cooperation between Facebook on one side, and the Israeli occupation on the other and this is very dangerous," says Nashef.
Israeli minister Ayelet Shaked told members of the press: "A year ago Facebook removed 50 percent of content that we requested. Today Facebook is removing 95 percent of content we ask them to."
Even so, politicians are currently debating a so-called "Facebook Bill" which - if passed into law - would give Israeli officials even more power to force Facebook to censor as the Israeli government sees fit. For Palestinians, the consequences are felt beyond their computer screens and smartphones, reaching into society itself.
Contributors: Avishai Ivri, journalist, Kan; Anat Saragusti, journalist/filmmaker; Nadim Nashef, co-founder, 7amleh; Sami Al-Sa'ee, reporter, Al Fajer Al-Jadeed TV.
Source: Al Jazeera