Jerusalem – Iyab Shalabi has only been allowed to visit his father, Omar, in prison once since December, when he and eight other Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem were arrested by Israel for posts they wrote on Facebook and other social media outlets.
“Several months went by before they actually gave me a permit to visit my dad,” Iyab, 22, told Al Jazeera. “My mother has been completely banned from visiting him till now.”
Earlier this month, Omar, 44, was sentenced to nine months in an Israeli prison for charges related to incitement and “supporting terror” against Israelis. He is the former secretary-general of Jerusalem’s branch of Fatah, the Palestinian political party that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
“It was very clear from the beginning that my father was targeted because he is still an influential activist and has a lot of support and respect in the community,” Iyab continued.
The court cited several of Shalabi’s Facebook postings about Muhammad Abu Khudair, a 17-year-old Palestinian kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli settlers in Jerusalem last July, as well as “statuses” he wrote supporting Palestinian attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in the city.
Iyab rejects the assertion that his father’s Facebook postings posed any threat to Israel’s security. “They don’t have any real evidence that he presented any danger to anyone’s safety,” he argued. “Of course, this is oppression and discrimination. Everyone writes their opinion on Facebook.”
Explaining that conditions are difficult for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, Iyab and his family are worried about his father’s well-being.
wants Palestinians to shut up and be quiet, to accept the occupation. Israel is trying to deliver a message that any Palestinians – whether from Hamas, Fatah or the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine] – can be arrested.”]
On May 19, just a week and a half after Shalabi was sentenced, an Israeli magistrate’s court in Jerusalem ruled that Sami Deis will spend eight months in jail. The court deemed a number of his Facebook postings as “incitement”.
A Facebook page Deis created and administered – titled “Death to Israel” – included a number of postings calling for violence against Israelis, including soldiers and Jewish settlers. The page had few followers and the violent postings rarely received “likes”, according to Israeli media reports.
Deis, a 27-year-old resident of the Shuafat neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, pled guilty as part of a plea bargain. Yet, the ruling judge handed down a harsh nine-month sentence. “The defendant calls for murder and killing, and praises those who would carry out such acts,” said Judge Shmuel Herbst in his ruling. “There is no doubt as to his intentions, and among his statements are none that can be interpreted in other ways.”
Tensions have soared in recent months in Jerusalem, home to more than 815,000 Jewish Israelis and upwards of 300,000 Palestinians. From the 5,820 Palestinians in lockup, at least 460 are residents of East Jerusalem, according to the Ramallah-based prisoner rights group Addameer.
Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld defended the crackdown on Palestinian social media users, claiming that online anti-Israeli incitement has been on the steady rise in recent months. “We’ve seen a lot of incitement, not just on the street level but on the government level by the Palestinian Authority,” Rosenfeld told Al Jazeera.
“Unfortunately, as police, when we see that on social networks, and when we see all types of extremist comments and anti-Israeli calls for violence, we have to get involved.”
Rosenfeld added that the Facebook postings have also coincided with an uptick in Palestinian attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem, pointing to an incident on Wednesday when a Palestinian motorist’s car struck two Israeli Border Police officers in the al-Tur neighbourhood of Jerusalem. “The man who was shot and killed this week had ties to Hamas, which we were only able to find out from his Facebook account,” Rosenfeld remarked.
Mousa Rimawi, director of the Palestinian Centre for Media Freedoms and Development (MADA), says that the arrests come at a time “when Israeli authorities are watching social media closely and targeting Palestinians” for their online postings.
“We’ve noticed that in the last several months, more people are being arrested for expressing their views on social media,” Rimawi told Al Jazeera, adding that in many cases Palestinians are detained for “legitimate political expression and not incitement”.
Rimawi claimed that Israel’s implementation of laws against incitement is discriminatory “because there are many racist and violent Israeli Facebook pages that didn’t result in such sentencing or even arrests”.
In June 2014, as the Israeli army searched for three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped in the southern West Bank, a Facebook page calling for the execution of a Palestinian “terrorist” every hour until the boys were located received more than 16,000 “likes”. No arrests have been reported for that page or similar Facebook groups, Rimawi commented.
The “double standard”, he added, also extends to “protests and other events”. Last Sunday, Israelis marched through Jerusalem’s Old City, home to many Palestinians, to mark “Jerusalem Day”, a holiday celebrating Israel’s 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem.
The week before that march, the Israeli High Court ruled against two non-governmental organisations’ appeal to prevent the Israelis from marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Although the court deemed it permissible for them to march through the area, it also demanded that police have a “zero tolerance” policy for anti-Arab chants and incitement, adding that anyone who chanted “Death to Arabs!” should be arrested.
During the march, hundreds of Israeli protesters nonetheless chanted such slogans. “Death to Arabs!” many were filmed chanting without police intervention. “Muhammad is a homo,” others sang, referring to the Islamic prophet. Several Palestinians were arrested during the Jerusalem Day march during clashes with police.
Back in Jerusalem, Iyab Shalabi echoes Rimawi’s comments. “There are so many Israeli groups on Facebook calling for Arabs to be killed, but nothing ever happens,” he said. “[Israel] wants Palestinians to shut up and be quiet, to accept the occupation. Israel is trying to deliver a message that any Palestinians – whether from Hamas, Fatah or the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine] – can be arrested.”
Decrying the social media arrests as an “attempt to intimidate Palestinians”, Iyab concluded: “When my father gets out of jail, I am certain he will continue his activism and to struggle.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_