Wikipedia war: Fierce row erupts over Israel’s deadly Nuseirat assault

Rescue operation or massacre? Wikipedia editors clash over the recent Israeli raid in the central Gaza refugee camp.

A fierce “edit war” has broken out on Wikipedia over a page dedicated to a deadly Israeli raid in the Nuseirat refugee camp near Deir el-Balah in central Gaza on the morning of June 8.

The bloody attack – ostensibly to free four Israeli captives held there – killed nearly 300 displaced people and injured more than 700, overwhelming the nearby Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital.

Now, the Israeli raid has become the focus of a heated editing dispute on Wikipedia, which has been forced to restrict editing access to the page dedicated to the incident.

This is what we know about the creation of the Wikipedia page and the spiralling online war it has triggered:

Who created the Wikipedia page about Nuseirat and why?

The Israeli raid on Nuseirat grabbed global headlines due to the freeing of the four Israeli captives – Noa Argamani, 25; Almog Meir Jan, 21; Andrey Kozlov, 27; and Shlomi Ziv, 40 – who had been taken by Hamas from a music festival during the October 7 attacks on southern Israel. To explain what happened during the raid and rescue, a Wikipedia editor known only by the username “Galamore” created an article dedicated to the incident.

Wikipedia allows editors to remain anonymous with their names and countries of origin hidden. However, it does not guarantee that an editor’s identity cannot be discovered by means outside its control.

Molly White, an American software engineer and technology researcher, who has been a Wikipedia editor for the past 18 years, editing mostly political pages, told Al Jazeera: “Some argue that anonymity actually helps because, based on a person’s personal identity, you’re not assuming things about them that might be accurate or not. However, she added: “I think it can be challenging if you don’t know much about a person to evaluate biases that they might have, where they’re coming from, their level of expertise”.

After its creation, the article on the Nuseirat raid was edited 627 times by 103 users in just one week. This is an unusually high number of changes made to a single article on Wikipedia. By comparison, the Wikipedia page about the October 7 Hamas attacks has been edited 1,705 times by 368 people over the course of eight months.

As is common practice when an “edit war” breaks out, Wikipedia administrators quickly locked the page, allowing access to only a few select editors. For anyone else trying to access the page to make changes to it, a notice appears stating “only extended confirmed users and administrators can edit it”.

A registered editor becomes an “extended confirmed user” once their account has existed for 30 days and once they have made at least 500 edits.

The article’s creator, Galamore, has been registered as a Wikipedia editor since December 25, 2023, and has made 1,186 edits on different Wikipedia articles, largely those with profiles of Israeli personalities, including the footballer Yehezkel Chazom, the board game designer Ephraim Hertzano and chess master Moshe Aba Blass. According to Wikipedia, making more than 1,000 edits puts an editor in the top 0.1 percent of Wikipedia editors in terms of number of edits.

What is an ‘edit war’?

An edit war happens when two or more editors persistently change each other’s contributions to an article, causing a repetitive cycle of reversions. This is also known as “vandalism” by users of Wikipedia and includes the “deliberately disruptive or malicious editing” of any page. This might include deleting content or changing it so it becomes intentionally biased, libellous, offensive or degrading.

Edit wars are not uncommon on Wikipedia pages. White said: “This actually happens all the time. It’s particularly common with things that happened recently like breaking news topics.”

White said an edit war had broken out on a page she was involved in editing about the January 6 Capital riots in Washington, DC in 2020. “There was a huge, months-long argument over what that article should be titled, whether it should be the January 6 ‘insurrection’ or ‘riots’ or ‘attack’ on the Capitol.”

According to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, pages should be written from a neutral point of view “without editorial bias”. It operates a set of monitoring tools that can alert it if an edit war appears to have broken out.

Wikipedia users can also add a “dispute tag” to a page, indicating that the neutrality of an article has been called into question. This may trigger a wider discussion among Wikipedia’s staff on how to resolve the contentious topic and placing the page in “protection mode” – restricting editing access to certain editors only – until the issue has been resolved.

How did the row over the Wikipedia article on Nuseirat unfold?

These are some of the key changes that were made to the article in its first 50 hours. All times are GMT:

  • June 8, 11:17: The Wikipedia page titled “Nuseirat operation” is launched by Galamore. The article names the retrieved captives and mentions that Gaza’s Ministry of Health has reported “dozens of people were killed”.
  • June 8, 12:00: Galamore renames the page “2024 Nuseirat rescue operation” and adds: “Following dozens of deaths and injuries among Hamas, the operation was called by Hamas the ‘Nuseirat Massacre’.”
  • June 8, 14:22: An unknown user identified only by an IP address changes this line to “the operation was dubbed the ‘Nuseirat Massacre’”. This user also adds “biased language” as a comment explaining why the edit was made.
  • June 8, 15:40: User “JDiala” changes the article to state that the death toll has reached at least 210 Palestinians and cites “Palestinian health officials” as a source. JDiala registered as an editor on Wikipedia on July 29, 2013, and has made 1,957 edits since. The user’s profile has a Palestinian flag and a quote from Amira Hass, a columnist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
  • June 8, 16:51: A user called “Favonian” adds “protection” to the page to limit edits, citing “contentious topic” as a reason, effectively locking the page.
  • June 8, 17:05: User “Dynamo128” posts on a discussion page linked to the article, writing “to the people who keep deleting my edits, … better to calm down for now.”
  • June 8, 18:54: A second Wikipedia page chronicling the Nuseirat raid is launched by user “Dylanvt”, named “Nuseirat refugee camp massacre” and addresses the Palestinian casualty statistic in the first sentence. This page has garnered 37,029 views, nearly half as many as the first page, which has 78,862.
  • June 9, 02:43: A user named Daniel Case adds “protection” to the second Nuseirat page, also limiting who can edit it.
  • June 9, 04:48: A now-defunct account owned by a user named “Owenglyndur” adds: “Following the operation, Hamas threatened the remaining hostages,” citing The Times of Israel.
  • June 10, 14:16: Dylanvt, the creator of the “Nuseirat refugee camp massacre” page, posts on the discussion page for “2024 Nuseirat rescue operation” that the mention of massive civilian casualties has been removed “from the lead twice. Why? Are the removers disputing this fact?” adding that the Israeli army “is claiming 100-ish casualties per sources. Is that not enough to be ‘massive’?”
  • June 10, 21:24: “Is there any evidence that the [Israeli military] were responsible for civilian casualties? This was in Hamas-controlled territory,” user “KronosAlight” wrote as part of the response to Dylanvt’s discussion.

The article sparked anger among many X users who were particularly upset that upon searching for the keywords “Nuseirat massacre” on Google, only the Wikipedia article that includes the words “rescue operation” in its title showed up on the top results page.

But when these users tried to edit the article themselves, they said they were unable to because Wikipedia had restricted editing access to the page. This sparked more anger.

Why did Wikipedia freeze the Nuseirat page?

While most Wikipedia pages are open to any registered user to edit, an exception is made for certain articles that are locked or “protected” to prevent “disruptive editing on controversial pages”, the Wikipedia homepage explains. When pages are locked, the new settings limit and slow down the number of edits made to the pages.

There are various levels of locking. Both the Nuseirat pages have been “fully locked”, which means only Wikipedia extended confirmed users and administrators may access it.

Editors trying to access either page are currently being redirected to the discussion page.

Have edit wars broken out on Wikipedia before?

  • High-profile politicians connected to legal scandals or other controversies are popular targets for content “vandalism” on Wikipedia. In 2018, for example, the Wikipedia page of Pakistani politician Maryam Nawaz was locked or “protected” after several vandalism attempts. Nawaz is currently serving as the chief minister of Punjab. She is also the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. She was handed a seven-year jail sentence in a corruption case but then acquitted by an Islamabad court in September 2022.
  • Former United States President George W Bush has one of the most edited Wikipedia pages with 48,105 edits. He ordered the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and many critics disputed his administration’s claimed evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The issue was a topic of contention for many Wikipedia editors.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic Wikipedia page became a hotbed for tens of thousands of edits with some entries covering conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. The speculation around the virus being born from bats or a lab leak from Wuhan, China, became infectious themselves. Wikipedia was able to address the issue of misinformation about the virus spreading on its platform, however, with projects like Wiki Project Medicine, a community of doctors and scientists,working to correct wrong information.
Source: Al Jazeera