POLITICS
09/29/2016 05:19 pm ET

Palestinian Activists Are Angry About Alleged Facebook Censorship

The site suspended the accounts of several prominent journalists without explanation last weekend.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinian activists wave flags during a protest in the West Bank village of Al-Eizariya, Feb. 13, 2014.

Palestinian activists are running an online campaign to hold Facebook accountable after the social media giant deleted a number of pro-Palestine posts and suspended several Palestinian journalists’ accounts.

Quds News Network and other publications launched the hashtag #FBCensorsPalestine on Friday, when news emerged that seven Palestinian journalists associated with popular outlets in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories had their accounts shut down for “violating community guidelines.”

According to the seven journalists, four of whom work for Shehab News Agency and three of whom work for Quds, Facebook provided no further explanation of what standards were violated.

Facebook issued an apology the next day. “The pages were removed in error,” the company said in a press statement. By Sunday night, all the accounts had been reinstated.

But journalists and activists continue to distrust Facebook, claiming that the company is targeting outspoken Palestinians because of pressure from the Israeli government to shut down alleged “incitement” from activists online. The activists argue that when they post material meant to critique occupation, Israel sees it as encouraging violence. Facebook executives held high-profile meetings with Israeli officials earlier this month.

“Our meetings with the Israeli government were part of an ongoing process of dialogue with government representatives globally,” Facebook’s statement said. “We care about the voices, opinion and rights of all the different communities on Facebook and we will protect and work with them all, whatever their race or religion. Palestinian voices will be as safe on Facebook as every other community on our platform.”

Amer Abu Arafeh, an editor at Shehab News Network, believes Israel is trying to reduce the criticism it receives for censorship by manipulating Facebook.

“If I had been inciting violence, the occupier would have arrested me, as I live in the Khalil in the West Bank under the occupation,” Abu Arafeh told The Huffington Post this week. “What’s happening is they don’t want us speaking out, but they don’t want to shut us down themselves ― so they do it through Facebook.”

The Israeli government is frequently accused of silencing Palestinian activists. In the past year, more than 400 Palestinians have been arrested for material they’ve posted online. This is a brutally effective form of censorship in the Middle East, where online communication is a popular organizing tool that’s generally seen as independent of government interference. Palestinians often use social media to spread information about people who have been arrested or killed by government forces.

“Things like demolitions, tree uprootings, incursions into Gaza, shooting, harassing and taking captive our fishermen, shooting tear gas at school children walking to class ― the world would never hear about these things without social media,” said Saleema, a Palestinian activist who asked to be identified by her first name only, in a Twitter message to HuffPost. “With a giant like Facebook trying to shut us down & censoring us I feel like we are being shut off behind another wall that we can’t break through.”

The Israeli government also has a history of jailing Palestinians over online postings. In July, 25-year-old Samah Dweik was arrested for sharing a Facebook image that she said was only meant to express support for people who have died at the hands of Israeli military personnel. Members of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a network of nongovernmental organizations, raised the concern of censorship to the United Nations on Tuesday.

Israeli officials say they are simply trying to prevent violence inspired by social media posts. The meetings between Facebook and Israeli officials followed a wave of Palestinian knife attacks on Israeli civilians and military personnel over the past year, which Israeli officials have blamed on social media incitement. From September 2015 to July 2016, Palestinian attackers killed 34 Israelis. (In the same time frame, Israeli forces killed 200 Palestinians.)

“Just as ISIS video clips are being monitored and removed from the network, we want them to take the same action against Palestinian material that incites terrorism,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said at the International Conference on Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv earlier this month.

But Palestinians say the violence is not occurring because of social media posts ― it’s happening because of the deep anger that many people hold over 50 years of military occupation and human rights violations.

Blaming social media for the aggression allows Israelis to focus on something other than their own state’s role in the occupation, experts say. When the debate is framed around social media, it means technology companies like Facebook have to worry about their own alleged liability in the fighting in the region ― and thus have an incentive to repress even innocuous posts that could one day get them in trouble. The pressure on social media providers is real: In July, the families of Israelis killed by a Palestinian sued Facebook for $1 billion.

“What’s really upsetting about all this [talk of online incitement] is how it sterilizes Israel’s own role in creating these conditions, and attributes it to Palestinian culture ― saying Arabs and Muslims are inherently violent,” said Noura Erakat, an assistant professor at George Mason University. “The unfortunate part is that Facebook has been responsive to this, because they’re trying to protect themselves from a lawsuit.”

If Facebook makes it harder for Palestinians to describe their own reality, social media will fail to deliver on its promise to help amplify the voices of oppressed communities, Erakat argued.

Still, the Palestinians say they are not deterred. Abu Arafeh plans to continue reporting in the region and using Facebook when he can, he told HuffPost.

“Treat the Palestinians as you treat the Israelis ― we don’t want any violence, we just want our messages to be heard,” Abu Arafeh said. “We are only asking to have the freedom to express our opinion.”