Facebook struggles to put out online fires in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

JERUSALEM — When fires raged across Israel last month, Anas Abudaabes began to type on his laptop. What came out would land him behind bars and ignite a debate over whether he had tried to fan the flames of hatred, in this case literally.

On his Facebook page, Abudaabes wrote that “we should call our thugs to do what is necessary,” noting that “dry grass is faster to burn.” Arabs should pray for lightning and strong winds, he wrote, while those in Jerusalem and Haifa, where blazes were most intense, should “pour gas” on what was being called the “fire intifada.”

Abudaabes, 29, a businessman, insisted it was satire and was released after nearly four days. But he was hardly the first arrested in Israel for seeming to encourage mayhem on Facebook, nor will he be the last. Facebook has become the battleground in a global struggle between free speech and incitement, and in few places is that more pronounced than in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Facebook and other social media companies announced this week that they would team up to better track and reduce online terrorist propaganda. But European leaders were unsatisfied, arguing that the companies have been slow to review and take down hateful posts, and they pressed for more action.

In this part of the world, the debate is not just theoretical. Terrorism is an everyday reality, and the role that Facebook and other social media sites may play in inspiring it generates deep emotion. Israel has pushed to combat online provocation that it links to bloodshed. Palestinians consider a crackdown on Facebook posts just another tool of repression by an occupying power.

“We have similar conversations around the world about the problem of online hate speech,” said Simon Milner, Facebook’s policy director for Britain, the Middle East and Africa. “But we do absolutely see in Israel and the Palestinian territory that this is one of the central issues in society even more in this region than elsewhere.”

For Facebook, the dominant social media platform in this region, the issue has taken on more urgency in the 14 months since the beginning of a wave of stabbings and vehicular assaults by Palestinians against Israelis. A company proficient at technology finds itself whipsawed by forces of history that have defied political, diplomatic and religious leaders since long before Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was born.

No matter what it does, Facebook invariably seems to offend one side or the other. Israel complains about incitement? Facebook takes down posts. Palestinian journalists complain about being muzzled? Facebook lifts the suspension of their accounts.

“We realize we’ve got a lot to learn,” Milner said, “and we’ve learned a lot in the last few years.”

It is not hard to find provocative posts that straddle or even cross the line into advocacy of violence.

One post shortly after the latest violence began showed an injured Israeli soldier and a militant holding a knife that displayed an Arabic message: “All means are permissible in jihad as long as they bring victory for religion. Sword; or explosion; or bullet; and for them to challenge the knife.”

Another posted the same day by a leader of Hamas, the Palestinian group designated a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, glorified knife attacks.

“Facebook has to take responsibility,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the founder of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, who collected those examples and others. “They cannot sit in their ivory tower in Palo Alto and let the blood spill here in the streets of Jerusalem.”

Darshan-Leitner filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Facebook in federal court in New York this fall, claiming that it provides material aid to Hamas. The suit combined a previous claim on behalf of 20,000 Israelis blaming incitement on Facebook for the recent violence with another claim by relatives of several Americans killed in terrorist attacks in Israel.

Facebook says it bars Hamas and other designated terrorist groups. Last month, it asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, citing a 1996 federal law insulating internet companies from liability for speech by users of their services. Moreover, it argued that Darshan-Leitner could not show that the offending posts had directly caused specific acts of violence.

“Facebook has zero tolerance for terrorism,” the company said in a brief. “It condemns terrorist actions, prohibits terrorist content on Facebook and swiftly removes any reported terrorist content.”

Israel has pressed Facebook to be more proactive. When the stabbings began in October 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “It has been Osama bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg.”

After Israel threatened legislation, Facebook sent senior officials, including Joel Kaplan, a former aide to President George W. Bush, to meet with Israeli officials in September, and they agreed to coordinate better.

Israeli security agencies monitor Facebook and send the company posts they consider incitement. Facebook has responded by removing most of them. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s justice minister, said the company had become more cooperative in recent months, although she added that she wanted it to take the initiative rather than wait for complaints.

“I personally really believe in freedom of speech,” Shaked said in an interview. “But when you’re calling to kill someone or when you’re calling for terrorist attacks, it’s violence. I’m not going to try to remove the words ‘Free Palestine.’ But if they’re showing how to stab Jews, that should be removed.”

Within weeks of meeting with Israeli officials, Facebook suspended the accounts of seven journalists from two Palestinian news agencies said to have extremist ties. The journalists said they had been suppressed for criticizing Israel, which occupies the West Bank, builds settlements on land Palestinians consider theirs and demolishes homes of those tied to terrorists.

Palestinian journalists started an online protest with the hashtag #FBcensorsPalestine. The company reversed course and restored the journalists’ accounts.

“Surprisingly, we heard back immediately from Facebook officials, who apologized for our accounts being put on hold and said that it was a technical error on their end,” said Hussam al-Zaygh, managing editor of the Shehab News Agency. “The hold on our pages was removed and we haven’t experienced any negative reactions from Facebook since this last incident.”

Milner, the Facebook policy director, conceded error: “Sometimes we make mistakes, and it’s unfortunate that in recent weeks that did involve some accounts of Palestinian journalists. We apologized to the individuals involved.”

Another Facebook official traveled to the West Bank last week to assure Palestinian journalists of the company’s commitment to free expression.

“We are saying we want free space to talk about our issues here in Palestine and we should have freedom like all over the world,” said Iyad al-Refaie, the editorial manager of Al Quds News Network. “Every user of Facebook around the world, he has freedom about what he publishes or not.”

Israel does not rely solely on Facebook to crack down on incitement. Authorities have increasingly arrested users who post inflammatory items, and Arab news outlets estimate that hundreds have been charged.

Abudaabes said in an interview that he was surprised to become one of them. The owner of a small photography school and marketing business in Rahat, a largely Bedouin city in the Negev Desert, he said he had used Facebook for nine years without trouble.

When the recent fires erupted, some Palestinians celebrated on social media, calling them divine retribution against Israel. Abudaabes said that he thought it was wrong to rejoice at others’ suffering and that he had set out to mock such sentiments with his Facebook post.

“When I posted that, it was totally against people who celebrate fires, who think that these fires are better for us,” he said. “When I post something like that, I didn’t think for a minute that it will get me problems with the Israeli government.”

But within an hour, he said, the police arrived at his home. “My comment was: ‘You know, it’s funny you don’t understand my post. It’s the opposite,'” he recalled. “They didn’t want to understand.”

He was released on nearly $4,000 bail. Authorities kept his cellphone and laptop, and ordered him to remain home for five days and stay off Facebook for 15 days.

Prosecutors announced Sunday that they would not file charges “because of lack of guilt.” For Abudaabes, posting on Facebook came close to playing with fire.

© 2016 New York Times News Service