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Social media prison sentences highlight legal double standards in Israel

This month, two Palestinians from occupied east Jerusalem have been jailed for their social media activity. The charges were related to incitement and "supporting terror" against Israelis.

The first to be sentenced was Omar Shalabi, the former secretary-general of Jerusalem's branch of Fatah, the Palestinian political party that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. Arrested in December along with eight other Palestinians, he was sentenced in mid-May to nine months in jail. The charges related to 10 posts to his 5,000 friends and 755 followers which the indictment said urged readers to undertake "violent acts and acts of terrorism". Judge Eitan Kornhauser described the online posts as "grave incitement, including praise of heinous murderers and words of encouragement to carry out similar actions."

Just over a week later, Sami Deis, also from east Jerusalem, was sentenced to eight months in jail. He had created and administered a Facebook page titled "Death to Israel" which included several posts calling for violence against Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers. It had few followers and the violent postings were rarely "liked".

The sentences come against a backdrop of significantly heightened tensions in Jerusalem, which is home to more than 815,000 Jewish Israelis and more than 300,000 Palestinians. Since the collapse of US-brokered peace talks last year, Jerusalem has seen outbreaks of rioting and a rise in so-called lone wolf attacks against Jewish communities. A spokesperson for the Israeli police, speaking to the international media, defended the crackdown on Palestinian social media users, claiming that anti-Israeli incitement online has been on the rise.

Yet the fact remains that these convictions were a first in an Israeli court: speech on social media has never been a sole basis for a conviction and prison sentence before. Many international organisations and those on the Israeli left have argued that the sentences were disproportionate and discriminatory.

Increased police interest in Palestinians' online activity – numerous other activists have been detained for their social media postings – reflects the increased importance of the internet to public discourse. It is certainly true that some of Shalabi and Deis's posts – and those of others – glorify violence and make highly unpleasant reading, but there is also no denying that there are many Facebook posts by Jewish Israelis which are just as bad, or worse. The newspaper Haaretz quoted a few statements posted after four Palestinian children were killed on a Gaza beach last year: "Delightful, all the children should be killed"; "there are no pictures more beautiful than those of dead Arab children"; "hating Arabs isn't racism, it's a principle". A Facebook page launched in June 2014, as the Israeli army searched for three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped, called for a Palestinian "terrorist" to be executed every hour until the boys were found. It received more than 16,000 "likes". No arrests have been made for any of the people who created these pages or made those statements. Even when Jewish inciters have called actively for organised attacks on Arabs, very few indictments have been made.

This is an extension of the legal double standards that many observe across the board in Israel, where there frequently seems to be one set of rules for Jewish citizens and another for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. While the West Bank and Gaza Strip actually operate two parallel legal systems for Jewish settlers and for Palestinians, citizens in Israel are theoretically subject to the same laws. In practice, however, this is not always the case; some legal experts say that laws are applied differently, with, for instance, Arab citizens of Israel subject to greater scrutiny than Jews on issues such as incitement.

In addition to this clear double standard, the charges point to a wider question about freedom of expression. Most people, bar the most passionate libertarians, agree that there should be some limits on free speech, usually at the point of hate speech or incitement to violence. This is the case in Israel, where both hate speech and praising violence are illegal. Shalabi and Deis may have posted highly unpleasant statuses, but there is no evidence that either's comments led directly to violence, and the relatively long custodial sentences seem harsh, particularly given that neither had previous convictions. If their sentences were based on their praise for violence alone, then this test should be implemented across the board, leading to charges against the many Israelis using Facebook and other social media outlets to praise and incite violence against Arabs. Handing out custodial sentences for unpleasant statements seems disproportionate, particularly when it is only members of certain communities who face such harsh penalties. At that stage, it's discrimination, pure and simple.

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