Twitter is thought to be enforcing Israel's gag order on details of its botched operation in Gaza, instructing a number of media outlets to remove posts revealing the identity of Israel's undercover operatives.
The Electronic Intifada (EI) – a Chicago-based media outlet which reports on Israel-Palestine – revealed yesterday that it had received a message from Twitter instructing it to delete a tweet linking to a story about Israel's undercover operation in the besieged Gaza Strip in November.
The story in question included an image of Israeli soldiers who had posed as humanitarian workers in order to carry out the secret operation. The image was one of several published by Hamas – the group which governs the Strip – across social media, prompting the office of Israel's military censor to issue a rare statement instructing Israeli citizens not to share the images. The censor claimed that doing so was "liable to endanger human lives and cause harm to [Israel's] security".
Although Israeli media outlets are required to comply with the country's military gag orders, this censorship does not extend to international media outlets. As a US-based organisation, EI is therefore exempt from these restrictions, leading it to believe that Twitter acted at the behest of Israel which has been scrambling to prevent the spread of the images.
In its instructions to EI, Twitter failed to give a credible reason for ordering the tweet to be deleted. EI explained: "In its notice to The Electronic Intifada, Twitter asserted that The Electronic Intifada's tweet violated the "The Twitter Rules" [which detail what content can be published on the platform] but provided no specific explanation of how it did so."
EI added that a number of other media outlets and individual users had also been targeted, including Palestinian outlet Quds News Network which had its account temporarily locked by Twitter "after publishing what it had called 'reports on the botched Israeli clandestine operation' in Gaza". A former health minister in Gaza, Dr. Basem Naim, told EI that he also had his Twitter account locked "because of a tweet with the photos of the special Israeli force" that raided Gaza. "He said access to his account was restored after he removed the tweet," EI added.
Israel is no stranger to utilising social media outlets to quash any information it deems to be against its interest. In June, Israel's Security Minister Gilad Erdan called on Twitter to close the accounts of "terrorist" groups, which he said included Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Lebanese group Hezbollah. Erdan wrote in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and its executive chairman, Omid Kordestani, that "giving terrorist organisations the freedom to operate and disseminate messages of incitement through your network is a violation of the Israeli law".
"If Twitter does not respond to the Israeli demand, it will be subject to legal measures that Israel may take against it," Erdan added.
Yet Twitter has largely resisted such Israeli pressure, unlike its rival Facebook which has frequently bowed to Israel's demands to censor content perceived to be pro-Palestinian. In October it emerged that Israel had bid to obtain spying systems which monitor social media users' private messages. Israeli media reported that the system was expected to monitor all information exchanged through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, targeting keywords like "terror", "resistance", "nationality" and "religion".
In July, the Israeli Knesset passed the first reading of the so-called "Facebook Bill" which would authorise Israel's court to issue orders to delete internet content "if it harmed the human safety, public, economic, state or vital infrastructure safety". Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has met with Facebook representatives to discuss coordination, after threatening the platform that failure to comply with the country's deletion orders could result in fines or a block on Facebook being used in Israel.