The Israeli occupation authorities arrested 390 Palestinians last year for alleged "incitement of violence" on social media, the Palestinian Prisoners' Centre for Studies has reported. According to the centre's media spokesman, 2021 witnessed a significant escalation in the Israeli arrest campaigns targeting Palestinians on charges related to social media content.
Riyad Al-Ashqar added that Israel's routine arrests of Palestinians for social media activity constitutes a punitive policy used as a deterrent by the occupation state. The aim, he believes, is to imprison the largest possible number of children, women and young people. "Not only does the state pursue Palestinians on the ground, but also in the virtual world."
He noted the case of 17-year-old Omar Hashlamoun, from Jerusalem, who was arrested because of a Facebook post in which he wrote: "I am not sure of my long existence in this world, but I hope that I have instilled in everyone a good memory that will remain forever."
Just minutes after posting this innocuous statement, his father received a call from Israeli intelligence officers who said that Omar would be investigated. The boy was then interrogated on suspicion of "threatening a terrorist act" and subjected to torture, violence and psychological pressure.
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Al-Ashqar noted that the Israeli occupation authorities have set up a special online unit that follows social media posts by Palestinians. In the eyes of the Israelis, pictures of martyrs and news about attacks against Palestinians are seen as criticisms of the occupation.
The increase in the number of people arrested for "incitement to violence" online has sparked concerns from Palestinian rights organisations over freedom of expression. In a number of countries, valid criticism of Israel and its occupation of Palestine is regarded as "anti-Semitism" and thus against the law.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Facebook in October of "wrongfully" removing and "suppressing" Palestinian content during the Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip last May, including discussions related to human rights issues. "Facebook has wrongfully removed and suppressed content by Palestinians and their supporters, including about human rights abuses carried out in Israel and Palestine during the May 2021 hostilities," reported HRW.
"With the space for such advocacy under threat in many parts of the world," added Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at the human rights body, "Facebook censorship threatens to restrict a critical platform for learning and engaging on these issues."