Digital Surveillance and Online Disinformation in Palestine
In January 2021, the TikTok account of Quds News Network (QNN) – a popular Palestinian outlet – was removed without any notice, in a move widely deemed as censorship. Hamzah al Shobaki, the platform’s TikTok account manager, said the account was deleted after it shared 1,200 posts related to Arab normalization deals and Israeli occupation.
QNN has been under fire from all major tech companies. Twitter had permanently blocked QNN’s verified account in November 2019, and in December 2020, QNN said it was being attacked by defamatory reports against its news posts on Facebook.
The digital subversion of QNN is not surprising. Israel is notorious for using every which way to throttle the Palestinian movement; technological surveillance and online disinformation are one of them.
Out of the top five countries represented in Surveillance Industry Index (SII), Israel is home to by far the largest amount per capita, with 0.33 companies per 100,000 people located in Israel, compared to 0.04 in the United States and 0.16 in the United Kingdom. These immense resources are invariably directed towards curtailing the voice of Palestinians.
In 2000, Israel launched the "Mabat 2000" visual surveillance project in the Old City. "Mabat 2000" – an acronym in Hebrew which stands for "technological & surveillance center" and also a word which means "gaze" – is a system of 320-400, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras capable of maneuvering 360 degrees to follow and track movements. According to a report prepared by 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, "Since the launch of this project in 2000, the Israeli police have increasingly integrated pan-optic visual surveillance as part of its strategy in Jerusalem, relying on the software used to allegedly predict behavior based on algorithms."
Surveillance technologies in Israel are deeply intermeshed with governmental apparatuses. Athena, a fully owned subsidiary of C. Mer Group and the main company providing software for Mabat 2000, was established in 2003 by Shabtai Shavita, former head for the Israeli National Intelligence Agency. Athena sells software that can "predict to prevent" and has the ability to detect the "wolf in sheep’s clothing". The company offers customers three products: OSCAR, OSCAR + and 53 SAIP. These products engage in constant collection of data and cross-matching of information and metadata from texts, images videos, websites, social media, dark-net, and more, creating profiles of individuals and "identifying persons of interest."
Ever since the Israeli Cyber Unit was established in 2015, there has been an exponential increase in the use of the "Alternative Enforcement on a Voluntary Track" mechanism to remove digital content. According to a 2018 report by the State Attorney’s office, the number of requests made by the unit to remove content leaped from 2,241 in 2016, to 12,351 in 2017, to 14,283 in 2018 – an increase of over 600%. This number does not reflect the actual number of targeted content, as each appeal, most of which were addressed to Facebook (87%), may include tens or even hundreds of targeted posts. The Israeli government stated that from 2017 – 2018, its direct requests to social media companies led to the deletion of 27,000 posts from Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Efforts to remove digital content are mostly aimed at smothering Palestinian advocacy. In 2016, Ayelet Shaked, then Israeli Minister of Justice, stated that "Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israel’s requests to delete content that the Israeli government says incites Palestinian violence." In other words, Big Tech has been colluding with Israel to label Palestinian content as incitement to violence and thereafter remove it.
To take some examples, in 2019, Facebook took down a post by a human rights advocate that stated that "Israeli settlers steal land". Moreover, Facebook’s policies related to extremism are also removing the word martyr (people who have been murdered by Israel) and key political speech including the Arabic word muqawama (resistance). By doing this, the company is going beyond its legal obligations, including Israeli definitions and expanding the censorship of Palestinian content.
Facebook is apparently unperturbed when people try to overtly whip up violent sentiments against Palestinians. In 2019, it was found that the platform registered "One violent [public] post against Arabs and Palestinians in Hebrew every 64 seconds." In the eyes of Facebook, it is legitimate to abuse, vilify and stigmatize Palestinians.
YouTube, too, consistently removes Palestinian content under the pretext that it is "violent." According to Palestinian journalist Bilal Tamimi, YouTube violated his right to post a video showing Israeli soldiers abusing a twelve year-old boy in the village of Nabi Saleh. The chief editor of Al-Quds News, Iyad Al-Refaie, explained: "Violence varies according to YouTube. For example, when YouTube sees a video of a Palestinian toddler killed by the Israeli army, it has issues with publishing it, but it is fine with promoting Israeli militarization and videos of Israeli kids trained to shoot guns."
To systematize the deletion of Palestinian content, the Israeli government developed "the Facebook Bill" in 2017. The bill intended to pressure social media companies to comply with the government’s broad definition of "incitement". It would have empowered Israeli police to petition a court to remove any content posted online, without the ability for intervention on the part of the person who originally posted the material.
Disinformation and Hate Campaign
The Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MSA) was established in 2015 "to act against the delegitimization and boycott campaigns against the state of Israel." In sum, a ministry dedicated to ideological warfare against Palestinians. The ministry has engaged in a well-thought-out operation targeting all those civil society groups that are critical of Israel.
In one case, it used the hash tag #TerroristsInSuits to smear human rights defenders and Palestinian resistance movement as a whole. The #TerroristsInSuits campaign was published by the MSA and based on racist fantasies, attempting to depict Palestinian civil society organizations as suspicious criminals and terrorists, in order to discredit and defund them. Shawan Jabarin, the General Director of Al-Haq, was among the people targeted. Eventually, Al-Haq was forced to submit an appeal to the United Nations (UN) Special Procedures regarding the impact of the smear campaign it faced, including death threats it received on Facebook.
In June 2016, Haaretz reported that Gilad Erdan, at the time the Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, was going to establish a "dirty tricks" unit to "establish, hire or tempt nonprofit organizations or groups not associated with Israel, in order to disseminate" negative information about BDS groups. A year later, the MSA developed the application "4IL.org.il" – a program which organizes trolls whose aim is to either slander Palestinians or virulently clamor for the deletion of their digital content.
4IL.org.il was preceded by Act.IL – a trolling group started by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and the Israeli American Council (an American NGO backed by the Zionist donor Sheldon Adelson). Tested during Israel’s 2012 and 2014 attacks on Gaza, which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, Act.IL was designed to coordinate groups of trolls who would propagate content that falsely maligns Palestinians. Today, the online platform includes 15,000 active members and has offices in three countries.
Respecting the Digital Rights of Palestinians
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the offices of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) are closed. As a result, Palestinians living in the occupied territories who need to verify whether their permits to reside in Israel are still valid have been told by the latter to download an app that enables the military access their mobile phones. The app, known as "The Coordinator", allows the army to track the user’s phone location as well as access any notifications they receive, files they download or save, and the device’s camera. To install the app, users need to approve the following terms: "We may make use of the information we collect for any purpose, including for security purposes."
Such blatant disregard for the digital rights of Palestinians is an inevitable outcome of a settler colonial logic whose only objective is the eventual extermination of the colonized. Israel is only interested in using technological tools as a powerful weapon in its barbaric battle against Palestinians. Consequently, it will not dismantle its surveillance-disinformation regime unless an international movement pressures it to do so. For that, it is necessary that the world get rid of its cruel insensitivity and acknowledge the concrete reality of Israeli settler colonialism.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and several countries of Latin America.