Leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are seeking to block dozens of websites and social media pages, to prevent them from criticizing and exposing corruption cases related to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his senior officials in the West Bank. Pictured: Abbas on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
For the past few months, Palestinians have been accusing Facebook of “waging war on Palestinian content” by suspending dozens of accounts belonging to Palestinian activists and groups suspected of anti-Israel incitement and promotion of terrorism. The Palestinians even went as far as accusing the social media giant of being in collusion with Israel to “suppress the Palestinian narrative and conceal the reality of Israeli crimes.”
In the context of the campaign, the Palestinians used the hashtag #FBblocksPalestine to “reveal the double-standard policy of Facebook management in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian incitement on its site,” according to the Palestinian NGO Sada Social Center.
Earlier this month, Facebook further angered Palestinians when it deleted the page of the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Information Center. Several Palestinian journalists, political activists and Hamas officials accused Facebook of serving as a “tool of suppression” in the hands of Israel.
The London-based group, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies, claimed that Israel was exploiting its relations with Facebook to “combat Palestinian content.” The group also claimed that the war on Palestinian content was attributed to “economic interests” between Israel and Facebook.
The past week, however, has shown that if anyone is waging war on Palestinian content, it is the Palestinians themselves.
While Facebook has been deleting pages of individuals and groups promoting terrorism, violence and hate speech, particularly against Israel, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are now seeking to block dozens of websites and social media pages for a different reason: to prevent them from criticizing and exposing corruption cases related to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his senior officials in the West Bank.
On October 17, the PA Magistrate’s Court in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinians, issued an order to block 59 websites and social media pages for allegedly “disrupting public order and provoking public opinion.” The controversial order, which has sparked widespread criticism, was issued at the request of PA Attorney General Akram al-Khatib.
Palestinian journalists and human rights groups have strongly condemned the decision to block access to the websites and social media pages, calling it a “massacre against freedom of speech and the Palestinian press” and a “black day in the history of Palestinian journalism.” The Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network said that the ban “reveals the Palestinian Authority’s fear of a popular explosion against it similar to the Arab uprisings, the latest of which is taking place in Lebanon.”
The Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq noted that this was not the first time that the PA had blocked access to websites. Two years ago, the group said, “Palestinian internet providers began blocking approximately 16 websites that often post news or opinions critical of the Palestinian Authority.”
Al-Haq warned that blocking websites on the internet “may impinge on the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. The blocking of these websites violates the provisions of the Palestinian Basic Law, the 1995 Law on Printed Materials and Publication, and the 2009 Law by Decree on the Palestinian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.”
The PA, whose representatives have also been lashing out at Facebook for deleting pages promoting anti-Israel incitement and terrorism, is now saying it will approach the social media giant to demand that it remove the websites blocked by the Palestinian court.
The PA demand is a striking example of the double standard the Palestinians have long used in their dealings with Israel and the international community.
On the one hand, the PA leaders condemn Facebook for “surrendering to Israeli pressure” and taking action against those who incite terrorism and hate speech. On the other hand, the same PA leaders keep pressuring Facebook to silence Palestinians who demand an end to financial and administrative corruption in the PA.
As Palestinians across the political spectrum were protesting the decision to block access to websites and social media pages, the head of the Palestinian anti-cybercrime unit, Nisreen Zainah, announced that the Attorney General’s office will ask Facebook management to remove the pages blocked by the PA court in Ramallah.
“We support freedom of expression as a sacred right, but we must be aware that this should be within clear criteria and without prejudice to the freedoms of others,” Zainah said. Noting that the PA does not have the technical means to block Facebook pages, she explained that her office would do so “through communication and coordination with the management of Facebook itself.”
Israel wants Facebook to remove pages and posts that promote violence and glorify murderers of Israelis. Itamar Marcus, CEO of the Jerusalem-based watchdog Palestinian Media Watch, recently met with the director of Facebook’s global counterterrorism policy team, Brian Fishman, and presented him with a report documenting dozens of incidents in which Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction used its page to promote violence and glorify terrorists.
“During our conversation, I emphasized that every time Fatah posts a new terror message on Facebook encouraging violence or presenting murderers as role models, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are given more motivation to kill Israelis,” Marcus said. “Facebook still chooses to do nothing to stop it.”
Abbas and the PA leadership, on the other hand, are evidently not worried about anti-Israel incitement on the internet when it promotes terrorism against Israel. In fact, their social media accounts are directly involved in the glorification of Palestinians who murder Israelis and promote terrorism.
Palestinian leaders do seem to worry, though, that their corruption, tyranny and assaults on public freedoms and human rights violations are being exposed through Facebook and other social media platforms.
Now they want Facebook, “Israel’s tool,” to shut down not the terrorists, but anyone who dares to call them out for their policies and corrupt practices. As far as Palestinian leaders are concerned, reporting about corruption among the top brass of the PA is more dangerous than promoting terrorism or glorifying those with Jewish blood on their hands.
What Abbas and his senior officials apparently fear is that the current wave of anti-corruption protests sweeping Lebanon and other Arab countries may reach the West Bank. They seem nervous that their critics and political rivals will use social media to encourage Palestinians to revolt against corruption and tyranny.
For these leaders, when they turn to Facebook to clamp down on criticism and voices calling for reform and democracy, that is good government. However, when Israel tries to silence those who seek to spill more Jewish blood — well, that is criminal.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East.