North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Israel’s digital apartheid is silencing Palestinians

We urgently need international standards that would protect people from repressive governments and profit-driven companies the world over

Nadim Nashif
20 May 2021, 12.00am
People charging their mobile phones from batteries because of power shortages in Gaza
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Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/ REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Recently, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter received significant criticism after removing hundreds of posts and accounts that documented protests taking place in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where eight Palestinian families are threatened with forced expulsion, and in al-Aqsa Mosque, where Israeli police began attacking worshippers on 8 May.

Posts and stories that used the #SaveSheikhJarrah hashtag were taken down, and accounts that reposted real life footage and images of events taking place on the ground were suspended. Instagram later on released a statement claiming that content was removed due to a widespread technical bug.

However, at 7amleh, the Arab Centre for Social Media Advancement, we view these takedowns as part of a larger and much older campaign to censor Palestinians online. It is the biases in the automated algorithms that identify “inappropriate content,” as well as the lack of transparency in these platforms’ content moderation policies, that enabled this type of indiscriminate mass censorship. In addition, we at 7amleh have also come to notice that these algorithms often tend to interpret content in Arabic without context, leading to more takedowns, often without legitimate reasoning.

This latest episode was an example of the obstacles faced by Palestinians in the digital sphere, obstacles which cannot be separated from – and indeed reproduce and reflect – the broader apartheid system imposed by Israel.

Recently, multiple Israeli and international human rights organisations, most notably Human Rights Watch, have released reports stating that Israel has established an apartheid system according to all recognised standards. This is effectively what Palestinian organisations have been saying for decades now, as such a system is based on the dominance of one people over another, the systemic oppression of one people by the other, as well as committing inhumane acts by one people against the other.

Palestinian human rights organisations have documented and publicised all such violations for decades, both locally and internationally. For over 70 years, Palestinians have been subjected to the most horrifying violations of their human rights, including depriving them of the right to freedom of movement and the right to education, in addition to the demolition of their homes and the imprisonment of over 1 million Palestinians in the span of 40 years, including women and children.

A digital apartheid

In the digital age, the power relations offline are reflected online too. There are three main ways in which this is conducted, the first being Israel’s control over the infrastructure of the Palestinian telecommunications sector.

Palestinians in the West Bank still only have access to 3G, while those in the Gaza Strip remain limited to 2G

Since 1967, and despite the Oslo and Paris agreements, Israel has prevented the Palestinian communications sector from independently controlling their infrastructure, and systematically hindered its development, which has resulted in the poor quality and high cost of telecommunication services available in Palestine today.

As the world moves towards the fifth generation of mobile networks (5G), Palestinians in the West Bank still only have access to the third generation (3G), while those in the Gaza Strip remain limited to the second (2G). This is because the Palestinian Authority is completely dependent on Israel’s approval to import certain pieces and equipment from abroad, which it almost never approves.

Similarly, erecting a cell tower or installing equipment on the ground requires the approval of Israel. Additionally, all fibre and communication lines in Palestine are essentially derived from and connected to Israel’s existing infrastructure.

Even Palestinian citizens of Israel do not have equal access to internet services and infrastructure. The unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev do not have any internet or electricity networks, while the rest of the Palestinian community in Israel suffers from a less developed communications infrastructure compared to the infrastructure in majority-Jewish villages and cities.

Silencing

Another strategy used by Israel is to silence Palestinians and human rights defenders by working to censor Palestinian content and narratives on the Internet, in addition to criminalising and defaming supporters of the Palestinian cause. To do so, Israel weaponises a number of civil laws and military orders, which it has recently been working on expanding through new legislation.

Since 2015, Israel has continued to arrest hundreds of Palestinians yearly on grounds related to freedom of expression, by adopting vague definitions of incitement and violence, and using these charges against anyone who violates the policies of the occupation, or calls for its end.

Israel also systematically coordinates with outside organisations to spread misinformation online, as well as to organise groups of trolls and bots that systematically work to censor Palestinian content online, through coordinated reporting of posts including Palestinian content, without even reading them. This illuminates the ways in which oppressive and authoritarian governments can use their resources and power to recruit tens of thousands of people to abuse reporting systems on social media, for the benefit of these regimes.

The most dangerous of all, unfortunately, is the cooperation of social media platforms, and even their collusion with the Israeli government in removing tens of thousands of Palestinian posts through responding to the complaints of the Israeli Cyber Unit.

The Israeli security establishment has transformed the Palestinian territory into a field of experiments for surveillance industries and for digital military units

In the majority of cases, Facebook for instance, voluntarily takes down these posts as requested by the Israeli Cyber Unit, without a court order, which leaves Palestinian users unable to appeal the decision. The Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs also cooperates with quasi-governmental institutions that are funded by campaigns that discredit Palestinian advocates and human rights institutions, and spread inaccurate and misleading news on the Internet, especially on sites such as Wikipedia.

Surveillance

In recent years, it has become clear that the Israeli security establishment has transformed the Palestinians and occupied Palestinian territory into a field of experiments for surveillance industries and for digital military units. Military intelligence has also been used to develop Israeli high-tech industries, leading to the manufacturing and sale of military grade surveillance and espionage technologies worldwide – including to other repressive regimes. In the development of these technologies and in testing them on the Palestinians, Israel both reinforces its control over Palestine and enables the state and private sector to profit from this unlawful control.

In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, thousands of cameras with facial recognition technology proliferate. This led to a recent scandal about cooperation between Microsoft and AnyVision, a company that supplies the Israeli army with cameras. Microsoft withdrew its investment in the company due to public pressure.

Similarly, in 2016 there were several reports of software and algorithms being developed to track and control the accounts of Palestinians on social media, as well as for the predictive policing of Palestinian youth.

These examples all indicate the Israeli state’s power over the Palestinians, reinforced through its control of infrastructure, and its active attempts to sustain the gap between the two peoples. Israel exercises systematic oppression in the digital realm, through attacking Palestinian content and limiting freedom of speech, with arrests and smear campaigns, as well as committing inhumane acts such as surveilling and spying on Palestinian users, ultimately depriving them of their right to privacy.

Unfortunately, all these tactics and technologies are exported by Israel and Israeli companies to repressive regimes abroad that either oppress their own people or occupy another. Given the close relations between tech giants, whose main concern is profit, and repressive regimes whose main goal is expanding their control, the consequences could be disastrous for human rights in general and digital rights in particular.

What we need instead are international standards that regulate, clarify and guarantee human rights, such as treaties binding both governments and corporations alike. This is essential to our struggle for a free, just and safe internet for the Palestinians and for all oppressed peoples and groups around the world.

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