An Israeli legal group with intimate ties to the state’s intelligence agencies has admitted to faking an ostensibly pro-Palestinian Facebook page and using it to post anti-Semitic statements including “Death to all the Jews.”
The Israeli group has also filed a lawsuit against Facebook, for allegedly permitting Palestinian “incitement.”
Shurat HaDin claims to be a “civil rights organization.” Various media reports have described it as an “Israeli non-governmental organization,” an “advocacy group,” or even a neutral-sounding “law center” – the group’s self-description also adopted by The Guardian and PBS.
Shurat HaDin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner privately told a US embassy official that her group “took direction” on which court cases to pursue. She claimed that she “receives evidence” from Israel’s international espionage and assassination agency Mossad and from Israel’s National Security Council.
In a video published to YouTube last week, Shurat HaDin claimed responsibility for the creation of a Facebook page titled “Stop Israelis” on 29 December.
At some point soon after, the page posted a cartoon about the Israeli threat to al-Aqsa mosque, along with the statement: “Revenge against the zionist enemy that threatens Al Aqsa! Death to all the jews! [sic]”
Shurat HaDin says the faking of the page was done as a “Facebook experiment,” supposedly to demonstrate that the social media giant is biased against Israelis.
Shurat HaDin claims it created a second racist page, but called “Stop Palestinians,” and then reported both pages to Facebook at the same time, but that only the latter was immediately removed.
In fact, the fake Shurat HaDin page containing the anti-Semitic statement was also deleted within days of when Shurat HaDin claims it was reported to Facebook.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Gilad Ravid of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev criticized Shurat HaDin’s actions, saying he was “not convinced that the conclusions drawn from this experiment are the correct ones.”
Ravid also said Shurat HaDin’s anti-Semitic postings on Facebook would have caused “significant discomfort” to those who read them before the page was closed down.
Media later reporting on the “experiment,” including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, were sent a statement from the social media giant: “Facebook does not tolerate hate speech, including against people on the basis of their nationality. We review all reports and take down such content. Both these pages have now been removed from Facebook.”
Facebook did not reply to a request for further comment.
Ironically, use of Facebook and other social media by Israelis for violent incitement against Palestinians and Muslims is pervasive. The Electronic Intifada has documented this phenomenon over several years.
A perusal through our “Israelis on Facebook” tag lists too many disturbing examples to list in full here.
Some of the more notable cases include Mor Ostrovski, the Israeli soldier who posted a photo of a Palestinian child in the crosshairs of his rifle to his Instagram account; an outbreak of violent racist fantasies (“Castrate them!” “Burn them!” “Bullet in the head!”) against a group of young Palestinian children who had joined a peaceful protest camp in 2013; and a July 2015 viral campaign in which Israelis posted photos of their children holding signs demanding the execution of Palestinian “terrorists.”
Even more notable is the fact that this racist incitement against Palestinians stems from the very top of the Israeli establishment.
Current justice minister Ayelet Shaked in 2014 approvingly posted a genocidal article to her Facebook page which declared that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy” and justified its destruction, “including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.”
The plan called for the “conquest of the entire Gaza Strip, and annihilation of all fighting forces and their supporters,” and called for the civilian population to be “concentrated” in special camps on the border with Egypt.
All of these instances of Israelis using Facebook for violent and genocidal incitement against Palestinians took place long before the current Palestinian uprising began in October – the subject of a recently-launched Shurat HaDin lawsuit against Facebook.
Mossad vs. Facebook
The reason for the Mossad-linked group to want to generate such negative publicity for Facebook is no mystery.
Lakin v. Facebook was filed in a New York state court at the end of October on behalf of some 20,000 Israelis against the social media giant.
It is an attempt to get Facebook to crack down on Palestinians who Shurat HaDin claims use it to praise or organize armed resistance against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The suit calls for the court to issue “an injunction requiring the defendant to stop allowing Palestinian terrorists to incite violent attacks against Israeli citizens.”
But according to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who blogs at The Washington Post, the case “is going nowhere.”
Volokh argues that Shurat HaDin’s suit relies on “Israeli laws that restrict speech” in a way which would be “unconstitutionally overbroad” under the First Amendment which prohibits federal, state and local government in the US from restricting free speech.
“American courts don’t enforce foreign speech restrictions that would be inconsistent with the First Amendment,” Volokh observes.
He says that “many of the examples that the complaint offers thus wouldn’t even qualify as ‘incitement’ under US law.”
Volokh says that Facebook “has no obligation under US law to censor its content” as Shurat HaDin and the Israeli government clearly want it to do.
“Covert” online units
This is not the first time that Israel, or groups engaging in government-backed propaganda, have engaged in such deceptive online tactics.
In 2013, it was reported that the Israeli prime minister’s office was organizing students in “covert” and “semi-military” style units to tweet and post pro-Israel messages on social media without revealing they are doing it as part of a government propaganda campaign.
During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children, one Israeli student union set up a “Hasbara war room” – using the Hebrew word for propaganda. “We want people abroad who don’t know our reality to understand exactly what is going on here,” one of the organizers explained. The “war room” itself drew on earlier similar efforts.
Also in summer 2014, The Electronic Intifada revealed how pro-Israel website Israel21c planned to use interns to infiltrate online communities with its puff-piece stories about the supposed wonders of Israeli technology.
“You wouldn’t directly reference that you’re interning for Israel21c,” one of the men behind the project admitted to our undercover reporter, “that would sort of defeat the point of posting it.”
And only last month the Center for Public Diplomacy and Israeli Hasbara announced it would plant secret operatives within Israeli human rights groups in order to discredit and undermine their work in support of Palestinian human rights.
There is also a pre-Internet age precedent for the “significant discomfort” that Shurat HaDin’s current Facebook deceptions would have caused Jews and others reading the “Stop Israelis” page.
In the 1980s, undercover Anti-Defamation League agent Roy Bullock (who worked for both Israel and the South African apartheid regime) infiltrated Palestine solidarity and Arab civil rights groups in the US.
One of Bullock’s tactics was to try and make it look as if the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) had neo-Nazi links.
He did this by trying to manufacture those links himself.
On one occasion, Bullock attended a conference of the Holocaust-denying “Institute for Historical Review” to distribute ADC literature and recruit members.
We know that Israel and its allied groups around the world are still involved in keeping close tabs on Palestine solidarity activists.
Incidents like Shurat HaDin’s fabrication of an anti-Semitic “pro-Palestinian” Facebook page show some of the lengths to which Israel’s propagandists will still go.