Osama al-Kahlout took one of the best-known photographs celebrating Gaza’s resilience in recent years.
With only minimal protection, protesters continuously braved the tear gas and other weapons – including, on many occasions, live bullets – fired by Israeli troops.
Al-Kahlout has used social media to share such photographs, as well as textual information about Israel’s crimes.
He was effective in raising awareness. A total of 25,000 people had followed him on Facebook before his account was closed in May 2019, he said.
Facebook took the measure after al-Kahlout posted material critical of airstrikes that Israel carried out against Gaza that month. Al-Kahlout said he was told by the corporation that his posts had violated its “community standards.”
Al-Kahlout requested that Facebook restore his account “but unfortunately they never replied,” he said.
He believes that Facebook subjects Palestinians to censorship.
“I had posted statements by Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials, as well as videos of Israeli bombings,” he said. “Facebook seems to have a bias that favors the occupation.”
Since then, al-Kahlout has set up no fewer than 15 Facebook accounts.
Each one has been established using a different email address and phone number. Each one has been shut down by Facebook administrators, he said.
The latest time that his account was closed was last month. Al-Kahlout had used it to share information about how COVID-19 was affecting Palestine.
That information did not threaten Israel in any way, according to al-Kahlout. “But Israel views any Palestinian content as the enemy,” he said.
“There is a lot of cooperation between Facebook and the Israeli government,” he added. “We are unable to use Facebook for our journalism because of its unfair policy.”
Human rights groups have documented how the Israeli government has repeatedly demanded that Facebook remove or restrict access to content of which it does not approve. Many of Israel’s demands have been submitted by Emi Palmor, a top official in Israel’s justice ministry from 2014 to 2019.
Palmor has evidently built up a strong rapport with Facebook. Last month the corporation announced that she was among the first 20 people appointed to its oversight board.
The board has been described as Facebook’s supreme court.
Said al-Tawil is one of many Palestinian activists who have encountered censorship.
He has opened approximately 15 Facebook accounts in the past year, he said. All bar his latest one – which was set up in May – have been closed down.
He has used Facebook to post photographs from Gaza and write his own commentaries on current affairs and social issues.
“Israel doesn’t want stories about Palestinians and the abuses of our rights to reach a worldwide audience,” he said. “That’s why it monitors what Palestinians say on Facebook.”
Sada, an organization in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, has documented 550 cases of censorship against Palestinian who use social media websites so far this year. Most of the content that was censored had been posted on Facebook.
Iyad Alrefaie, the head of Sada, said that his organization is awaiting replies from Facebook for 400 complaints about censorship. Facebook has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for its delays in responding, according to Alrefaie.
He contrasted the way Palestinians and Israelis are being treated by Facebook. On average, a new Israeli post containing racist remarks against Palestinians is added to Facebook every 64 seconds, human rights activists have calculated.
Facebook’s headquarters did not reply to a request for comment about why the firm is censoring Palestinians.
A new report by 7amleh, a Palestinian digital advocacy group, complains that Facebook is taking a broad approach toward Palestinian content. The report states that Facebook is censoring material that includes the word “martyr” – a term used by Palestinians to describe people killed by Israel – as well as muqawama, the Arabic word for “resistance.”
The 7amleh report alleges that Facebook is guided by Israel’s definition of extremism and that Palestinians are thereby being denied their right to free expression.
Facebook appears to be taking an increasingly hardline approach.
While it disabled accounts run by a number of Palestinian journalists in 2016, Facebook soon apologized to the journalists involved and restored their accounts.
Facebook has been far less apologetic toward Palestinians more recently.
In 2018, the Israeli state attorney’s office calculated that Facebook complied with 85 percent of its demands to censor Palestinian content. However, figures presented by the Israeli authorities on the removal of content differed from those published by Facebook.
That same year, Facebook closed down the account of the Safa Palestinian Press Agency. The agency’s page on Facebook had more than a million followers.
Mohammed Abu Daqqa, a journalist, had his Facebook account shut a few weeks ago without any notice, he said. It was the fifth occasion that Facebook blocked him.
“Facebook is adopting Israeli policy and terminology when it comes to defining what incitement is,” he said.
“Facebook looks for words such as ‘resistance’ and ‘shaheed’ [martyr] and even the word ‘Palestine’ if it is used in a context of opposition to Israelis. We have often had to change the way we spell words to avoid having our accounts suspended.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.