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Palestinians fight for their digital rights

Tessa Fox Ramallah
January 17, 2019

An non-profit organization in Haifa is at the forefront of efforts to address the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Palestinian territories and promote digital rights. Tessa Fox reports from Ramallah.

Speakers at the Digital Activism Forum in Rammallah
Image: DW/T. Tox

"Resist, my people, resist them. In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows. And carried the soul in my palm. For an Arab Palestine."

So read the first few lines of Dareen Tatour's poem, "Resist my People," which, after publishing it on YouTube, landed her in jail for "incitement to violence."

Tatour, a poet and social media activist, is one of hundreds of Palestinians across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, detained by Israel each year for social media posts.

Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian social media activist in a courtroom
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Shllush

As Palestinians have taken to social media to express their rejection of living under occupation, Israel has increased its monitoring and censorship of online posts.

Read more: Surveillance and human rights in the digital age

In order to address the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Palestine and promote digital rights, 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, has organized the a three-day long Palestinian Digital Activism Forum. The gathering is supported financially by DW's Academy, which also sends its trainers to the region to speak about digital issues.

Challenges facing Palestinians

One of the key themes is the challenges Palestinians face regarding digital rights and freedoms, particularly Israel's perceived dominance in the digital sphere.

Human Rights Watch Palestine and Israel Director Omar Shakir told DW ahead of the forum that social media has essentially provided Israel with an outlet to curtail basic civil rights of Palestinians.

"Israel very heavily polices these platforms [and] uses them to monitor and restrict the rights of Palestinians to engage in free expression."

In 2015 Israel set up a Cyber Unit, which falls under the State Attorney's Office to deal with "cyberspace enforcement challenges" through the censorship of social media posts. The unit did not reply to an interview request by DW.

7amleh says their work is conducted in collaboration with social media giants like Facebook and YouTube to remove content and block user access.

Read moreCybercrime laws as a weapon against expression 

Israel targets Palestinians

Tatour was one of the first to be targeted by the unit and then arrested in a predawn raid on her home in October 2015. Thereafter, Tatour was moved between different Israeli prisons for three months before being placed under house arrest.

In May last year, an Israeli court convicted her for incitement to violence and sentenced her to five months in prison. "I did not think for a moment that I would ever be arrested for writing and publishing a poem," Tatour said.

In her poem, Tatour wanted to express the suffering of her people living under occupation. "I wanted to say that it is our right to resist injustice and occupation."

A woman using her mobile phone
Image: Reuters/S. Abo Elouf

According to 7amleh, around 350 Palestinians were arrested on such cases of incitement in 2018, though the numbers are hard to corroborate, as the Israeli government routinely denies access to the data.

"Social media is increasingly becoming one of the major places for people to express themselves, particularly in the context of the West Bank, where movement is restricted," said Shakir.

Tatour echoes this sentiment and describes how important social networking sites are to take her voice outside of the country. "My access to the outside world is somewhat limited by the occupation and the political, social and economic conditions."

Read moreDigital Rights: Civic space continues to be constrained

Now, realizing that her voice is constantly monitored across all social media platforms, Tatour fears she could be rearrested at any moment.

"[Israel] does not want Palestinians to talk about politics and the reality of the occupation. They are afraid of the truth."

Safeguarding Palestinian rights

Israel has also developed a predictive policing system in the form of a computer algorithm. Monitoring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians online accounts, the algorithm identifies "suspects" likely to carry out attacks against Israel.

The algorithm is a key concern for Shakir. "One worries about an algorithm that is based on the same principles which are not keeping with international legal safeguards."

As an occupying power, Israel is bound by international humanitarian rights law and is required to provide for civilian rights, including freedom of expression. The law also safeguards the criticism of political policies and any limitation must be restricted to a specific context, which a computer cannot do.

Sahar Francis, director of the prisoners' rights organization Addameer, told DW that Israel's monitoring and arrests based on social media posts are illegal. "We have the right to criticize and resist occupation under international law."

Social media companies have also been urged to play a genuine role in ensuring the rights of their users. "They must, in the Palestinian context, scrutinize requests for user data and [understand] the way it could lead to serious human rights abuses," Shakir said.

7amleh reports that 85 percent of Israeli requests to "remove content deemed harmful or dangerous" from services such as Facebook and Twitter were accepted in 2017.

Francis pointed out a series of posts, which are removed and often land Palestinians in jail. "If you share a picture of a martyr and you write a sentence like 'may god bless him,' this would already be considered supporting a terrorist act and inciting violence."