Talal Samara fingered his prayer beads throughout the interview as he sat in his living room chair, bluish smoke curling upwards from his cigarette. He had recently had surgery, and the doctors had told him that under no circumstances was he allowed to smoke. But the stress of recent events had made this impossible.
Close to eighty years old, Talal lives in the village of Burkin, which is located not far from Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Two months earlier the Israeli army had uprooted twenty-four of his beloved olive trees to make way for pipes that would take water to a new Israeli settlement.
“I planted them when I was a boy,” he told me. “Every time I look at them I think of my mother.”
But the trees were not the reason for this interview. I was here to talk to him about the events of two days earlier, when Israeli soldiers came to arrest his grandson.
“He was always the best in his class. He was in his last year in high school and was planning to go to university next year. He wanted to study medicine. What will happen now?” he asked, as he choked up. “What about his scholarships?”
I asked him about the details of the arrest.
“The soldiers came at 2:40 in the morning. There were fifty of them, in five jeeps, and they surrounded the house to prevent the possibility of an escape,” he told me.
A crime of expression
On the surface, the arrest of the eighteen-year-old Osaid Abu Talal Samara resembled so many of the others that occur on a daily basis in the West Bank. Perhaps a soldier had accused him of throwing stones, or maybe he had been seen at a demonstration.
This, however, was different. When the soldiers came to arrest Osaid that night in their military gear, they did not tell him what crime he had committed, but a lawyer appointed to the case told the family the following day that he had been arrested because of a Facebook post.
“Fuck occupation,” Osaid had written.
Israel regularly arrests Palestinians—but not Israelis—for incitement
When it comes to persecution by Israeli authorities for statements made on social media, Osaid is certainly not alone but rather part of a disturbing trend. According to Nadim Nashif, an expert with the Palestinian Policy Network, in the years 2015 and 2016 over 400 Palestinians were arrested for their online activity, while roughly 200 are currently involved in legal proceedings. As Nashif noted, the most well-known victim of this relatively new Israeli policy is the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who was arrested in November of 2016, because of three items she posted on Facebook and YouTube, including her poem, “Qawim ya sha’abi, qawimhum” (Resist, my people, resist them). Tatour spent the first three months of her detention in prison, and she has since been transferred to house arrest as she awaits the completion of her trial.
Meanwhile, a report from The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement in February revealed that Jewish Israelis are posting hateful and racist content on social media at ever increasing rates. There were 675,000 “inflammatory” posts in 2016 against Arabs and Palestinians, a number that was more than twice as high as in the previous year. “Examples include ‘rape all Arabs and throw them in the sea’ and ‘a morning with lots of energy to slaughter Arabs.’” Despite the high number of such posts, the report stated, “not a single case of incitement against an Israeli has been opened.”
Israeli focus on social media began after 2015 attacks
The Israeli focus on social media originated in 2015 following a series of Palestinian knife attacks. In some cases, the attackers had written about their actions on Facebook prior to the events, and the Israeli authorities blamed the violence to a large extent on social media.
“Very soon it was discovered that in seven out of ten cases, the terrorists were influenced by incitement for violence and terror to which they were exposed in social media and the internet,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in February of 2017. “The link between incitement and terror is a new and dangerous phenomenon with strategic significance.” Shaked is herself familiar with online incitement, having taken “to Facebook during the summer of 2014 to call for the destruction of Gaza, ‘including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.’”
Israel works with Facebook to remove content
In addition to arresting Palestinians, the Israeli authorities also began working with internet companies on having offensive content removed. Shaked noted that since the establishment of an Israeli task force to monitor online activity, 78% of requests made of internet companies to remove content were complied with. As Glenn Greenwald highlighted in 2016, it is extremely problematic that private tech companies such as Facebook, in concert with the Israeli government, are determining what the Palestinians are allowed to see and read.
Despite the willingness of Facebook to cede to Israeli wishes, lawmakers are going further by considering the so-called Facebook Law, which could allow Israeli courts to order social media companies to remove content deemed as causing incitement. The bill passed a first reading of the Knesset in January of 2017, but two more readings are required before it becomes law.
An attack on freedom of expression
Happily, Osaid was released a few days after he was first arrested. He was lucky. (A friend of the family opined that Osaid’s father’s high position in the Palestinian Authority played a role in his release.)
Freedom of expression is not an absolute thing. One should not allowed be to, as the well-known example illustrates, yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In the United States there are restrictions on free speech, but these restrictions apply only when the speech has “the intent and the likelihood of causing imminent violence.” The statement for which Osaid was arrested does not come close to meeting this requirement. “Fuck occupation” is not a call for imminent violence. It is a political statement that should be protected under any reasonable definition of free speech, which the Israeli government clearly has no interest in providing for the Palestinians. This practice of monitoring and removing content—and subsequently arresting the offenders—for statements such as Osaid’s, especially insofar as it is applied differently to Israelis and Palestinians, should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.