Netanyahu's regime is coming for Palestinian digital rights
Benjamin Netanyahu’s new extremist far-right government in Israel is planning a wave of legislation that could further suppress the freedom of all Palestinians.
Their aim needs to be clearly understood. Netanyahu’s government wants to suppress Palestinians' right to express their beliefs and opinions, to organise against an increasingly authoritarian government, and to document and expose its violations of human rights.
The new Israeli Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, made the government’s stance on Palestine clear when he stated that “human rights organisations are an existential threat to the state of Israel.”
Given this clean and unambiguous hardline, extreme action from Israel vis-a-vis Palestinians should be expected. We have already seen this through a proposed new taxation on donations from foreign governments, which will specifically target human rights groups who rely on international support.
"[The new regime] is silencing the voices of Palestinians speaking out against human rights violations committed by the Israeli government, so that its campaign of Palestinian displacement and ethnic cleansing can continue uninterrupted"
The Israeli government is also going after digital rights. Simply put, digital rights are human rights as they manifest themselves in the digital sphere. In 2016, the UN The Human Rights council said, “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”.
As our societies become further enmeshed in the digital sphere, there is a growing understanding globally of the importance of both internet access and freedom of expression online, among other digital rights. In Israel and Palestine, these digital rights are in peril.
Barely a month into its mandate, the new Israeli regime has already made it clear that this government is seeking to complete what previous governments started: silencing the voices of Palestinians speaking out against human rights violations committed by the Israeli government, so that its campaign of Palestinian displacement and ethnic cleansing can continue uninterrupted.
Dangerous new draft bills explicitly target and limit Palestinian freedoms. These laws are not only intended to limit Palestinians’ and pro-Palestinians’ freedom of expression, but also isolate Palestinians from the international arena and silence their narrative.
Another year has passed, and the freedom of expression online for Palestinians is still being violated during the year 2022.⬇— 7amleh حملة (@7amleh) February 5, 2023
🔸This post highlights the main findings of the Hashtag 2022 report
Check out the full report: https://t.co/dTIANxbxua #DigitalRights = #HumanRights pic.twitter.com/Nvxc7Pvvdx
Among these laws, the new government is expected to push Israel’s Knesset to pass the so-called “Facebook Bill” into law. This draconian bill would create new legal restrictions under the guise of preventing what the government calls “incitement” on social networks by permitting government censorship of content.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. According to the most recent draft of the Facebook bill, a central court judge would be empowered, at the request of the attorney general, to issue an order requiring any content publisher, owner or administrator of a website or application to remove certain content from the site.
This means that the Israeli government could order Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to take down content it deems “inciting”, and the social media companies are legally obligated to do so. This would allow the Israeli state to legally censor media coverage that criticises its oppressive regulations and practices.
The dangerous and censorious effect on Palestinians and Israeli human rights defenders cannot be understated. It would almost certainly prompt everyday citizens, human rights defenders, and journalists alike to avoid expressing certain opinions — especially those favourable to the Palestinian cause — for fear that they could be targeted by the state and subject to legal action.
It doesn’t end there. Netanyahu’s new regime has made other threats to curtail the rights of Palestinians. In 2018, the Israeli government (under Netanyahu’s former governing coalition) drafted a bill that would make it illegal to film Israeli soldiers “with intent to harm the morale of Israel’s soldiers or its inhabitants”.
Though the bill made it through multiple Israeli parliamentary steps, it was never fully passed into law. However, there are real fears that it could be reinstated, increasing restrictions on Palestinians, activists and journalists documenting the truth.
Under such a despotic law, human rights activists and reporters would be prevented from exposing the rights violations Palestinians are exposed to on a daily and systematic basis, already scarcely covered by the international media. Not only would this obfuscate the international community’s understanding of what is happening in Israel and Palestine, it will also inevitably spread fear among Palestinians.
In recent years, live streaming rights violations on social media and sharing videos of Israeli aggression on both traditional news media and social media platforms has been one of the only ways Palestinians have been able to garner support for their cause internationally.
"When the world sees what is actually happening in Palestine, the world chooses to stand in solidarity with Palestine"
In May of 2021, Palestinians live streamed Israeli soldiers forcibly displacing them from their familial homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Tens of thousands saw the violence live, and even more watched the videos later.
In 2022, video documentation showed the renowned and globally respected Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh murdered by Israeli Occupying Forces during a military operation in the West Bank.
In both of these cases, video documentation led to global outrage, and calls for action. These examples highlight the daily realities of Palestinians. What makes these examples unique is that they are well known around the world.
If Israel had outlawed the filming of its soldiers’ crimes in 2018, the world would have never witnessed the ethnic cleansing of Sheik Jarrah or the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh.
Over the last few years, Palestinians have used digital spaces to share their narrative and perspective with the world. This has caused a notable shift in the global understanding of what is happening in Israel and Palestine. That shift reflects more openness, respect and explicit solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Decades-old alliances and support for the state of Israel, once unquestioned, are now starting to look shaky. There have already been reports that the US, Israel's most important ally, is considering not engaging with some of the “ultranationalist ministers” of Netanyahu’s government.
This has only been possible because of a new set of digital tools and technologies, which have undermined the state of Israel’s long standing campaign to repress Palestinian speech and expression.
Now, Netanyahu’s new government has a clear strategic imperative to undermine and violate Palestinian digital rights, specifically so the state of Israel can continue to manipulate how a global audience views Israel and Palestine, just as he tried to do in his previous term in office.
Back then, he didn’t have the votes. Under this extremist government, he does. This should be terrifying news to anyone who cares about human rights.
By targeting and repressing Palestinian digital rights with this slough of pending legislation, Netanyahu’s new governing coalition has made it clear that interrupting international solidarity with Palestine is a priority. When the world sees what is actually happening in Palestine, the world chooses to stand in solidarity with Palestine.
Everyday Palestinians, rights defenders, and civil society are standing against this campaign of repression, but we need help. Corporate tech giants who create our digital world must create platforms that not only respect but also protect digital rights.
We need the world to stand up for Palestinian digital rights, or else you may not hear about human rights violations in the same way you have become accustomed to over the last few years, but that doesn’t mean that they are not still happening.
Nadim Nashif is a social entrepreneur and advocate for digital rights. He is the founder and general director of 7amleh - the Arab Centre for the Development of Social Media, which deals with Palestinian digital rights. Nadim is a policy member of the Palestinian Policy Network "Al Shabaka". Over the past twenty years, he has worked on youth and community development issues, establishing and managing several community institutions and initiatives.
Follow him on Twitter: @NadimNashif
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.