GA special feature / An online battle for Israel's legitimacy
'Virtual intifada' has hitched its battlewagon to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
The struggle for the Holy Land may be the world's most ancient conflict. But in one respect, at least, the weapons and the battleground could not be more cutting-edge.
This is the realm of the "virtual intifada," digital combat played out in cyberspace by intensely partisan pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists-cum-hackers, or in the vernacular of the Information Age, "hacktivists." One incarnation of this online political activism has hitched its battlewagon to the stars of social networking, taking advantage of the runaway popularity of sites like Facebook and MySpace.
At the forefront of pro-Israel hacktivists are the shock troops organized as the Jewish Internet Defense Force, a group best known for its activities against anti-Israel groups on Facebook, the social networking colossus whose members may establish and join network groups based on a wide variety of interests. The JIDF made headlines in August by executing a takeover of a popular anti-Zionist Facebook group called "Israel is not a country! Delist it from Facebook as a country."
The JIDF (www.thejidf.org) describes itself as a "collective of activists and a non-violent protest group with over 5,000 members and supporters, which seeks in its own way to counter anti-Semitic content [that] promotes terrorism online in places including (but not limited to) Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth."
Apart from its Facebook operations, which the JIDF calls only a small percentage of its activities, the group publishes online "guides" detailing how users can identify sites that promote hateful content. JIDF members also edit content on Wikipedia entries and monitor YouTube and Google Earth.
JIDF's measures include reporting Wikipedia editors it claims are anti-Israel, and taking action against entries seen as including one-sided or false accounts of the history of Israel and the Mideast conflict. On Google Earth, it has taken steps to remove photos showing Palestinian villages listed as having been destroyed during the foundation of the State of Israel. It has also waged a campaign against the listing of Palestine as a country.
The online confrontation was first reported at the very outset of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, when Israeli and Palestinian hackers began targeting each others' Web sites. Using an ever-evolving arsenal of e-weaponry, including spam, hacktivists paralyzed the servers of targeted sites and overloaded capacity. Stricken sites slowed to a crawl or crashed altogether.
Early on, anti-Israel hackers landed blows against the Web sites of the Foreign Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group. AIPAC's site was compromised in November 2000 by a Pakistani hacker who published the personal details and credit card numbers of hundreds of AIPAC supporters.
Pro-Israel hackers returned fire, striking a number of anti-Israel sites, including two sites run by Hezbollah, whose servers crashed after they were overloaded by millions of hits. Sites run by Hamas met a similar fate.
The JIDF grew out of this battleground. Beginning in 2000 as a small circle of Jewish Internet users exchanging emails on how to counter what they termed the "propaganda machine" of anti-Israel organizations, the JIDF later began making lists of Facebook groups posting material such as praise for attacks on Israeli civilians and content the JIDF viewed as anti-Semitic. JIDF then forwarded the lists to Facebook administrators.
In some cases, the JIDF complaints prodded Facebook to take action. For the most part, however, Facebook's response was less clear-cut, according to David, a leading JIDF member who asked that his last name to be withheld, citing repeated death threats he and other group members have received by email since their actions became public. He says Facebook either did nothing or took months to police or remove groups the JIDF reported, allowing the material to circulate online in the meantime.
When efforts to lobby Facebook to remove the groups failed, the JIDF escalated, moving to intercept Facebook groups and make them impossible to access. The turning point, David said, came with the founding of a range of Facebook groups praising the terrorist who killed eight students in a shooting attack at Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in March.
"The use of Facebook to blatantly praise acts of terrorism demanded an equally blatant response," David says. Many of these groups, including "R.I.P. ALA'A ABU DHAIM," founded in honor of the Mercaz Harav terrorist, have been targeted or removed by the JIDF. Many others remain, however, due mainly to the ease with which Facebook users can set up groups and the speed with which they attract new members. Facebook groups often expand exponentially, and at the speed of the push of a button. Individual members may have hundreds or even thousands of "Facebook friends," the term used for personal contacts registered by individual users as part of their network or networks.
The JIDF has targeted dozens of groups for removal, some with only a few dozen members, others with several thousand. JIDF activists employ a number of methods to strike at targeted groups. In some cases, they have deleted the groups' users and redirected anyone who clicks on the group's link to the Facebook login page instead of the group profile - effectively removing the groups from Facebook.
A link on the JIDF site shows a screenshot from an Arabic-language group on Facebook that JIDF says was promoting Hezbollah propaganda and had attracted more than 118,000 members on Facebook before the JIDF began a wholesale deletion of the group's members, eventually deleting 109,873 members, leaving the group with less than 10,000.
In some instances, the JIDF has changed the names of the members of certain groups, altering traditionally Muslim names to "Mossad collaborator" or other terms, while also changing the homepage picture of the "Israel is not a country" group, among others, to an image of an Israel Air Force F-16 charging head-on towards the camera, before a backdrop of a billowing Israeli flag.
The JIDF says it has removed more than 100 of what it calls anti-Semitic groups that promote genocide and anti-Israel propaganda on the Web, including those for Hamas fans and Holocaust deniers and a Facebook group called "We Will Kill All Israelis Abroad."
Many of these groups make an effort to state that they differentiate between Zionists and Jews, and are insist they are not practicing anti-Semitism. At the same time, the targeted groups tend to present a wholly one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often accompanied by sensationalist, blood-drenched videos and photographs of Palestinians the sites say were wounded by the IDF. Others targeted by the JIDF, including Holocaust denial and Hitler-appreciation groups, make no effort to conceal explicitly anti-Semitic views.
The JIDF notes that some of the groups, especially "Israel is not a country," have also been described as anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League.
But the JIDF, which has recently been the subject of an Internet campaign accusing it of being a Mossad proxy, is careful to specify that it does not "hack" accounts, nor break binary codes or steal passwords. Though David declined to reveal what methods the group uses, he said that it does not practice any illegal activity, and prefers the terms "seize control," "take over" or "infiltrate" to "hack."
In August, a new group copying the name of the original "Israel is not a country" group was established by facebook users. Though it is a different group and has far less members than the original, supporters of say its founding represents a setback for the JIDF.
Amine Ez-Zaoui, a Moroccan in his 20s who is a member of "Israel is not a country," told Haaretz that after the group was attacked by the JIDF, he founded a group that petitioned Facebook to restore it to "alert the administrators of Facebook and all Arab and Muslim friends to the crime against freedom of expression committed by this group of Zionist hackers."
Ez-Zaui says the group enjoys a broad level of support. After it sent a wave of e-mails to Facebook administrators requesting that the group be restored, "Israel is not a country" returned August 1, in what Ez-Zaoui refers to as "the first victory against the JIDF." There are now several offshoots of the original group, including "Israel is not a country!" (with 7,816 members, as of early this month) and "'Israel' is not a country!... ...Delist it from Facebook as a country!" (with 2,888 members).
While the newly restored version of the original group has fewer members than the original, it still includes most of the same content, including long essays on the differences between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, videos and articles on the "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" it says Israel commits against Palestinians, and links to dozens of anti-Israel Web sites.
Another prominent member of the group said that while his personal Facebook account hasn't been targeted by the JIDF, he knew of several people whose accounts had been hacked, including one friend whose Facebook account had been deleted four times. He attributes the hacking to the JIDF. In emails to Haaretz, he maintains that his group never censors responses or posts from users that are pro-Israel, illustrating, he says, that the JIDF practices censorship, as opposed to many of the groups on Facebook that it targets.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has an Internet department monitoring anti-Semitism online and has been recognized for its actions to fight "cyber bullying," told Haaretz that it does not condone any form of hacking or vigilante action online. The ADL says its policy is to "put a spotlight" on hate sites, notifying hosts and servers that these groups are violating the sites' terms of usage and pushing them to respond to those actions in a civil, legal way.
Calling social networking sites "the next frontier in online hate," ADL civil rights director Deborah Lauter says via email that while the ADL does not advocate censorship, it has "reached out to Web site owners and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), asking them to review the content of Web sites in relation to their policies" to remove or block those users whose content they have uploaded violates the site's rules.
"The larger, more popular social networking Web sites are generally responsive in this regard," the ADL says, though the sheer number of users of social networking sites makes it impossible to completely eradicate the problem.
"MySpace, for example, has a large, dedicated staff solely devoted to this issue. And we know they are effective, by the great many complaints voiced by racists and anti-Semites who have discovered that the offensive content (such as material that advocates racist or anti-Semitic views, Holocaust denial, or calls for violence against minority groups) they uploaded was deleted," says Lauter. "Some extremists have been so frustrated that they have gone on to set up their own white supremacist social networking sites."
Perhaps those sites will turn out to be the venue for the next phase of the Internet intifada. Online warriors, take note.