Facebook Closes Page of Hamas-affiliated Palestinian News Agency With 1.3 Million Followers

Demonstrators protesting in favor of the news agency claim the move was inspired by Israeli pressure to limit the online presence of Palestinian media outlets

Palestinian demonstrators protesting in the southern Gaza Strip on February 15, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Facebook closed down the official handle of Palestinian news agency Safa over the weekend. The move came as part of a new company policy to block Facebook pages that promote and publish contents that are defined as inciteful.

Palestinian activists decried the move on social media, claiming it was part of an overall biased policy the social platform, pressured by Israel, leads against Palestinian activists, journalists and bloggers.

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A Palestinian activist who has been following the affair closely said that the move to close Palestinian Facebook pages started several weeks ago after Hamas operative Ahmed Jarrar was killed near Jenin. Jarrar, who was one of the main strategists behind the drive-by West Bank shooting attack that claimed the life of an Israeli father-of-three, was hailed as a Palestinian hero on social media, and images of him that circulated online had become emblematic of the Palestinian resistance movement against Israel.

According to the activist, since the beginning of 2018 alone some 500 Facebook pages of Palestinian activists, journalists and bloggers were closed by the company. The activist also said that pages of news companies had also been blocked, including one of a news company affiliated with Islamic Jihad and another linked to the Palestinian National Front, with Safa being the latest.

Other activists have noted that Facebook pages affiliated with Fatah, which recently posted images of Yasser Arafat holding a Kalashnikov, were taken offline by the company.

Safa has been operating for a decade out of its offices in Gaza, and is associated with Hamas. The agency was opened to serve as the equivalent of WAFA, the official news agency of the PLO, affiliated presently with the Palestinian Authority.

Journalists and news editors held a rally on Saturday afternoon near Safa agency offices in Gaza following the move by Facebook. In a statement they released they claimed that Safa had operated as a professional news agency that garnered 1.3 million followers who looked to it as reliable source of information for the Palestinian public.

Safa claimed that Facebook pages of journalists and editors working in the agency were blocked, and called on Facebook not to give in to Israeli pressure. The agency retorted that Facebook should stick to its declared goals "to allow people to express their standpoints so that the world is more open and pluralistic."

Against the backdrop of the recent closure of such Facebook pages, Palestinian activists on social media have launched a campaign against the company entitled "Facebook is fighting Palestine."

The campaign, which has spread from Facebook to Twitter and to other social media outlets, includes the use of videos and an adamant call to boycott Facebook.

A leading activist told Haaretz that the recent move by the company to close Palestinian Facebook pages echoes a similar move by the company in 2016, which came after a wave of stabbing attacks targeted Israeli civilians. Around that time Palestinians initiated a campaign to boycott Facebook, which led to a meeting between a company representative from London and Palestinian activists that took place in Ramallah.

The activist said that Facebook promised to walk back their policy but continue with it nonetheless because of pressure applied by Israel.

He claimed that the company is citing inciteful content in its explanation for the decision to close the Facebook pages, while they ignore similar content being spread by Israeli pages online.

The fresh protest comes several days after a Facebook official who oversees the company's policy in the Middle East came to Israel to participate in a forum dedicate to the struggle against anti-Semitism and online incitement to violence.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked commented on the changes led by the company last week, saying that Facebook's struggle against provocative and violent content was noteworthy, while Twitter still had to improve in that field.

"Through Twitter terror organizations promote terrorism and incite to violence, including public activity that they arrange there fearlessly," the justice minister said. "The reason for this," Shaked explained, "is the successful collaboration between Israel and Facebook versus its lack thereof on Twitter's side."

Facebook has yet to comment on a Haaretz query on the matter.