WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook, has blocked the accounts of at least 30 far-right Jewish extremists in Israel. The news comes less than a day after accounts of journalists based in the Gaza Strip were also blocked, allegedly due to their membership in WhatsApp groups operated by Hamas.
Among the accounts blocked were those belonging to activists from the far-right Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, including the wife of its leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and the head of the group Lehava, Benzi Gopstein. They said they did not get prior notice before being blocked from their accounts and have still to receive any explanation.
Ben-Gvir said they reached out to Facebook, but have not received an answer yet. According to them, they have now reached out to Israeli officials for help and say they are contemplating legal actions.
In recent weeks, Facebook has taken down a number of users who posted content deemed to be incitement, at the request of the cyber department within Israel’s Justice Ministry. Refusing to comment on the specific accounts taken down, the department confirmed to Haaretz that they have not filed any such requests in recent weeks with WhatsApp, raising the question of what prompted the take down of the aforementioned accounts.
In response to this report, WhatsApp said that “we do not respond to specific accounts, but we do block access to accounts that break the law and do not meet our guidelines on preventing violence.”
Journalists in Gaza blocked
Meanwhile, in Gaza, the Associated Press reported that a number of journalists who were members of WhatsApp groups belonging or linked to Hamas were also taken down - despite the fact that Hamas’ actual groups remain open and unaffected.
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The AP reached out to 17 journalists in Gaza who confirmed their Whatsapp accounts had been blocked since Friday. By midday Monday, only four journalists - working for Al Jazeera - confirmed their accounts had been restored.
The incident marks the latest puzzling move concerning WhatsApp’s owner Facebook that’s left Palestinian users or their allies bewildered as to why they’ve been targeted by the company, or if indeed they’d been singled out for censorship at all.
Twelve of the 17 journalists contacted by the AP said they had been part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations. Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, where WhatsApp owner Facebook is headquartered.
It’s unclear if the journalists were targeted because they’d been following that group’s announcements on WhatsApp.
Hamas runs Gaza’s Health Ministry, which has a WhatsApp group followed by more than 80 people, many of them journalists. That group, for example, has not been blocked.
Hassan Slaieh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account is blocked, said he thinks his account might have been targeted because he was on a group called Hamas Media.
Among those affected by the WhatsApp blockage are two Agence France-Presse journalists. The Paris-based international news service told the AP it is working with WhatsApp to understand what the problem is and to restore their accounts.
It’s not the first time journalists have been suddenly barred from WhatsApp. In 2019, a number of journalists in Gaza had their accounts blocked without explanation. The accounts of those working with international media organizations were restored after contacting the company.
Facebook and its photo and video-sharing platform Instagram were criticized this month for removing posts and deleting accounts by users posting about protests against efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It prompted an open letter signed by 30 organizations demanding to know why the posts had been removed.
The New York Times also reported that some 100 WhatsApp groups were used by Jewish extremists in Israel for the purpose of committing violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
WhatsApp said it does not have access to the contents of people’s personal chats, but that they ban accounts when information is reported they believe indicates a user may be involved in causing imminent harm. The company said it also responds to “valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us.”
The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report published this month that Facebook accepted 81% of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to remove Palestinian content last year. It found that in 2020, Twitter suspended dozens of accounts of Palestinian users based on information from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.