Israel’s anti-Facebook Spin Is Latest Excuse to Ignore the Occupation

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A stone thrower protests the separation fence at Bil’in.Credit: AP

Mark Zuckerberg must be headed to jail. How else should we interpret the statement made by Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who after last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in the West Bank claimed that “some of the victims’ blood is on Zuckerberg’s hands”?

“Facebook has turned into a monster,” Erdan told Israel Channel 2 television. “The younger generation in the Palestinian Authority runs its entire discourse of incitement and lies and finally goes out to commit murderous acts on Facebook’s platform.”

Erdan’s outburst made international headlines. After all, here was the minister who oversees Israel’s law enforcement agencies (and, ironically, is also in charge of Israel’s public diplomacy activities), putting the onus on the world’s largest social media platform and its founder for the one thing Israel has been incapable of doing for the past decades: preventing terrorist attacks.

Erdan’s statement was no spur-of-the-moment gaffe. It was part of a concerted effort to shift the blame away from the government and onto, well, the internet. Shortly after Erdan, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked laid into Facebook, arguing in a radio interview that “it doesn’t understand the severity of Palestinian terrorism.” Shaked is promoting a piece of legislation, dubbed the “Facebook bill,” that would allow the state to require social media platforms to remove content it deems inciting or damaging to national security.

That Facebook is not responsible for terrorist attacks should be clear to anyone. It is true that it can sometime be a hotbed for radical incitement, but Facebook certainly never encouraged this, and it generally cooperates with law enforcement authorities. Shaked herself said in June that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms do in fact remove about 70 percent of the offensive content that the state asks it to scrub from their network.

Censoring content on Facebook is unlikely to prevent terrorist attacks, since Facebook did not invent the anger and hate that lead to them — all it is, really, is a quicker method of distributing hatred. Moreover, censoring it in some way could impede the war on terror, since law enforcement agencies use it frequently for intelligence gathering.

But Facebook was not really the point for Erdan, or for Shaked. It was just the last in a long line of bogeymen and red herrings used by the Israeli right to cover a glaring, painful truth: They have no idea what to do. If anything, the Facebook spin proves that they don’t have much to offer but talk.

Also, that they’ll pretty much say anything if it means they can avoid talking about the ultimate reason that makes Palestinian teenagers grab a knife, a screwdriver or a gun and go out to kill: the everyday reality of military occupation in the West Bank.

Officially out of ideas

In recent weeks, after months of relative calm, Israel has experienced a new wave of terror attacks: stabbings, shootings and car-rammings. In Kiryat Arba, outside Hebron, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13, was stabbed to death in her bed as she slept, by a 19-year-old Palestinian.

While all this is happening, the right is firmly in power in Israel. To be precise, the right has been in power in Israel for more than a decade, but was always forced to form coalitions with various center and center-left parties that, in its view, prevented it from waging full-on war on terror. The current Netanyahu government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, the left and center-left are in disarray and Avigdor Lieberman, the most far-right of the Israeli far-right, is now minister of defense. The right, which always accused the left of preventing it from pursuing its agenda in full, has never been freer to “get tough” on terror.

And yet Shaked, who once shared on Facebook an inflammatory article that called for the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians “including the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses”, is now too busy building up made-up threats like Facebook to do something about actual terrorism. Lieberman, the strongman who vowed to be bold on terror and promised to kill Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours of becoming defense minister if the organization did not free the two Israeli civilians it holds in the Gaza Strip, together with the remains of two Israeli soldiers, remains suspiciously low-key.

To be fair, it cannot be said that the right has done nothing. In recent months Israel has limited Palestinian movement within the West Bank, arrested hundreds, destroyed the homes of terrorists and their families and revoked entry permits for thousands of Palestinians; last week it approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements. None of this has reduced terror attacks significantly, but the right has always claimed that the reason its strategy didn’t work was because it was forced to play it tame.

So why is it that, while free at last to pursue their ideology, right-wing Israeli cabinetministers choose not to advocate for extreme measures, but prefer to go after a Zuckerberg and his terror incubator in Palo Alto? Well, for one, attacking Zuckerberg is far easier than really delving into the complexities of why teenagers are now butchering each other, and also translates far better electorally. Also, it’s much easier to look elsewhere for enemies than to admit that it’s impossible to beat terror without acknowledging the worsening reality of the occupation and its effects.

Is Pinterest next?

Long before attention turned to Facebook, the Islamic State organization was the preferred method to avoid talking about the occupation. There is some justification for this, at least. The Shin Bet security service announced this week that the two terrorists who murdered four people at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market last month were inspired by the Islamic State.

But even before then, since at least the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year, the Israel government constantly linked its struggle against Palestinian terror to the global fight against the Islamic State — a brutal, fanatic enemy that cannot be reasoned or negotiated with — so it could avoid talking about the particularities of Israel’s own problems.

This denial could be seen in full force in recent months, as a number of senior generals were publicly smeared for daring to suggest that Israel’s conduct in the West Bank might be less than effective. During a cabinet meeting in November, Military Intelligence director Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi surveyed the reasons behind the current terror wave in Israel, including rage and frustration felt by younger Palestinians who carry out attacks because they feel “they have nothing to lose.” Halevi was harshly criticized by ministers for allegedly adopting the “Palestinian narrative.”

With the Facebook spin, the Israeli right’s denial has reached comic levels of ridiculousness. The right wing is officially out of excuses and parties to blame for its failure to provide Israelis with security. It cannot blame the left anymore, since the left is pretty much eviscerated, so it has moved to social media.

How much longer can this denial continue? Probably until one of two things occur: Either Israel’s leaders will understand their way has failed completely, or the Israeli public will understand this before they do. More likely, expect ministers to start attacking Snapchat and Tumblr within the week.

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