Israeli Courts Must Be Wary of Cracking Down Too Hard on Hate Speech on Internet

Between the freedom of expression and explicit calls for violence there is relatively wide leeway for interpretation.

(Facebook screenshot)

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court has sentenced Omar Shalabi, a Fatah activist, to nine months in prison plus a conditional five-month prison term for posts on his Facebook page during the war in Gaza and the subsequent rioting in Jerusalem.

Most of the posts consisted of praise for terrorists. After a car-ramming terror attack in Jerusalem, Shalabi wrote: “Hundreds of Jerusalem’s young men rise from their graves and the harm caused them by the usurper to cheer the shahid’s spirit and escort him.” In another post he wrote: “Children of Jerusalem, be angered and continue on the path of despair; the conflict will simmer and purify Jerusalem and al-Aqsa from the bastard Jews’ defilement we renew our commitment to all the shahids by going in their paths.”

Following these and similar posts, Shalabi was convicted, as part of a plea bargain, of inciting terrorism and supporting a terror organization, after being held behind bars for months.

This is the first time that an Israeli court has handed out a prison sentence for posting on social media. While the unprecedented penalty reflects the authorities’ attitude to the new public discourse, in which social networks play a central role, the verdict raises weighty suspicion that the penalty was disproportionate and discriminatory.

Jewish “Facebook outlaws” are rarely put on trial, despite posts that are no less harsh, and possibly even harsher, than Shalabi’s. “Delightful, all the children should be killed,” “there are no pictures more beautiful than those of dead Arab children” and “hating Arabs isn’t racism, it’s a principle” are but a few examples of statements that appeared on the net when four children were killed on a Gaza beach.

Despite the similarity between these and Shalabi’s posts, the authorities took no action against their writers. Very few indictments have been served against Jewish inciters, even when the perpetrators explicitly called for organizing attacks on Arabs. The posts Shalabi wrote are unpleasant to read and may raise anger and even disgust. But these feelings cannot justify such a heavy penalty on a man whom the judge himself described in the verdict as a normative person, who has never been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing.

The Facebook arena and the relative freedom it affords create new social and legal challenges, which the authorities must deal with. Between the freedom of expression and explicit calls for violence there is relatively wide leeway for interpretation.

The court ought to apply essential democratic principles in this case as well and avoid infringement on the freedom of expression as much as possible. The excessive penalty imposed on Shalabi is not a step in this direction.