A demonstrably false claim started spreading on social media sites around the world on Friday night, accusing a long-since-released IDF soldier, Rebecca, of being the sniper who shot dead a Palestinian medic during violent clashes along the Gaza border earlier that day.
Amid widespread Palestinian and international anger over the killing of Razan Najjar, a 21-year-old volunteer paramedic, during a riot along the security fence, the baseless accusation about Rebecca spread rapidly on social media, prompting threats against the former servicewoman, her friends, and family members.
The Israeli army said it had launched an investigation into the death of Najjar, and said that at the time she was shot, the violence included “thousands of rioters” at five locations along the border, “burning tires adjacent to the security fence, and attempting to damage security infrastructure.”
But that didn’t stop activists from coming up with their own culprits.
The accusation against the IDF veteran may have originated with a woman from Chicago, with over 13,000 followers on Facebook, who posted a photograph of Rebecca that was published four years ago on the army’s official page.
A few hours later, the “Freedom for Gaza” Facebook page, with its more than 100,000 followers, published Rebecca’s picture, claiming that she had “executed a 21-year-old Palestinian nurse in Gaza.” As of Sunday evening, the post has been shared nearly 15,000 times.
Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old female paramedic, was shot dead while 100 Palestinians were injured during a protest in Gaza on Friday https://t.co/U3jPK5o6kX
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) June 2, 2018
Similar posts from pro-Palestinian Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were shared and re-shared tens of thousands of times, all around the world. Within two days, the false claims against Rebecca were translated into Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, French, Malay, and Indonesian.
The allegations against Rebecca are patently unfounded.
Rebecca was released from the army some two and a half years ago. She never served as a sniper when she was in the IDF. (She asked to not have her full last name published.)
Rebecca, 24, currently works for a gap year program in Israel. Next month, she will start teaching English to refugees, she told The Times of Israel over the phone on Sunday.
She found out she was the subject of this spurious allegation on Saturday night, when she turned on her phone after Shabbat had ended.
“I opened my phone after Shabbat, and there were hundreds of messages from people on Facebook, and all my friends had messaged me on WhatsApp because they’d been getting these hate messages all weekend,” she said.
Her Instagram account was also bombarded with “terrible comments,” prompting her to shut it down, she said.
“It just kept going,” she added.
She went to the police, both in order to inform them of the threats being made against her and see if they could help get the posts on social media taken down, she said.
Rebecca was initially overwhelmed and confused by the online fervor, and then frightened by the threatening messages. But now, she said she is disheartened that tens of thousands of people around the world “were so eager to believe something that’s a lie and to put so much hate out there,” she said.
I’m sad that my friends and family have been threatened and that in the world of social media, there’s no way to protect yourself from falling victim to threats and lies
“I’m not political, but I do what I can to get to know all the ‘narratives,’ and this kind of propaganda only impedes any opportunity for peace,” she said.
“I’m sad that my friends and family have been threatened and that in the world of social media, there’s no way to protect yourself from falling victim to threats and lies,” she said.
“I never knew how bad it gets.”
Rebecca initially shut down her Facebook page, after receiving hundreds of threatening messages. She reinstated it after she was contacted by an officer from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
“[The officer] told me that there wasn’t any risk to my safety,” Rebecca said.
The IDF spokeswoman encouraged Rebecca to make a video in response to the claim, which was later published by the StandWithUs pro-Israel advocacy group.
Palestinian Facebook pages have shared a photo of a random IDF soldier falsely claiming she killed a Palestinian in the Gaza border riots.The truth? She's not even in the army. Now, Palestinians are sending her hundreds of death threats. Stop the hate!Report the pages below:https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=446476225791274&id=445905922514971https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2155682947805837&id=1020297238011086
Posted by StandWithUs on Saturday, 2 June 2018
In the video, Rebecca said the “Freedom for Gaza” post has “led to hundreds of hate messages and death threats to my life and my friends’ life.”
She also said the Facebook page supported Palestinian terror groups and should encourage protests against Hamas, if the administrators were concerned about the plight of Gazans — a common claim made by Israeli officials.
“They kind of told me what to say in the video. I was a little freaked out. I just said it. They told me that it would help stop this,” Rebecca said.
How a lie spreads
The false claim against Rebecca appears to have originated from the Facebook page of Suhair Nafal, a woman living in Chicago, Illinois, who says she is from Ramallah.
Nafal’s original post, published at 8:25 p.m., does not explicitly state that Rebecca killed Najjar. Instead, it put pictures of the two women next to one another, identifying Rebecca as “an American Zionist from Boston with zero ties to occupied Palestine who joined the ‘israeli’ military (to participate in the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people of Palestine).”
Nafal took the picture and description of Rebecca from a post on the Israel Defense Forces’ official Facebook page from May 2014. In it, the army identified her as a Boston-born soldier who, at age 18, moved to Israel and “joined the IDF as a soldier specializing in education, but later decided she was meant for the field.”
In the picture, Rebecca is seen standing in the desert in full combat gear, smiling into the camera as she holds an M-16 rifle.
“Today she’s a trained fighter in IDF Field Intelligence, defending the home she knows and loves,” the army wrote. (The IDF has since taken down the post.)
Three hours after Nafal published her post, the “Freedom for Gaza” Facebook page, which has over 100,000 followers, put up its post, quoting the army’s description of the former soldier from 2014 and adding: “This ‘trained killer’ executed a 21-year-old Palestinian nurse in Gaza as she was helping wounded civilians.”
As people started to realize the claims about Rebecca were false, Nafal and the Freedom for Gaza page edited their posts.
Nafal swapped out the picture of Rebecca for a different, unidentified female IDF soldier and removed the descriptions of Rebecca. She also published a second post saying that she had never meant to imply that Rebecca had killed Razan, but that Rebecca was still a “terrorist.”
Freedom for Gaza kept its original post intact, but added a notice at the top saying it was aware that the claim appeared to be false but that “whether it was this sniper or another one, does it really matter? They are ALL killing innocent Palestinian men, women and children.”
Rebecca said she is now waiting for the whole issue to end.
“I’m waiting to hear back from the police, but other than that, I’m just waiting for it to blow over,” she said. “There’s not much that I can do besides that.”