Is the Internet key to stopping attacks?

The latest wave of terrorism in Israel is different from previous ones in that it is planned, inspired, glorified and spread through social networks. Can it be stopped online as well?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A soldier in the army's cyber defense course on June 10, 2013 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A soldier in the army's cyber defense course on June 10, 2013 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Several Palestinians questioned in stabbing attacks against Israeli Jews over the past several days have pointed to viral posts on social media as the source of their inspiration. Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also cited social media incitement, specifically surrounding the notion that Israel is supposedly endangering the volatile al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. But what messages are they referring to? And where does freedom of speech end and incitement begin? Furthermore, what can Israeli security forces do to combat the problem?

According to Adam Hoffman, a Neubauer research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies who tracks Arabic social media, there are several types of incitement. First, there are straight-out calls to stab Jews, including instructional videos and images glorifying terrorism.

But there are more subtle forms of incitement as well, says Hoffman.

“There are popular memes that put a different spin on events. ​For example, you can see a photo showing a nice, smiling ‘before’ photo of a stabber and then one showing them after they were shot by Israeli police after stabbing civilians​. The posts suggest that they were innocent and were ​murdered in cold blood.”

A Tweet that reads 'The shahid (martyr) Muhammad Saed Ali fought policemen from the soldiers of the occupation near the gates of occupied al-Aqsa Mosque this afternoon before he was martyred by the bullets of the soldiers.'
A Tweet that reads ‘The shahid (martyr) Muhammad Saed Ali fought policemen from the soldiers of the occupation near the gates of occupied al-Aqsa Mosque this afternoon before he was martyred by the bullets of the soldiers.’

Although that is not direct incitement, says Hoffman, it contributes to Palestinians’ sense that they need to take action.​

“If you don’t know the whole context, it’s easy to believe​ such images​. Instead of saying that this person stabbed a few people and then was shot, it will say that they were minding their own business when they were martyred by Israeli occupation forces.”

The caption alongside this photo, shared on Twitter, reads, 'This is the way, the al-Aqsa Intifada.' (Twitter)
The caption alongside this photo, shared on Twitter, reads, ‘This is the way, the al-Aqsa Intifada.’ (Twitter)

Another widespread meme, says Hoffman, are photos of deceased terrorists calling them “shahid,” or martyr, as well as romanticized photos of men and women on their way to commit attacks.

“Being a stabber makes you an instant hero,” says Hoffman. “There is bottom-up endorsement and a mob effect.”

Social media has a tendency to bring out extremist voices​ in many situations​, says Hoffman, also pointing at an abundance of racist anti-Arab​ social media posts among Israeli Jews. However, in Arabic social media, the current wave of attacks on Jews is viewed in a positive light. In this narrative, all Israeli Jews, wherever they live, are seen as settlers who are threatening the al-Aqsa Mosque and are ​therefore legitimate targets, he says.

For instance, a graphic video of Tuesday’s terror attack on Malchei Israel Street in Jerusalem was posted by the Shebab News agency in Gaza as an example to be emulated, with its perpetrator described as “hero” and “martyr.”

Adam Hoffman (Facebook)
Adam Hoffman (Facebook)

“There is no single voice on social media, but there is definitely a lot of support for stabbings among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs,” he says,

Do you see calls for co-existence and resolving differences peacefully?

“Yes, there are those voices but they’re in the minority,” says Hoffman.

One such post, by a resident of Umm el Fahm in northern Israel, said that terrorists were making things uncomfortable for those who have to earn their living among Jews.

“After I saw Jewish groups around sites and workplaces for construction workers who are forced to travel daily to the Jewish cities, I say with all honesty that none of those who are sitting in their parliamentary offices or movements or parties feel the racism or the danger, [or] the fate of ordinary people, and the anguish/sorrow will be only ours. You must rein in this wave,” the post read.

Israeli Arab MK: Incitement is coming from the Jews

MK Youssef Jabareen of the Joint (Arab) List, a resident of the Israeli-Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, disagrees with the notion that Palestinians are inciting violence.

“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu keeps saying there is incitement from the Islamic Movement, from Arab Knesset members, and from Arab leaders. By doing this he continues his incitement back from the day of the election, when he spoke about Arabs rushing to the polls. He is labeling the Arab community as part of the enemy,” he says.

Furthermore, Jabareen adds, calls by politicians for Jews to carry weapons to protect themselves is also a form of incitement.

Echoing a sentiment widely expressed on Arabic social media, he says Israelis are responding too harshly to stabbing attacks.

“Even in cases where there are some kind of attacks by Palestinians, that doesn’t necessarily mean that attackers need to be killed. Legally, there are rules for using weapons; security forces are allowed to use live fire only when there is a concrete and immediate danger against the security person. There are also rules that when there is some kind of danger, you first shoot in the air, then you shoot at the legs, and only if that doesn’t help you are allowed to shoot at the upper body.”

Jabareen says many videos of stabbers being subdued show that “there was not a concrete and immediate danger coming from that person even if he had a knife in his hand.”

He cites footage of a knife-wielding Nazareth woman shot and wounded by Israeli security forces in Afula on October 9.

Everybody who watched the video could tell that there were definitely alternatives for encountering the situation without necessarily shooting at her. They could ask her to throw what she has, or try to convince her, or shoot in the air in the beginning. There are many choices before shooting at her body,” he says.

Jabareen says the immediate reason for the attacks is an Israeli attempt to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, “when the government allowed massive and provocative entrance and tours in the al-Aqsa area.”

The Israeli government has repeatedly denied any intention of altering the status quo on the site, the holiest in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam, where Jews are currently permitted to visit but not to pray.

“The occupation” caused the violence, he continues.

Yes but why not protest peacefully? Why protest by stabbing people? Also, the people who they’re stabbing are not the same people who went on the Temple Mount. Why stab people who have nothing to do with it?

Israeli Knesset member Youssef Jabareen (Facebook)
Knesset member Youssef Jabareen (Facebook)

“I think a massive peaceful protest could definitely be more effective, as we learn from examples in history. However, you should understand that people in East Jerusalem have been under occupation for almost five decades. They believe they have the right to protest the occupation and have the right to struggle for their self-determination. Unfortunately, even when we had a peaceful atmosphere encouraged by the Palestinian president, there was no progress in the peace process. It was the opposite. So I think Palestinians today have this feeling of despair. I believe the main source for the violence is basically the occupation, the ongoing occupation.”

Are there leaders in your community who are saying to young people, “Don’t stab people, it’s not right to stab a woman, it’s not right to stab a person who didn’t do anything to you?”

“All our leaders in our community call for peaceful popular protests.”

Do they say, “Don’t stab?”

“We say to our the Arab community in Israel that our way of protest, that our struggle, is for peace and for equality and it’s through peaceful and popular protests.”

But is anyone condemning the violence?

“Violence against citizens has been always condemned, but we say the main violence is coming from the occupation. The occupation itself is very violent. It is very harsh. It’s basically oppressing people. And this is actually the main violence. This is the main source of what’s going on. It’s not the individual people here and there who are protesting the occupation. The main problem is the occupation itself.”

Do you think violence helps improve the situation for Arabs in Israel?

“You speak about violence as if we use violence. We don’t use violence. The violence is basically coming from the security forces and the governmental agents.”

Are there any voices within the community that are self-critical, looking within and saying, “We shouldn’t do this, we should do things differently?”

“We are in continuous discussions looking for the best way to manage our struggle as an excluded minority. However, we are all united in basically accusing the government of being discriminatory or excluding Arabs citizens; of not offering them equal opportunities; of appropriating lands; of not allocating public institutions, public projects and public lands. We are united in pointing to these policies as the main source of the ongoing tension. When it comes to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, we point to the continuous occupation, the lack of any hope, as the main source of the ongoing violence.”

What can be done about incitement?

The Times of Israel contacted the police and the army to ask what was being done to address Internet incitement. A spokeswoman for the Israel Police said that every complaint about incitement to violence is referred to the state prosecution, which decides how to address it.

The Times of Israel also interviewed Avi Kasztan, CEO and co-founder of Israeli cyber-intelligence firm Sixgill, which specializes in dark web automatic monitor and analysis. Kasztan has close ties to the security establishment.

He says he has strong reason to believe that the attackers, including the stabbers, are not lone wolves influenced by Facebook and Twitter, but are being organized and directed from above.

“These people don’t only spend their time on social media. They’re also on the dark web. And they’re not stupid. There are very smart people behind this.”

According to Kasztan, a teenager doesn’t wake up one day and say, “Today I want to stab someone.”

This image compares a 13-year-old Palestinian boy (left) who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem on Monday, October 12, 2015, to Mohammed al-Dura, whose death was among the catalysts of the Second Intifada, and who became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. (Facebook)
This image compares a 13-year-old Palestinian boy (left) who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem on Monday, October 12, 2015, to Mohammed al-Dura, whose death was among the catalysts of the Second Intifada, and who became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. (Facebook)

“There is a lot of psychological brainwashing behind it. These organizations tell people, ‘The problems you have in life all are because of the soldiers and Israel and the Jews.’ They hear this every day. You’re a child and you’re not able to think or use your own judgment. And your parents are telling you the same. So should you not believe it?”

Kasztan says the brains behind the current wave of violence are based in the West Bank and abroad, but there are deputies in Israel. Their army of young stabbers and other attackers are children whom they have indoctrinated over a period of years and keep in contact with.

He is intentionally vague about the names of the groups, but says they include Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The teenagers under their influence receive money and prestige and know that one day they will be called upon to carry out their mission.

“The luck we have is that these groups don’t always agree among themselves. They all have the same goal, which is to cause as much harm as they can, but the discussions they have are about the best methods. You and I can say this is evil, because we share certain values. They don’t share those values,” he says.

A photo glorifying stabbings (Twitter)
A photo glorifying stabbings (Twitter)

Kasztan asserts that because Israelis put a high value on human life, terrorism makes them crazy.

“It’s our weak point and they know that, so this is what they are trying to focus on. The discussions they are having among themselves is what is the best way to carry out the terrorism,” he says.

How can the terrorism be stopped?

”I don’t think anyone has the answer,” says Kasztan, “It would have been better to stop them in the planning stages, to understand the real social network behind these attacks, which is not Twitter or Facebook. If we can catch the brains behind these attacks and apply pressure, we might be able to make progress.”

He says such actions would also help the teenage attackers, whom he calls “poor children” and describes as victims of a form of child sacrifice.

“Even if one out of 20 children is this poor kid who goes and stabs a soldier, these people destroy those 20 other children in the process. It’s very sad. They’ve been destroyed psychologically, including their judgment about life and what’s good and bad.”

Kasztan says such teenage stabbers are motivated by a thirst for appreciation from their friends, their parents and other adult role models. If such stabbings were seen as a bad thing, he adds, they wouldn’t carry them out.

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