Israel accused of trolling activists on Facebook

Palestinian arrested for participating in anti-elections protest says interrogators pressed him on social networking habits

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Palestinian student involved in an Israeli-Palestinian protest campaign during the recent Israeli elections was arrested by the IDF in late January and released four days later without charges, causing activists to suspect that Israel is monitoring the Facebook activity of West Bank activists.

Galib Ishtewi, a 21-year-old student from the Palestinian village of Kafr Qaddum east of Nablus, told the Times of Israel that some 15 Israeli soldiers stormed his home on January 25, accusing him of stone throwing following a weekly protest organized by Fatah in the village. He said he was watching TV when soldiers entered his home and detained him and his 11-year-old brother.

Upon his arrest, Ishtewi was asked about his activity on Facebook and that of his fellow villagers. When he denied being active on the social media site or participating in the demonstration, he was taken to the nearby Ariel police station for further interrogation. There, a police interrogator again questioned him about his online activity.

The previous week, a short video featuring Galib was posted on the Facebook page of Real Democracy, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative which called on Israeli citizens to grant their votes on election day to Palestinians living in the West Bank as an act of protest.

Under the title “Galib from Qaddum in an electoral rebellion,” Ishtewi spoke of the weekly protest in his village against the Israeli closure of a road leading to the nearby cities of Nablus and Jenin.

Ishtewi told the Times of Israel that he had “friended” a number of Israeli activists on Facebook and called on them to boycott the Israeli elections, which he considered “biased.”

Israeli activist Shimri Zameret (photo credit: courtesy)
Israeli activist Shimri Zameret (photo credit: courtesy)

Following his questioning in Ariel — where he refused to admit any Facebook activity — Ishtewi was imprisoned for four days — the first two of which were in solitary confinement — and received no access to a lawyer.

“I’ve never been arrested before,” he told The Times of Israel. “Never before was anyone in my village asked about their Facebook activity.”

Responding to an email query by the Times of Israel, the IDF spokesman’s office said on Tuesday that Ishtewi “was arrested on Friday afternoon during the course of a violent and illegal riot. Security forces apprehended the suspect because he was hurling stones.”

But Ishtewi denied that allegation, arguing that, strangely, the soldiers who entered his home already knew his name when making the arrest.

Shimri Zameret, an Israeli activist who knew Ishtewi from Qaddum, said he was shocked to learn about the arrest just three days after the elections.

“We were scared. This looks like a very clear message; the army is scared of a peaceful third Intifada like the one in Egypt, where social media played a key role,” he said.

Zameret said that Ishtewi had given a number of interviews to foreign television stations.

“I can’t be 100% sure that he was arrested because of Facebook; but if I at first suspected that, after hearing about his interrogation, I now assume that is the reason,” Zameret said.

MK Dov Hanin (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Dov Hanin (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After hearing of the circumstances of Ishtewi’s arrest, member of Knesset Dov Hanin sent a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak on January 27 asking whether the ministry had an official policy of tracking activists’ Facebook activity and whether this policy was implemented in Ishtewi’s case. Hanin’s letter was not answered.

The Israel police and Ministry of Defense did not comment.

Zameret, the Israeli activist, says Israeli authorities are covering up the true reason for Isthewi’s arrest, which was, in his view, to intimidate Palestinian activists and dissuade them from cooperating with Israeli activists.

“What they say and what actually happened on the ground are entirely unrelated,” Zameret said. “As citizens in a democratic society, we are obligated to protect people engaged in non-violent protest.”

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