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Democracy expert compares plan to Egypt, Turkey, Russia

Netanyahu sought social media blackout during Jewish-Arab unrest — reports

PM said to have suggested move twice, pushed plan to block access to TikTok during major riots in mixed cities earlier this month; legal officials blocked proposal

A car is set on fire during clashes between Arab and Jews in Acre, northern Israel, May 12, 2021 (Roni Ofer/Flash90)
A car is set on fire during clashes between Arab and Jews in Acre, northern Israel, May 12, 2021 (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to completely block social media in Israel during recent unrest and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, Hebrew media reports said Sunday.

The Haaretz daily reported that Netanyahu had raised the subject in at least two meetings.

But the motion was opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Shin Bet officials and other defense officials, the report said, citing unnamed officials with knowledge of the details.

The report cited Justice Ministry officials saying Netanyahu had handed Mandelblit a request to block TikTok in Israel, arguing it was helping inflame Arab riots.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the official state ceremony for Jerusalem Day on Ammunition Hill, May 10, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Meanwhile, the Walla news site reported that Netanyahu had not initiated the proposals but did back a similar plan suggested by security agencies. The outlet, which was the first to report on the matter, said that a senior Justice Ministry official rejected the plan out of hand during a meeting and took it off the table. The report cited an unnamed official with knowledge of the matter.

Israel has never blacked out social media, a step that generally isn’t taken by democracies.

But the defense officials had suggested temporarily blocking such sites, including Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, “out of the understanding that social media was exacerbating everything happening in the country,” Walla reported.

“Many of the riots came against the backdrop of calls and initiatives via Facebook and TikTok videos that inflamed tensions even more and gave the rioters inspiration,” the source was quoted as saying by Walla.

At the height of the unrest, some East Jerusalemites uploaded TikTok clips of themselves or others attacking Jewish bystanders, including on the city’s light rail. There were also revenge attacks by Jewish extremists in a number of cities that were filmed and distributed on social media.

After the motion to block social media was rejected, the government eventually okayed sending massive forces to Jerusalem, Lod and other mixed cities to quell the unprecedented violence, which claimed several lives and caused many injuries and large-scale damage.

File — An Israeli man sits at a restaurant that was attacked the previous night in Israel’s Mediterranean city of Bat Yam on May 13, 2021 (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement denying the reports but acknowledging the premier had urged steps regarding the TikTok videos.

“In complete contrast to what is being claimed, the prime minister didn’t approve blocking Instagram and Facebook in Israel,” the office said in a statement, even though the reports didn’t claim the proposal had been approved.

“The prime minister asked to consider ways of dealing with the phenomenon of incitement videos on TikTok, which, according to police and defense officials contributed to the spread of violence,” it added.

Tehila Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute told Walla that the proposal was reminiscent of the practices of countries without many freedoms.

“Blocking access to social media is a nondemocratic practice that we know only from [the likes of] Egypt, Turkey and Russia,” Shwartz Altshuler said.

She said blocking Facebook and TikTok wouldn’t have necessarily helped anyway, since the more concrete incitement to violence was posted in private WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

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