Israeli lawyer sues Facebook for allowing Hamas to use the social media platform

Published July 14th, 2016 - 11:00 GMT
Palestinian members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, take part in a gathering on January 31. (AFP/File)
Palestinian members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, take part in a gathering on January 31. (AFP/File)

An Israeli lawyer has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Facebook Inc., claiming that the social media platform allowed members of the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas to plan and carry out attacks against Americans and Israelis, Reuters reported on Monday.

The lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, is representing five American families whose children were among four killed and one injured in separate attacks in 2014 by Hamas members in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Leitner submitted the suit to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 10, naming the plaintiffs as relatives of four Israeli-US dual nationals and one visiting US citizen.

Among the identified plaintiffs were the families of Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old American who was abducted and killed in June 2014 after hitching a ride in the occupied West Bank, 3-year-old Chaya Braun, whose stroller was struck by a Palestinian driver in October 2014 at a train station in Jerusalem, and Taylor Force, an American student who was killed in an attack in March.

"Facebook has knowingly provided material support and resources to Hamas in the form of Facebook's online social network platform and communication services," Bloomberg cited the lawsuit as saying. According to Leitner, this would make the social media giant liable for the violence against the five Americans.

The suit claimed that Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US, European Union and Israel, used Facebook "as a tool for engaging in terrorism," by using the platform to share operational and tactical information with members and followers, posting notices of upcoming demonstrations, road closures, Israeli military actions and instructions to operatives to carry out the attacks.

Bloomberg quoted senior Hamas leader Mushir al-Masri as criticizing the suit, saying that "suing Facebook clearly shows the American policy of fighting freedom of the press and expression" and was evidence of US prejudice against Hamas.

Commenting on the suit against them, Facebook referenced its community standards, and highlighted its 'report' tool, which allows and encourages Facebook users to flag content that they deem as encouraging violence, direct threats, terrorism or hate speech.

Facebook also cited its track record regarding incitement, referencing a case in March when the company took down a page promoting a Palestinian uprising against Israel because it made "direct calls for violence," in violation of company policies.

The debate within Israel and the Palestinian territories surrounding "incitement" and censorship on social media reached new heights last week, as member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, expressed their indignation that Facebook has not taken enough action to remove content inciting "acts of terror against Jews," while they said the site has instead cracked down on inflammatory content on behalf of the United States and European nations.

During a plenary meeting on June 6, Knesset member Revital Swid of the Zionist Camp explained that he brought several examples of "incitement" to the attention of a Facebook executive last year -- including "postings that encourage people to commit acts of terror, imams in mosques calling to murder Jews, do-it-yourself videos showing how to take a knife and murder Jews" -- demanding that they be removed for their role in promoting "lone-wolf terrorism."

Knesset member for the Likud party and Minister of National Infrastructure Yuval Steinitz also pointed out what he believed was preferential treatment in favor of blocking posts considered "incitement to murder Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, Americans and Europeans" that were reported by United States President Barack Obama.

Steinitz proceeded to call on "those who can prevent online incitement do so," insisting that the demand that Facebook step up censorship on behalf of the state of Israel was "justified."

In response to incitement claims against Palestinians, like the ones made at last week's Knesset meeting, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat condemned the current Israeli government for its failure to "entrench a culture of peace and coexistence within Israeli society" in a statement on Sunday.

Erekat flipped the script, holding Israel responsible for incitement, saying "official Israeli discourse entrenches hatred, racism, and discriminatory attitudes against Palestinians. The discourse is only further entrenched by the institutional protection that is given to those who commit or incite violence against Palestinians."

Erekat issued his comments after Israel's Channel 10 televised a report based on an experiment organized by the channel, whereby a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli each posted on Facebook separately declaring their intention of committing a violent attack against Israelis and Palestinians, respectively.

The Palestinian, Shadi Khalileh, received only seven likes on his post, and was documented by Channel 10 as having received numerous calls warning him that his Facebook account has been hacked and other calls from friends and family urging him to not commit any type of attack.

On the contrary, the Israeli, Daniel Levy, received more than 1,200 likes on his post, tens of shares, and various comments declaring their support, respect and even willingness to assist in committing the crime.

The Israeli police reportedly took matters seriously in the case of Khalileh, and broke into house with the intention of arresting him. As per Channel 10's plan, Khalileh was however not in the house, but was summoned by Israeli police who issued a call for him to show-up for interrogation.

Khalileh was only released once Channel 10 was able to prove that this was an experiment and did not constitute an actual threat.
On the other hand, in the case of Levy, no police action was taken and he was never called for interrogation or detained for the threatening comments he made on Facebook declaring his intention of attacking Palestinians.

Erekat reference Channel 10's report, saying "this is yet another example and evidence that incitement not only pervades Israeli society, but that institutional biases motivate police and security actions."

He added that "such experiment only goes to show that Israel's official discourse has allowed for the normalization of hateful discourse. Such forms of hate are reinforced through the absence of concrete measures legally, socially and politically that could possibly deter and contain incitement within Israel."

Erekat continued by calling for international support and protection for Palestinians, saying Palestinian fears that "the impact of such incitement in the form of settler terror and trigger-happy soldiers executing and injured Palestinians in the streets of the occupied state of Palestine."

Erekat's comments and last week's Knesset meeting followed a spike in attacks that occurred last week, after a period of relative calm since a wave of violence began in the region in October. In less than 48 hours, three Palestinians were shot dead while carrying out or allegedly attempting to carry out attacks that left two Israelis killed.

In the wake of the killing of a 13-year-old Israeli girl in the Hebron-area settlement Kiryat Arba by Muhammad Tarayra, a resident of the nearby Bani Naim village, reports emerged that he had posted on Facebook praising other Palestinians who had committed attacks on Israelis, including a woman who was shot dead when she allegedly attempted to carry out a car ramming attack near Kiryat Arba.

Yousef Mustafa Tarayra, reportedly a cousin of Muhammad Tarayra, was shot dead alongside two other Palestinian youth in March after they allegedly carried out two consecutive attacks near Kiryat Arba, injuring four Israeli soldiers.

Following the series of deadly incidents, Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan reportedly said that Facebook chairman and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg had "blood on his hands" for not adequately cooperating with Israel to remove content.

In recent months, Israel has accused Palestinian leadership of "inciting terror" while also detaining scores of Palestinian civilians over Facebook posts that Israeli authorities alleged were responsible for an increase in attacks and attempted attacks against Israeli military targets and settlers.

Palestinians have instead pointed chiefly to the frustration and despair brought on by Israel's nearly 50-year military occupation of the Palestinian territory and the absence of a political horizon.

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