Human Rights Watch accuses Israel, Facebook of crackdown on free speech

Facebook has also been involved in recent years in limiting incitement on its platform in the US, EU countries and elsewhere, with an ongoing debate about whether it has struck the right balance.

OMAR SHAKIR, Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, looks up before a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in September (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
OMAR SHAKIR, Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, looks up before a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in September
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Human Rights Watch opened a new front against the IDF’s West Bank courts on Tuesday, alleging that they crack down on incitement as an excuse to limit legitimate Palestinian criticism of “the Israeli occupation.”
While HRW and other NGOs have criticized these courts before, this report is new in that it highlights a new trend of both the IDF prosecution and Facebook aggressively confronting aspects of Palestinian activity on social media.
Facebook has also been involved in recent years in limiting incitement on its platform in the US, EU countries and elsewhere – and there is an ongoing debate about whether it has struck the right balance.
The main author of the report, Omar Shakir, told The Jerusalem Post that he recognizes that Israel, like any democracy, has a theoretical right to limit incitement-directed speech.
However, the heart of the report delves into the question of whether Israel has blurred the lines between legitimate criticism and incitement, both on social media and in terms of the right to physically protest.
While the NGO says that Israel has violated the balance between protecting free speech and limiting incitement, the IDF and Israeli supporters say that the HRW report itself blurs or overlooks incitement by, and terrorist connections of, Palestinians it presents as being unfairly treated by Israel.
HRW’s report quotes IDF statistics that the military prosecution “prosecuted 4,590 Palestinians for entering a ‘closed military zone,’ a designation it frequently attaches on the spot to protest sites; 1,704 for ‘membership and activity in an unlawful association’; and 358 for ‘incitement’… between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2019.”
According to HRW, “the Israeli army has deprived generations of Palestinians in the West Bank of their basic civil rights, including the rights to free assembly, association and expression, regularly drawing on military orders issued in the first days of the occupation.”
Furthermore, the NGO argues, “Even if such restrictions could have been justified” to preserve public order and safety in 1967, “the suspension of core rights more than half a century later with no end in sight violates Israel’s core responsibilities under the law of occupation.”
Along these lines, HRW claims that “the responsibilities of an occupying power toward the rights of the occupied population increase with the duration of the occupation.”
This claim is a robustly debated interpretation of how international law applies to disputed land being administered by a foreign power.
The report says that “Israeli occupying forces rely on military orders permitting them to shut down unlicensed protests or to create closed military zones to quash peaceful Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and detain participants.”
HRW says that the 1945 Emergency Regulations as well as IDF orders issued in 1967 and 2010 are too vaguely worded, which makes them easy to abuse in order to prosecute nonviolent Palestinian political activists.
In fact, HRW charges that IDF orders “are written so broadly that they violate the obligation of states under international human rights law to clearly spell out conduct that could result in criminal sanction.”
The report says that it “draws on 29 interviews, primarily with former detainees and lawyers representing Palestinian men and women caught up in the Israeli military justice system, as well as a review of indictments and military court decisions.”
THE IDF disputed the HRW report’s allegations in general, but former IDF chief West Bank prosecutor Lt.-Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch presented a rebuttal of the allegations in greater detail.
“Firstly,” he said, “the report seems to claim, based ostensibly on international law, that old laws are inherently prejudicial and discriminatory. This hypothesis lacks any theoretical or legal basis.”
“Secondly, the report systematically ignores the fact that international law permits Israel to establish military courts and to promulgate criminal legislation,” said Hirsch.
Next, Hirsch said, “the statistics regarding prosecutions for entering ‘closed military zones’ – the report insinuates that these indictments were incidental to political demonstrations,” when in fact, he said, almost all of these indictments are submitted against Palestinians who “infiltrated into Israel without holding a valid permit.”
The Post pressed him about what would happen with a Palestinian whose only “crime” was illegally protesting in a closed military zone.
Hirsch said that in many instances, such people would not be arrested, and that at worst, they might be arrested solely for the purpose of removing them from the area, and then releasing them later the same day without being charged.
He rejected out of hand the idea that protesters with no ancillary crime, such as a physical altercation with troops clearing an illegal protest, could be sent to jail for any extended sentence.
Furthermore, Hirsch said that most Palestinians prosecuted for membership in a terrorist organization were arrested for membership in Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which are “all internationally designated terrorist organizations.”
Regarding those Palestinians HRW said were prosecuted for terrorism without proof of violence, Hirsch said that “not all terrorism-related offenses are inherently violent. Membership in terrorist organizations and the provision of material support, including terrorism funding and glorification, for terrorist organizations do not always manifest themselves in acts of violence.”
AS TO individual examples, one case the HRW report highlights is that of Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
HRW details how the IDF in recent years has placed Jarrar in administrative detention, indicted her numerous times, and rearresting her on October 31.
The report acknowledges that Jarrar is affiliated with the PFLP, but draws a distinction between her “political activism” for the political wing of the group and what it says is a separate military wing, which it acknowledges has attacked both Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Next, the report downplays Jarrar’s guilty plea to membership in an unlawful association, and implies doubts about whether she called for kidnapping Israeli soldiers in a 2012 speech.
In contrast, Hirsch said, “While the report seems to try to differentiate between the political and armed wing of the PFLP, in reality no such differentiation exists. The fact is that Khalida Jarrar confessed to being a senior member in the PFLP, who called for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.”
“Most recently,” Hirsch added, “it was a PFLP cell that exploded an IED, murdering 16-year-old Rina Schnerb and seriously wounding others,” noting that “the terrorist reportedly responsible for the attack, a PFLP member, worked for Addameer… at the same time when Jarrar served as the deputy president of the organization.
“Having personally dealt with Jarrar’s indictment and conviction, I can positively attest that she is a terrorist actively involved in PFLP terrorist activities,” said Hirsch.
The HRW report cites several other specific cases in which it presents Palestinians who it says were only criticizing or protesting nonviolently against Israel.
Hirsch countered that many of those mentioned might have engaged in nonviolent protest, but also in other crimes – such as supporting Hezbollah – and that arrests would usually be for these other crimes.
Likewise, HRW and Hirsch differed over one individual involved in a Qatar charity, with the NGO saying that the charity was purely humanitarian, and Hirsch saying that it had connections to terrorist groups.
A generic response from Facebook was included in HRW’s report, which essentially claimed that the social media giant exercises independent judgment in deciding when to remove posts, and makes determinations based on whether posts violate its published set of standards.
NGO Monitor legal adviser Anne Herzberg said, “It is no surprise that such an extreme report was authored by HRW’s in-house BDS activist Omar Shakir, demonstrating that this once venerable NGO continues to move further and further away from its original purpose: to publish credible reports in service of universal human rights.”
Shakir was deported by Israel only a few weeks ago for alleged boycott activities, but said at a press conference presenting the report that “Israel may have forced me across the river [to Jordan], but they have not succeeded in muzzling our work.”