Israel Police chief recommends shutting off social media during riots

The police chief stressed that he was only referring to "the most extreme scenario" and that he only wanted to block inciting users.

 Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev and Israeli police officers at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem May 1, 2022. (photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)
Chief of police Kobi Shabtai, Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev and Israeli police officers at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem May 1, 2022.
(photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai recommended shutting off access to social media if riots similar to those that swept Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls hit the country again.

"I am of the opinion that in such situations the networks should be blocked," Shabtai told Yediot Aharonot in an interview that will be fully published over the weekend. "It's already a war. The social networks are the ones that take people out into the field. I'm talking about a sweeping closure of the networks. Turn it off, calm the area and let the situation calm down. We are a democratic country, but there is a limit. You come and strike a sweeping cut for a certain period of time, with supervision, of course, calm the situation and stabilize."

The police chief claimed that the riots during the operation last year caught the defense establishment by surprise and that there was no intelligence information predicting such events.

"Not the police, not the Shin Bet, not the IDF - no one predicted that there were going to be disturbances in the communities involved," said Shabtai. "The world of Tiktok broke out in a crazy way, and with the combination of what happened in the Gaza Strip and the rockets towards Jerusalem, it gave people legitimacy for violence."

Later on Wednesday, Shabtai issued a clarification concerning his statements, stressing that he was referring to the "most extreme scenario in which there is a danger to Israeli democracy and the security of the state in the event of an uprising that incorporates broad elements of terrorism within the State of Israel."

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

The police chief claimed that he meant that he wanted those who incite violence to be blocked from social media. "At no point was the intention to restrict the steps of the citizens of Israel, but rather it is a definite and temporary step that will be possible with the authority that is intended to protect the lives of the citizens and Israeli democracy during a national emergency that endangers the security of the state."

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tweeted on Wednesday that a comprehensive examination of relations between the state and social networks was conducted in the past year.

"It is not possible to close all social networks with a button. It is possible through agreements in the Knesset - which do not exist today - to tighten regulation and legislation to prevent incitement, calls for violence and to encourage transparency," tweeted Hendel.

Politicians express outrage at police chief's statements

Religious Zionist head Betzalel Smotrich reacted with outrage to the police chief's statements, calling them "serious, outrageous and undemocratic."

"There is no way that any of us will allow this far-fetched idea to happen," added Smotrich, stressing that this is "not Shabtai's real problem."

"The really serious problem of Kobi Shabtai is that he simply does not understand the event he is supposed to command. Those who are unable to call a child by his name and define terrorism and the war of the Arabs against us as such, and who sees his role and the role of the police to 'separate the extremists on both sides,' cannot prepare the police for future riots, will not know how to recognize them when they break out, God forbid, and will not know how to quell them and protect the lives and security of the citizens of Israel."

The Religious Zionist head suggested that a "dramatic end-to-end change" of the police's operating model would be required, as well as a new police chief.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh responded to the police chief's comments with a tweet reading "a democratic state? I'm not convinced that he understands the concept."

Comptroller: Police failed to prepare for riots

A report published in July by the State Comptroller found "noticeable deficiencies" in the operations of law enforcement in mixed cities before and during the widespread violence that broke out during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year.

About 520 outbreaks of violence were reported throughout Israel during the operation, killing three, injuring hundreds and leading to about 3,200 arrests, including about 240 Jews. About NIS 48 million in damage was caused to civilian property and about NIS 10 million in damage was caused to police property.

"The violent riots during Operation Guardian of the Walls revealed significant deficiencies in the operations of the police and in the interface between police and the Shin Bet. These deficiencies severely harmed the most basic personal security that Israeli citizens are entitled to," said the comptroller.

"These events brought to the surface existing tensions between the different population groups and testified to the need to take actions at the national and local level to create a respectful and common public space and to prevent the recurrence of such events. These events also illustrated the challenges of maintaining personal safety and ensuring public order in the cities involved and sharpened the need to examine the aspects of policing and law enforcement in these cities."

The comptroller's report stressed that while police were aware of the possibility of riots flaring up in a pattern similar to the riots which broke out during Operation Guardian of the Walls and had even defined this threat in detail and expressed it in operational plans, they failed to respond appropriately once this threat was actualized during the operation.

The comptroller's report pointed out that while police had started using a central system for extracting open source intelligence from social media in 2018, in 2020 they were forced to stop using it after they failed to extend the contract for the system and failed to purchase a broader system due to budget gaps. The system was only reinstalled near the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Due to this lack of a central system, police were forced to mostly rely on manual collection for open source intelligence, meaning they were limited in aspects of the scope of information, locating sources and understanding network connections.