On the morning of August 28, 2014, two days after the end of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Sohaib Zahda hopped into a shared taxi in Hebron that was going to Ramallah, where he had a job interview.
Thirty-three-year-old Zahda, who owns a paintball company, is an unlikely terrorist. An avid cyclist who speaks Arabic, Italian, French, and English, he is a member of Youth Against Settlements, a nonviolent organization that protests against Israeli settlers who live in and around Hebron. He is opposed to Hamas firing rockets into Israel. He likes to tell visitors his grandfather had Jewish friends in Hebron in the 1920s.
Hebron and Ramallah are about 25 miles apart. To get between them, Palestinians must pass through the “container checkpoint,” manned by Israeli soldiers on a road that connects the southern West Bank to its central and northern cities. At the checkpoint — named for a shipping container once located at the barrier — Palestinian pedestrians queue up to get their IDs checked, while cars wait for inspection and for soldiers to wave them through. When Zahda’s taxi drove up, masked Israeli soldiers stopped the vehicle, asked him to get out, and then handcuffed him.
They took his mobile phone and his bag and brought him to a room near the checkpoint. After two hours, he was told he was being investigated for threatening an Israeli army leader. The alleged threat was made on a Facebook page calling for an uprising in Hebron. Zahda was then blindfolded and placed in an Israeli military jeep.
The soldiers took Zahda to a counterterror unit of the Israeli police, which held him for the crime of incitement to violence. At one point during Zahda’s interrogation, the police showed him content they had collected from his personal Facebook page. But Zahda wrote Facebook posts from the West Bank, an area governed not by Israeli civilian law but by Israeli military law. The police had no jurisdiction over Zahda, said Nery Ramati, his attorney. Instead of releasing him, the police transferred Zahda to an Israeli military prison. When asked about his arrest and interrogation, the Israeli army responded, “Because Mr. Zahda’s case is still open, we are unable to elaborate on any specific details.” The Israeli police did not respond to detailed requests about the interrogation.
Zahda’s case, still ongoing, is part of a new battleground in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians using social media to spread news about arrests and deaths, and Israeli intelligence and law enforcement officers scouring the web for clues about the next stabbing or protest.
Facebook has not changed the fundamental contours of the conflict, but it has accelerated it. A demonstration against the Israeli occupation can be organized in a matter of hours, while the monitoring of Palestinians is made easier by the large digital footprint they leave on their laptops and mobile phones.
Israeli officials have blamed social media for inciting a wave of violent attacks by Palestinians that began in October 2015. Since then, Israeli security forces have arrested about 400 Palestinians for social media activity, according to Palestinian rights groups Addameer and Adalah. Most of the arrests have been for postings on Facebook, a popular network among Palestinians.
In that year alone, the Israeli attorney general opened 155 investigations into alleged social media incitement, a marked increase from previous years, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (although the law on social media incitement applies to all citizens and residents, the vast majority of cases have been directed at Arabs in Israel).
The arrests of Palestinians for Facebook posts open a window into the practices of Israel’s surveillance state and reveal social media’s darker side. What was once seen as a weapon of the weak has turned into the perfect place to ferret out potential resistance.
Palestinian women wait to cross through the Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 10, 2016.
I met up with Zahda last June, in the Hebron home of a Palestinian family that cooks food for tour groups. He was born in this historic, holy city, and his life has been marked by the first intifada in 1987, which Zahda remembers as a time when Israeli soldiers killed young stone throwers; the hope of the Oslo Accord, signed in 1993; the bitterness of the accord’s failure; and the violence of the second intifada, which began in 2000.
Israeli barriers to Palestinian movement, which increased after the second intifada, frustrate Zahda. His passion is sports, which he studied in Algeria, but even that is constrained by the Israeli occupation. Zahda founded a Palestinian cycling group, but “when we want to ride 100 kilometers, for example, on bikes, we cannot because we have to pass by checkpoints,” he said. “If we want to go from Hebron to Jerusalem, it’s 30 kilometers. There’s more than two, three checkpoints.”
The modest, square home where I interviewed him sits 300 meters past the Bab al-Zawiya checkpoint, where a soldier in an olive-green uniform toting a gun checks passports and identity cards. The house is on Shuhada Street, where the drab green doors of former shops have been soldered shut since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Israeli settler, massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque. Two of the Palestinian victims were Zahda’s cousins. In response, the Israeli military closed down hundreds of shops on Shuhada Street, then Hebron’s main commercial artery, to protect Israeli settlers who lived on or near the street. Today, the storefronts are covered with ugly black graffiti; Israeli settlers have painted “Death to Arabs” and marked the doors with Jewish Stars of David. Locals call Shuhada Street a “ghost town.”
Zahda insists that he never incited anyone to violence, but during the summer of 2014, as the Israeli army put Hebron on lockdown and began to bomb the Gaza Strip, Zahda ran a Facebook page called “Intifada al-Khalil” — “the uprising of Hebron.” He used the page to post information about the war and encourage people to demonstrate.
“At first, I had 1,000 likes. In three days, I had 7,000 likes,” he says.
Screen grab of a post from Zahda’s Facebook page. The translation reads: “To the honorable [people] in Shfar’am, who know the family of criminal Israeli officer Ghassan Alian who is responsible for the massacre of the children in Gaza he should call us and send us their telephone numbers. Thank you.”
The profile picture for the page showed images of guns behind text that read, “We are with the resistance.” Zahda told me this was a popular image circulating among Palestinians during the war. In addition, Zahda asked for the phone numbers of people in Shfar’am who knew the family of Alian. The military interpreted this as a threat to the officer. Zahda says he wanted the phone numbers in order to ask people in Shfar’am to pressure Alian to stop his participation in Israel’s war in Gaza.
The military also claimed Zahda published a message calling a demonstration in Hebron the “night of the Molotov.” Zahda took the Facebook page down after soldiers threatened him, saying “his day was coming soon” if he did not erase it. The military did not respond to questions about the alleged threat. Zahda confirms he wrote angrily about Shfar’am but says the comment about the Molotov cocktail came from other Palestinians posting to his page, not him.
In court, however, Nery Ramati, Zahda’s attorney, did not contest the military’s version of the Facebook posts. He noted the indictment did not mention any other people and said if he contested the facts by pointing to others’ activity on the page, the prosecution might change strategy and use such activity as part of its case against Zahda.
Since Facebook users share over 2 million pieces of content every minute, there was a chance Zahda’s posts would go unnoticed by the Israeli authorities. But according to Ramati, Zahda’s posts caught the attention of an online group of right-wing Israelis who were upset that law enforcement had announced a probe into Jewish incitement that summer, a time when Israelis on Facebook were calling for Arabs to be killed. This group brought Zahda’s page to the Israeli police’s attention, Ramati said. The police’s cyber unit began to track Zahda’s page and postings, and the attorney general approved a police investigation into his activities.
While Zahda was in custody, Israeli law enforcement obtained complete access to the page through a court order to Facebook, requiring the company to turn over data that showed the Hebron page was created by Zahda. Although the police had monitored Zahda’s page during the war, they needed official Facebook data to definitively confirm Zahda was the owner of “Intifada al-Khalil,” a fact he initially denied to the police. The company complied with the order, according to Zahda’s lawyer. Zahda did, in fact, own the page. Facebook did not respond to repeated questions about the company’s cooperation in this case.
Zahda was the first Palestinian in the occupied territories to be arrested by the army for social media postings. Before his detention, the Israeli police had arrested Palestinians living in Israel for Facebook posts, including Razi Nabulsi, a Palestinian citizen of the state who was arrested in 2013 for posting about his hope that the “nightmare will be over” one day and writing against “Israeli terrorists” and in support of Palestinian prisoners, according to Nabulsi and his lawyers. (In court, the Israeli police claimed the evidence against Nabulsi was secret, even though it was based on public Facebook posts.)
In late 2014, the police arrested eight East Jerusalem residents for posting in support of violence against Israeli Jews. Omar Shalabi, one of those arrested, became the first person convicted for social media postings by an Israeli court, and in May 2015, he was sentenced to nine months in prison. According to the New York Times, after two Palestinians killed five Israeli Jews, Shalabi wrote, “Ask death to grant you life; glory is bestowed upon the martyrs.”
A Palestinian national flag hangs from an Israeli police car near a checkpoint between the West Bank city of Beit Jala and Jerusalem, Nov. 27, 2015.
Investigations of Palestinians for social media postings center around Israeli laws against incitement. For those who fall under Israeli civilian law, the attorney general has relied on Israel’s law against “Incitement to Violence or Terror.” The measure, passed in 2002, prohibits speech by Israeli citizens or East Jerusalem residents that supports or encourages violence or terrorism and would likely result in an attack. Civil rights attorneys say the law chills speech and is applied disproportionately to Israeli Palestinians and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom are not citizens but are still governed by Israeli civilian law.
Palestinians in the West Bank are governed under Israeli military law, which has its own broad prohibition against incitement. Zahda bounced back and forth between different branches of Israeli security forces: arrested by the army, turned over to the police, then returned to the army. His case illustrates a bewildering state of affairs in which cooperation and intelligence sharing among agencies with different jurisdictions, at least nominally, is routine.
Zahda was officially charged with “threats posed against a senior [Israel Defense Forces] officer” and calling “upon residents in his area to attack Israelis using Molotov cocktails,” an army spokesperson told me. Before those charges were laid out, however, the police investigated him for violating Israel’s civilian prohibition against incitement, despite the fact that Zahda is not an Israeli citizen, his lawyer said.
“Israel has access to anything it wants because when you think about it, the Israeli army can go and do whatever they want in the West Bank and no one can stop them,” said Amit Meyer, a former member of the military’s Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. “So if they want to go and dig a hole and add another cable … they can just do it, and then all the communication goes to them as well.”
Meyer says collecting information from social media platforms became more of a priority while he served from 2010 through 2013. Facebook users, he explained, place a lot of information in the open, which makes the job of understanding Palestinian social networks easier. Facebook is considered open source information, i.e., content that is freely available for intelligence services without using special tools. Newspaper articles, Twitter posts, radio segments, demographic information, and academic papers are all open source information ripe for exploitation by intelligence agencies.
In the pre-Facebook era, intelligence agents had to go into the field to find out who was part of a target’s network. Facebook has simplified that need. “It’s all there,” Meyer said. “It’s perfect for intelligence gathering.”
The Israeli police also collect data on Palestinians. The main difference between the branches lies in the area of oversight. The Shin Bet and the Unit are only accountable to the prime minister and the Israeli minister of defense, who give them wide latitude to spy on Palestinians. By contrast, the Israeli police are authorized to wiretap phones and collect internet data, but only by a judicial order. So when the police wanted to investigate Sohaib Zahda, they went to a judge; when they wanted to prove Zahda was the owner of the “Intifada al-Khalil” page, they obtained a judicial order to send to Facebook.
The police request for data on Zahda’s page was one of 343 law enforcement requests made to Facebook from Israel in 2014, according to the company’s data; in 2013, the police went to Facebook 242 times. In both years, the company handed over information in response to about half of the Israeli requests.
Israel’s separation barrier dividing the West Bank city of Abu Dis, left, and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, March 24, 2016.
In October 2015, Israel’s surveillance state was confronted with a new problem. Seemingly day after day, a young Palestinian would attack an Israeli soldier or civilian, using a car or, more often, a knife. Unlike the first intifada, the young men and women using knives were not part of an organized group, nor did they discuss their plans with family or others in their community in a way that would tip off Israeli intelligence.
Israeli leaders blamed social media, which was filled with videos of Israeli soldiers or police officers killing young Palestinians, who, in many cases, had tried to stab them. In October 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “situation in which Osama bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg.”
The Israeli security forces and judicial system are now escalating their tactics. Since October 2015, the Israeli military has arrested 71 Palestinians for social media postings, a dramatic increase in the number of detentions. The crackdown has also become harsher on the other side of the Green Line, within Israel proper. Instead of merely arresting Palestinians for Facebook posts and releasing them days later, they have begun to indict Palestinian citizens of the state, leading to a trial and potentially prolonged jail time.
Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesperson, told me that preventive action based on social-media monitoring has become increasingly important since October 2015. “We’re seeing potential suspects or terrorists themselves put out or change their social network pages, their Facebook pages, in the morning at 9 o’clock and a terrorist attack is in the afternoon,” he said. “It’s tremendously important for us to try to find those potential terrorists before they can get on the street.”
On October 16, 2015, the Israeli police arrested 19-year-old Anas Khateeb, and the prosecutor indicted him for incitement six days later, making him the first Palestinian citizen of Israel to be indicted for social media posts. (The first Palestinian indicted and convicted for Facebook posts was an East Jerusalem resident, but he was not a citizen.) Khateeb’s crime was writing things on Facebook like, “Long live the intifada,” “Jerusalem is Arab,” and “I am on the waiting list.” Four days after Khateeb’s arrest, an Israeli judge subpoenaed Facebook for the IP address and “all information or documents which can be useful to catch the suspect related to user name: Anas Khateeb.” The company complied, according to Khateeb’s attorney. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
As for Zahda, he still organizes with Youth Against Settlements. He also continues to post political messages on his personal Facebook page, despite the fact that his Facebook use put him on Israeli law enforcement’s radar and eventually got him arrested. While in court, Israel’s military prosecutors argued that Zahda had threatened and insulted Alian, the Golani Brigade commander; incited people to demonstrate, which is illegal in the West Bank; published a political post; and encouraged the throwing of Molotov cocktails.
Under Israeli Military Order 101, Palestinians under military law are prohibited from demonstrating and publishing anything relating to a “political matter.” Zahda was released about a week after his initial arrest in August 2014. But on June 1, 2016, an Israeli military court convicted him on two charges stemming from the 2014 detention: calling for participation in an illegal demonstration and attempting to threaten an army officer. The military judge acquitted him of the rest of the charges. The allegation that he threatened an officer turned into an allegation that he attempted to threaten an officer because there was no evidence that Alian read Zahda’s posts.
Zahda’s sentencing is expected to take place later this month. Nery Ramati, his attorney, told The Intercept that after Zahda is sentenced, he will appeal the conviction.
Zahda is still outraged that he was arrested for posting to social media. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I didn’t throw a Molotov; I didn’t throw stones.”
By Alex Kane