The Information War in Gaza
Paris Marx is joined by Marwa Fatafta to discuss the ongoing Israeli campaign in Gaza, the importance of social media for sharing what’s happening on the ground, and what listeners can do to support peace and Palestinian rights.
Marwa Fatafta is a Palestinian digital rights advocate and researcher. She is Access Now’s Policy and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
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Paris Marx: Marwa, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Marwa Fatafta: Thank you for having me.
PM: Absolutely, I’ve been really looking forward to speaking with you. Unfortunately, the context that we’re having this conversation in is just terrible right after seeing what has been happening. Starting with the attack by Hamas on October 7th. And then, of course because of that, seeing the escalation in the existing occupation and system of apartheid that Israel has been engaging in, in Gaza and the West Bank. We now have a death toll over 11,000 people in Gaza, from the bombing campaigns and from everything that Israel has been doing since that attack on October 7th. And so I wonder, I guess, just to start our conversation and to ground our conversation, what you have been thinking about or how you have been processing everything that you’re seeing over the past month or so, since this particular phase of this occupation has been going on?
MF: There is no easy answer to this question. But I could say that, I think, for me, it’s been probably one of the most difficult periods of my life. We have witnessed wars before, particularly in Gaza. As a Palestinian, we somehow are accustomed or used to waking up every morning to news of death, people being killed, detained, injured, maimed. But this round, it’s been extremely painful, because the level of destruction and mass murder is unprecedented. And it’s really hard for me to witness this genocide unfolding before our eyes, online. And not being able to do much about it, not being able to stop it. And what adds salt to injury is the complicity of the US and Europe and western leaders and powers in enabling and abetting this genocide ,and gaslighting us. I live in Germany, and today I saw the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refuting, according to him, absurd accusations that Israel is violating international law and asserting that Israel is a democracy, and it’s abiding by international law.
While we are seeing with our own eyes, the atrocities and the war crimes and the crimes against humanity that Israel is committing day in and day out with full impunity. But of course, it’s not a time to despair or be reduced to tears, although there’s been plenty of theories the past few days or weeks. I work as a digital rights advocate, if you may, and the the conflict or the war has spiraled online also in an unprecedented level from the level of disinformation and hate speech and dehumanizing content circulating on social media, to the censorship of Palestinian voices, to the issue of internet shutdowns in Gaza. I’ve been busy working on these issues. And I think the situation highlights more than ever, why the internet is important and essential, and especially in times of war, it’s a lifesaver. And therefore, we should try all of our best to keep it as open and as accessible as possible to the people on the ground in Gaza. So it’s been a few difficult weeks.
PM: I can only imagine. It’s been hard enough for someone with no connection, no kind of direct connection to Palestine, to be watching these things to be seeing the complicity of our leaders. I’m in Canada and our government has been just as shameful as those in the United States and most of Europe, and just to see these images on our screens of children being killed and whole neighborhoods being wiped out. And just seeing how these statements by people who are supposed to be our leaders, just do not line up with the reality of what we’re seeing. To pick up on your point about the internet, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is I remembered how, during the Vietnam War, a lot of people in the United States and in the West were really against that war, because they saw what was happening on television. I’m sure the media was not perfect in that moment, but they gave people a picture of what was happening that they didn’t often get about war before that, the images that they didn’t necessarily see.
I feel like one thing that has at least kind of cut through that noise or ensured that we’re not just relying on what our governments are telling us in this moment, is how social media and the internet — as flawed as those things can be, at times — have allowed people on the ground in Gaza to still share what is happening. What their experiences have been during this absolutely atrocious period, so that we can’t deny what is going on. And that anyone who is trying to justify it can be presented with the facts of what’s happening. Unfortunately, those facts are just terrible, but at least they’re known, and at least people can see what’s happening. I don’t know, hopefully, it eventually leads to some justice, even if the bombing is still continuing at this moment.
MF: Exactly. Maybe we can go on a little journey down the history line. I mean, for us, Palestinians, we have been dispossessed from our land. Palestinian villages have been massacred and destroyed and depopulated back in 1948. And over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled, and then the State of Israel was created on top of depopulated, dispossessed, and ethnically cleansed Palestinian towns and villages. And back then the narrative was, the Zionist narrative was, that this is a land without a people, for people without a land, even though Palestine was or has been a pretty prosperous part of humanity’s civilizations for centuries, and people from all walks of lives, industries, businesses, cinemas, theaters, farms, you name it, everything has existed. So the reason why I’m mentioning this is because for us over the past 75 years, it has always been a war over narratives where we want to dispel Israel’s myths around Palestine, how it came into existence, or how the Israeli state came into existence. And at what expense and that was, of course, at the expense of Palestinians being expelled and dispossessed. Fast forward now, when on the one hand, we see how over 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza Strip, having to walk for miles and miles without food without water, some babies dying, and exhaustion, trying to look for place with no guarantee even for their safety from Israeli bombardment and Israeli snipers.
And so for us, we’re witnessing the so-called Second Nakba, the catastrophe, what happened to us in 1948, but now in multicolor photos on social media. And despite the flow of images and the flow of information of the atrocities being committed in the Gaza Strip, right now, we still see Western leaders and Western media peddling disinformation from the Israeli state about the current events. It’s really revolting and also fascinating at the same time to see the discrepancy between people’s testimonies and footage and how mainstream or Western traditional media frames those events and how they spin them. From that perspective, the internet has been a very crucial tool for people to document atrocities to document war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and share it with the rest of the world as painful as they look. They’re important to share because otherwise, we know for a fact that it’s not the CNN or NBC or NPR or the BBC, or any of the self-alleged objective media organizations are going to objectively, indeed report on those events and call a spade a spade.
I mean, in traditional media, Palestinians are not killed, they just simply die. And our buildings are not bombed they just simply collapse. And the perpetrator of those crimes is absent, is simply absent. The use of the passive voice in the English language has never been weaponized, and instrumentalized, to obfuscate facts and absolve Israel from its responsibilities. So that’s also why I think the internet has been weaponized in this war. And why the Israeli authorities have been specifically targeting and bombing internet service providers, telecommunications companies infrastructure, and also implementing full internet shutdowns, a few times already over the past few weeks. We know, as an organization that has been working on internet shutdowns for many, many years, we know now that whenever an authority or a government shuts down the internet, it’s really up to no good. The sole purpose is to cover the trails of their crimes and to also stop the flow of information, stop people from accessing information, sharing mobilizing on the streets and dissent effectively against government’s actions.
PM: That is an essential point, and there are so many things in that answer that I want to pick up on, and that will inform the conversation that I want to continue having with you. I do just want to go back to what you were saying about the second Nakba, that we’re seeing in Gaza right now. And just how it adds such insult to injury, that so many of the people in Gaza are already people who were pushed out of their communities in the first Nakba, who are refugees from what happened the first time. And now they’re being forced to move again, whether that’s to South Gaza, or whether they eventually get pushed somewhere else by the Israeli authorities and by the Israeli army. But I do want to pick up on what you were saying there about the internet. I think people will have seen the stories around October 27th, when there was the large scale internet blackout preceding the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, after weeks of bombardment and bombing that continues to this day. But there have been blackouts beyond that, internet shutdowns beyond that. And of course, that is not just to say that only the internet has been shut down, Gaza itself has been not only caged for many years, but has been under a complete blockade since October 7th, not allowing medicines and food and things like that in there, other than a few trucks going through the Rafah border with Egypt, more recently. So can you talk to us about those internet shutdowns and what the effect of that is, when these communication lines are shut off?
MF: On October 8th, the Israeli Minister of Defense announced that there will be complete siege on Gaza. So there will be no food, no water, no medicine, no fuel. Then the bombardment campaign started. And since October 9th, basically, we have documented that a number of internet service providers in Gaza have been going through an internet shutdown, due to the bombardment of their infrastructure. And over the month of October, we have seen the internet traffic has decreased by 80%, across the Gaza Strip. Out of the 19, internet service providers operating, or providing services in the Gaza Strip, 15 have been going through a complete shutdown, also, over the month of October. There are reasons behind these internet shutdowns. One, as I said, it’s the heavy bombardment that led to the partial or full destruction of the infrastructure, including the destruction of optic fibers, cell towers and whatnot. But then the second reason, of course, the lack of fuel means that the companies can no longer continue to run their services.
Yesterday, for example, the two major Palestinian telecommunications companies, Jawwal and Paltel. They’re part of the same group called Paltel group, but they’ve sent communication sounding the alarm that there will be a complete shutdown of their services and potentially a complete shutdow, and information blackout in the Gaza Strip by this Thursday. Today is Tuesday 14th, so on Thursday, and I’m terrible with math, so it will take me a few seconds to calculate. Thursday, the 15th-16th, if fuel is not allowed in, and to date Israel has been refusing to let any fuel in. So it’s really a question of math more than anything that if you don’t have fuel, you don’t have energy and therefore some of those companies have been trying to rely on solar panels. Paltel, for instance, that the main supply from the electricity company in Gaza has been affected since the very beginning. And then they had to rely on solar panel. If that fails, then they have to rely on some emergency energy battery that could only last them for 24 hours. That would be activated automatically in the absence of if those energy sources are depleted, which is, I believe, the case now.
Then there is, of course, you’ve mentioned, the complete shutdown on October 27th. And that was, as a result of Israeli authorities simply killing the switch. So the Israeli Ministry of Communications had said, publicly, in a report on its activities during this war, that is looking into cutting internet and telecommunications access in the Gaza Strip, as part of the government’s war plan. So we think that it probably was pre-mediated. And it wasn’t the first shutdown, although it’s been the longest so far. The internet was shut down for around 34-36 hours. I know for a fact that it has resulted in shockwaves being sent across the Gaza Strip, but also among Palestinians living abroad. Many people have lost complete contact with their families and loved ones inside of Gaza, which to begin with was very difficult. People would send a WhatsApp message, or tried to reach out to their families for days, and weeks, before they’re able to get a reply. Seeing two ticks on WhatsApp was something that Palestinians outside of Gaza, it was a sign of life, that their families are still alive, despite the bombardment and the siege.
And on the 27th, they were extremely difficult hours. And, many humanitarian organizations and an international bodies have also said that they’ve lost contact with their people on the ground with their staff on the ground, including health workers. The Palestinian Red Crescent, also said that they’ve lost access to their emergency room. Which means that people who were bombarded, injured, were not able to evacuate or have ambulances to transport the injured to hospitals. Many Palestinians had to resort to using carriages dragged by donkeys to transport the injured to hospitals. People, also, did not know which areas were bombarded because they lost access to information access to the news.
In that situation, imagine yourself in the Gaza Strip, and you hear bombs, some near, some far. You can’t talk to your family, you can’t have access to the news, you have no clue whether you would be next. Also, you have no clue where you can escape to. It is an absolute nightmare that I do not wish even upon my enemies. So there was a strong backlash from international organizations, and even the White House shamelessly claimed that they were the ones that pressured the Israelis to bring it back. I wouldn’t want to give the White House any credits. But there was a strong backlash from many organizations, including civil society. I think Israel, since then, has been implementing partial shutdowns. On October 1st, there was a shutdown for at least nine or eight hours, overnight. There was also a shutdown in the northern part of Gaza, where there is currently a military operation. There was also a shutdown on November 5th. And again, if fuel is not allowed in by this Thursday, the possibility of having another information blackout is very real.
PM: What, you describe there, about not being able to communicate with your family, or anyone outside of outside of Gaza, being able to communicate with their family, is just so hard to imagine. And then thinking about being in Gaza, and hearing and seeing these bombs dropping around you and not being able to access the information on what is actually going on, or being able to even contact medical authorities, or an ambulance, just seems absolutely harrowing. I want to briefly ask you about something I was reading a report by 7amleh, an Arab organization around social media. And they were saying that it’s not even just the occasional cutting of connectivity by Israeli authorities. But there’s also a long standing ban on allowing more advanced technologies to help telecommunications technologies into Gaza. Is there anything that you can tell us about that?
MF: That’s a very important context for the readers to know that Gaza has been under a military blockade for 16 years now. And what that essentially means that anything that goes into the Gaza Strip must be approved by a military administration, that reports to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and they have to approve also materials for infrastructure. And basically, it’s restricted around materials for civilian use. Now, under that, those conditions, and under that blockade, a lot of the needed equipment and technologies for providing speedy and reliable internet access and telecommunications access has been denied under allegations of possible dual use. That’s why in the Gaza Strip right now, people still have access to 2G mobile networks. In the West Bank, people have access to 3G networks.
The entire Palestinian communications or ICT infrastructure is controlled by the Israeli authorities. They decide on the electromagnetic sphere and spectrum and their location of those. They have full control over the radio frequencies, they have full control over the import and the installations of cell towers and technology. For a long time the Palestinian Authority, and also telecommunications companies, have been negotiating, for 12 years to have Israel allowing access, or allowing these Palestinian operators to upgrade their mobile networks from 2G to 3G in the West Bank, and it was only allowed in 2018. And since then, there have been negotiations and campaigns to allow Palestinian operators to go to forgery. So, basically, simply to catch up with the rest of the world. And in Gaza, it’s like one step behind still because of the military blockade, that has been placed on it since 2006.
PM: Meanwhile, here in North America, and Europe, we have 5G and are talking about 6G. And Gaza is still stuck with 2G. It shows the inequity right there and that they can’t even make those decisions for themselves. We’ve been talking about the internet shutdowns, and the very basic access to this network, to be able to get online. But we know that social media platforms and the ability to share all of this information through these platforms has been very important during this time. But we also know that those platforms have a history of bias against Palestinians who posts about what they’ve been subjected to by Israeli authoritie, under the apartheid system that exists there. Can you talk to us about that history around how social media networks treat Palestinians, and post Palestinian and Arabic content more generally, and also what we’ve been seeing in this moment from those companies?
MF: So social media platforms have been a critical civic space for Palestinians to share their stories, share their narratives, to debunk Israeli disinformation, to record the realities, their realities, under Israeli occupation and system of apartheid. Especially in a context where Palestinians are not platformed on traditional media, and where there are existing and very clear biases about how media reports on Palestine and Israel. But unfortunately, pretty much similar to what everything else we’ve seen, social media platforms have disproportionately been targeting Palestinian content. Palestinian voices have been, for years now, censored and particularly during times like these. During times where violence surges, times where Palestinian need social media to report and share information as widely as they can. In 2021, for instance, when Palestinians in Jarrah, which is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, took to social media and to the streets to protest the possibility of forced evictions from their homes by Israeli authorities. Social media companies almost immediately clamped down on that campaign. And we saw like hundreds upon hundreds of stories that carried the, “#savesheikhjarrah, “ were automatically removed. People were not able to go on livestream, they were not able to comment on posts, were not able to share content, we saw hashtags being blocked.
It was pretty egregious back in 2021, and we now, two years later, with the genocide being committed in Gaza, we see the same type of repression on Palestinian content again. Since October 7th, a number of Palestinian journalists and human rights defenders been suspended on TikTok, on Instagram, on Facebook. Again, content being automatically and erroneously removed under their anti-terrorism policies. I’ll give you just a few very interesting examples that expose the level of censorship and also the arbitrary nature of it. When the Al-Ahli hospital was bombed, which was quite shocking news for people around the world, Instagram started taking down footage from that bombing under their so called sexual activity and nudity policy. So the algorithms thought that the dead bodies of Palestinians that were killed in a hospital bombing were nude bodies. It’s very insensitive, but also, it shows you that when you’re sharing information in real time, how the arbitrary enforcement or over enforcement of some policies can hinder people’s ability to express themselves and access information freely.
Other examples include the shutdown of one of the most popular Palestinian media organizations, Al-Quds News Network. It has over 10 million followers on Facebook. And early on, Facebook shut down, and I think permanently banned the outlet from the platform. And they’ve tried to create a couple of alternative pages, and they also were shut down. Palestinian journalists from Gaza were using Instagram to report from the ground have been hacked, have been temporarily suspended. There is also the so-called shadow banning, which everyone who’s been speaking up on Palestine and Gaza has probably experienced, including myself. Where your outrage is been significantly reduced, you feel like you’re speaking to the void. No one is seeing your content, no one is engaging with it. In some even instances, people’s profiles disappear, altogether. You can’t even find them on the search function on the platform. These companies, despite pushback from civil society, and demands for transparency, they still deny that all of that censorship is intentional, they deny their discriminatory policies in the way they apply them.
But if you look at previous examples, or take a similar context of military occupation, for instance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you’ll see a completely different response. You’ll see tech companies going above and beyond their policies and commitments to ensure that Ukrainians can express themselves freely, and they can access information securely, by making exceptions for their policies. Sp in 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Meta even went on to allow an exception for Ukrainians to say death to Putin and death to Russians, which they then pulled back after Russia essentially threatened to add Meta as a as a terrorist organization. But if you put these two contexts in juxtaposition, you’ll see how, in one case, platform censor and over remove content while denying that they’re doing so. But at the same time, make a number of exceptions for people that they think their rights are worthy of protection and respect.
PM: It’s been really notable to see that divide between how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been treated, and then how the Israeli bombardment of Gaza has been treated. Just to pick up on what you’re saying, Facebook also allowed the, or allowed the praise of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi, Azov battalion, which was previously not allowed. And just to pick up on what you were saying about back in 2021, the platforms and their treatment of Palestinian posts. I remember one of the most egregious examples in that moment was then treating posts about the Al-Aqsa mosque as terrorist posts and removing them. And of course, over the past month or so, we’ve seen platforms like Instagram look at Palestinian in people’s bios when it’s next to Arabic language and auto-translate it with the word terrorist and then having to apologize for doing so. We’ve also seen, of course, WhatsApp create generative AI stickers of children with guns, I believe it was. There was also, you know, to go back to 7amleh, this organization, they looked at posts that were being made on social media, and again found that hate speech posts in Hebrew have proliferated since October 7th, hate speech against Palestinians. And this kind of stuff has not really been reined in by these major platforms, and by X-Twitter in particular. But meanwhile, you have this aggressive censorship of Palestinians and the types of things that that they post on social media.
MF: Indeed, also to add to that, the types of content restrictions we see, some of it is really ridiculous. And I say ridiculous, because I can’t find any other adjective to describe the level of censorship we see on social media. For instance, Palestinian flags are automatically hidden on Instagram comments, why? Because Instagram finds them offensive. I think it’s blatant racism and dehumanization. Because assuming that a Palestinian flag is violent, or is offensive to others. It is a flag, why would any flag be offensive to anyone, and even if it is offensive — freedom of expression means that people have the right to share such materials or content without being censored or undermined. But to your point on how disinformation and hate speech is flourishing on the platform. The issue when it comes to content moderation in the context of Palestine is, it’s a two fold problem. It’s really like two faces of the same coin. We have this over moderation, a zealous over moderatio, by the platform’s algorithms of political content under their so-called anti-terrorists or terrorist and violent extremism policies.
Mind you, so far, everything that has been leaked around those algorithms is not promising, from the fact that those systems are poorly trained in Arabic languages. They detect content and remove it erroneously most of the time. For example, in one of the leaks from Facebook researchers, an internal memo said that Facebook’s Anti-Terrorist algorithms that detect and automatically remove terrorist content has falsely removed non -violent Arabic content 77% of the time. And let’s face it, platforms do rely on automation, most of the time. Very recently, under the EU’s Digital Services Act, the first transparency report was out and platforms were asked to provide numbers on the number of their content reviewers, but also on how much they use automation for their content moderation decisions. And it was quite astounding to see the the numbers. Meta for instance, they use up to 94% of the time. Or actually to put it more accurately 94% of their decisions on the platform are automated. And it’s 98% on Instagram.
So they are relying heavily on those automated tools to detect and remove content. Again, to emphasize that most of the time, it’s erroneous or arbitrary removal. Hence why we see all this censorship. And speaking of algorithms, one thing we found out back in 2022, last year — after we insisted on Meta conducting a post-mortem investigation into content moderation actions, in May 2021 — we found that, or the human rights due diligence investigation commissioned by Meta, asserted that the company did not have any classifiers for hate speech in Hebrew. So all the barrage of hate speech and incitement of violence in Hebrew language, hurled at Palestinians and Palestinian users. have been flourishing on the platform because there are simply no tools for the company to detect it and remove it. After the investigation, Meta said they’ve now built in new classifiers in Hebrew, but another leak in the Wall Street Journal from few weeks ago said, essentially, that those classifiers are not really operational.
MF: So this is to say that, these platforms — and that’s not a surprise, I guess, for anyone listening to the podcast — that the companies have not invested in an equitable manner in different parts of the world. They still prioritize the US and the English language, as a market. And the rest of the world, including Palestine, where it’s an insignificant market by every indicator and measure, they have zero investments, and also they have zero political will to change any of this. For them. I guess Palestine is a media issue to handle, it’s every few years, maybe, or every year, there is a surge in violence. Palestinian content is removed, civil society is upset and there are media articles, scandalizing and criticizing the platform’s. But then things move on to the next, or new, cycle changes. And we’re locked in the same pattern of over censorship, no serious change in those policies or the way the company’s informs them. They simply don’t care. Let me put it this way. I know it’s not a sophisticated answer, but they simply do not care. They do not care.
PM: What you’re saying there is really important, though, because it’s on one side, the economics of it. There’s not a whole lot of profit in ensuring that a Palestinian user base is happy with what they’re doing, but is also represented properly. But then on the other side of things, we know that the Israeli authorities have a lot of resources that are dedicated to how they are portrayed on social media, but also how Palestinians are able to use social media. And we know that they flag a lot of posts to the social media companies for review and removal. And that companies like Meta are very open to those sorts of things, and are very responsive to it, in a way that they’re not to Palestinian organizations who would try to do something similar, who have far fewer resources to actually do that work, than what the Israeli authorities have. But then on top of that, it also goes back to what you were saying about misinformation and disinformation and the larger picture of not just what happens on social media, but on Western media reporting as well, because one of the narratives that we had very early in October, as this was kind of taking off, was that there’s so much myths and disinformation spreading at the moment, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, as though it’s this completely depoliticized thing. That there’s just all this information out there. And we can’t read through it. And: Oh my God, I don’t know why this is, it’s just technology and social media platforms.
PM: And it’s like: Okay, yes, there’s a lot of that information out there. But why is that the case? Why is it so hard to get accurate information in Gaza? It’s because there are communication shutdowns, because the Israeli authorities are keeping journalists out of Gaza, so they can’t get in and see things accurately. And now that they are allowing journalists in with the IDF, they need to submit all their footage for review to the Israeli army authorities before it can be published. Organizations like CNN have been very open about the fact that they’ve agreed to these terms. So I wonder how you think about this question of misinformation and disinformation and the power imbalance that is very clear in the type of information and the type of false information that has been spreading online, over the past month or so, as Israel’s bombing campaign has continued in Gaza?
MF: Israel has a track record of spreading disinformation and war propaganda. For many Palestinians and observers, it’s almost like they use the same playbook all the time. There’s an atrocity committed and they plant a complete hoax of information, which then causes this massive debate about: Did it happen, did it not happen? Who was responsible for it? And the narrative shifts completely from the actual atrocity and the human suffering that it caused, to a question of who was responsible for it? We saw that in the murder of the Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who works for Al-Jazeera, or worked for Al Jazeera. She was shot dead in Jenin and the first reaction from the Israeli government’s online was to post a video claiming that she was shot down, or she was gunned down, by Palestinian militia. And thanks to journalists and a human rights organizations, they’ve quickly debunked that piece of disinformation, with evidence that actually the location or the footage that Israel shared, were kilometers away from where the journalist was actually standing. And that playbook then evolved.
We saw the same playbook used in bombing of Al-Ahli hospital. I mean, the bombing happened, which was quite, horrific and harboring. And the thing that they’ve done is they’ve posted a footage online and, of course, they claim that it’s a failed Palestinian rocket. They first said I believe it was Hamas, and then said, again, it’s Islamic Jihad. And the footage was called out, when people called them out, people are not idiots. So they said: Well, this is this video has completely the wrong timestamp on it. They deleted it, and then they came back with another footage that was recycled from another conflict, also called out and deleted it. And then they posted another footage, and an alleged intercepted call between two Hamas members, in which they said that the rocket was fired fire Islamic Jihad and landed in the hospital. And the narrative, the conversation, the debate online and offline shifted from the actual atrocity to who did this? And with that, of course, Israel evades full responsibility.
And this round, we do not have reporters on the ground, there are very, very few. I think Al-Jazeera is probably the only media global media organization that has reporters on the ground at the moment. And that’s why the Israeli authority wants to shut down its office, and why Secretary Blinken also, reportedly, had asked the Prime Minister of Qatar to have Al-Jazeera tone down its coverage in Gaza. Because we don’t have reporters on the ground, there’s also less than less footage being shared on social media by a citizen journalists, and by standards, it becomes hard to verify. So this is to say that information vacuums, of course, breed disinformation, because who is there to investigate and to verify the Israeli claims around those war crimes and atrocities? It’s hard, and it’s harder when Western media, entertain and publish those thoughts without any scrutiny or do investigation from their side. I think there is a question for later, maybe not now.
But once there is a ceasefire, and the bombing stops, and the dust settles,. Whether there will be an investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed, or are being committed, in the Gaza Strip, and whether Israel would allow for such an investigation to take place. They want us to take their word for it. And some of those claims are, to be honest, are quite, ridiculous, and even an insult to anyone’s intelligence. So yesterday, for instance, we saw footage from the Israeli army from a children’s hospital in Gaza, Rantisi Hospital, in which they alleged it was used as a Hamas command center where they held Israeli hostages. They’re using diapers and a baby bottle. They found, as an evidence that there were hostages held there. Where they’re in a children’s hospital where many displaced Palestinian families were taking shelter. Then there’s of course, this whole thing about the calendar meme, where, they they found a handwritten calendar hang on the wall, and they say: Oh, look at this Hamas terrorist, the guard list. With their names on it, where it’s simply staff shift calendar with the the names of the week written on it in Arabic.
Today, I saw that CNN ran with the story. And for the American public or for non-Arabic speakers, you do take this, probably, for granted. Why would you question CNN running these allegations without any scrutiny or proper investigation. Nd to your point, they have agreed to the IDF conditions, that everything they will say will of course have to be approved by the military censor in Israel. This is the disinformation we see, now. One thing I also want to say, which I have not seen before, is that so many of those open source intelligence accounts on social media have been active in peddling this and amplifying disinformation. Some of those accounts have been quite active in the context of Russia-Ukraine. So they’ve built an audience and probably credibility to their reporting, and now they’re amplifying Israeli disinformation. If you’re not careful, and very critical of every piece of information you see online, you’ll probably for for that propaganda.
PM: That’s a really important point and one I hadn’t even included in my notes, so I’m happy that you brought it up. I just want to add to what you were saying there. When it comes to the Al-Ahli hospital bombing, obviously Al-Jazeera questioned the Israeli narrative right away. We also had Channel Four News in the UK, produce a report, several reports, calling into question, the supposed that evidence that Israel presented to dispute the narrative that it had caused that bombing. The New York Times also published a report, calling into question some of this evidence, and there was one other Western media organization that I’m forgetting off the top of my head. But just to show ,that even in this case, it was very much called into question, but the broader narrative that Israel had not caused this was allowed to stand. And because they had done enough to sow doubt in the minds of the public and in the minds of so many.
But then on top of that, of course, what you were saying about the Arabic calendar. It does seem to be that the Israeli authorities rely on the fact that Western public does not know Arabic, and so uses the Arabic language itself to deceive people. Whether it’s obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has been saying things frequently, but the President as well, Isaac Herzog has frequently gone on television, and held up issues of Mein Kampf, and support supposed instructions about creating bombs. That was supposedly found on Hamas terrorists in Israel. Again and again, there’s this supposed that evidence that comes out and is very quickly debunked when Arabic speakers can see it and say: What are you talking about, this is not reflective of what you’re saying at all. Also videos, and as you say, the supposedl phone call recording that was included in the hospital evidence, that very clearly shows accents that are not Arabic, or Palestinian accents, that don’t line up with what the Israeli authorities are trying to claim.
MF: I did want to say, as difficult as it is now — and sometimes even infuriating to see the gaslighting of the atrocities being committed and the justification of Israeli war crimes — I find it sometimes entertaining to watch Israeli propaganda, because some of it is really quite unbelievable. That nurse, or that actor, terrible actor, I really advisd her to switch careers. Pretending to be a Palestinian nurse in Al Shifa Hospital, and then saying that she has to do a surgery for a five year old child who has a fracture, but Hamas took all the morphine and that there are Hamas fighters in the hospital. I mean it is funny, but it just shows you the level of depravity, that while the hospital is currently besieged, and there are people dying, patients dying because of lack of electricity, lack of medicine. Second being to their wounds, in the most probably agonizing ways. You have Israeli authorities, resorting to these very cheap and dyi types of disinformation, to justify their attacks on hospitals.
Mind you, this whole discussion around Hamas using hospitals as command centers, or tunnels underneath the hospital, that still would not justify the targeting of innocent civilians, and the attack on hospitals, including maternity wards, the shelling of maternity wards, the shelling of intensive care units. I mean, none of that is justified. But then again, we’re here dealing with not only a war on the ground, but also war on social media and a war of narratives. And that’s why for the Israelis it’s very important to add, this fog of war around what they’re doing. And also it’s not only Israeli authorities that are peddling disinformation. The president of the US, Joe Biden, has also went on spreading disinformation, when he for instance, repeat said, that he saw 40 beheaded babies which the White House then clarified that they have not seen any confirmed or foreign reports of beheaded babies. But the CNN reported that and then they said: Oops, sorry, we could not verify that information. We were misled. But the damage was already done. The dehumanization was already done. The justification of Israel’s bombardment and carpet bombing campaign is in Gaza is done.
I think it’s important here to highlight that it’s not only Israeli authorities, but there’s also so-called “democratic” leaders taking part in the spread of disinformation. It’s not just some rogue actors, deliberately misleading the public. And also to add one more example, Joe Biden had also questionded the number of casualties on the Palestinian side. Which is quite inhumane considering the number of casualties and the number of Palestinians have been killed so far. And we saw how other media organizations started running the disclaimer that the numbers from the Ministry of Health are not to be trusted, because it’s a Hamas-run public entity. Which led them to issue a over 200 page report with every single name of a Palestinian who have been killed together with their age, gender, and their ID number, in case those who are doubtful of the numbers can go and cross check that with the Civil Registry. It’s quite de-humanizing. And it’s not only about posting a video or some piece of disinformation online, but it’s about how you weave a narrative and how you use and construct different parts of information to build this narrative that Palestinians are terrorists. Hamas is using hospitals and schools as military bases, therefore it is okay to carpet bomb the entire Gaza Strip, no matter how many Palestinians are killed, including children and women and men.
PM: It is clearly against the Geneva Conventions to do something like that. It also shows whether it’s with Western leaders or liberal commentators, or the Western media, how the bar of evidence is so much different when it comes to Israeli claims versus Palestinian claims. They’re happy to repeat the mis and disinformation when it comes from Israeli authorities, but will immediately question accurate figures when it comes from the Palestinian side. It was even the UN had to come out and say that they trust the Gaza Ministry of Health numbers. We know that the State Department itself considers those numbers to be trustworthy, even though Antony Blinken publicly questioned them and the President did as well. And I think that your point about dehumanization is really important as well, because we have seen a lot of that when it comes to Palestinians over the past month, and long before, of course, as well. On top of that the videos and posts, as we’ve been talking about spreading on Israeli social media, the Pallywood conspiracy theory that there are all these Palestinians who are just pretending to die and be injured and stuff in Gaza, in the West Bank.
On top of that, people making posts joking about the fact that Palestinians in Gaza don’t have access to water and electricity, and joking about and celebrating those things. It’s really disgusting to see. I want to ask you one thing to kind of close this conversation about social media in particular, is that we have also seen the Israelis move forward with an amendment to their counterterrorism law that bans the consumption, even, of what they call terrorist material. So now, people within Israel who are even just scrolling social media and happen to read posts, that are supportive of the Palestinian cause, can be charged and receive up to a year prison sentence for that, and that’s Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also Jewish Israelis who also don’t support what their government is doing. What do you make of the increasing move toward authoritarianism within Israel and this specific law, criminalizing the use of social media if you happen to interact with anything that’s pro-Palestinian?
MF: Early on since October 7th, the Israeli authorities have clamped down on freedom of expression within Israel proper. And not surprisingly, the majority of people arrested, prosecuted, and detained are Palestinian citizens of Israel, in East Jerusalem, Palestinian residents. There have been reports of hundreds of people being stopped by Israeli authorities, and the police, on the streets and asked to share their devices in which the authorities can scroll through people’s posts messages and see what pages even they follow. And according to a Palestinian human rights organization, Adalah, there have been, I think, at least 140 cases of investigations where people have been detained and investigated for something they’ve said or shared on social media. But coming to your point, on November 8th, the Israeli Knesset passed a temporary amendment to their counter-terrorism law, 2016. Where it introduced a new offense, a new crime, that prohibits the consumption of materials that can praise or support acts of terrorism or terrorist organizations. It also gave the the Israeli Minister of Justice the ability to designate new groups. So this amendment, the new crime of consumption, is tied to consumption of materials from Hamas and ISIS. But the Israeli Minister of Justice can add to that list in agreement with the Israeli Minister of Defense and the approval of Knesset’s committee.
It’s pretty dangerous. I mean, you see there, it’s straight weaponization of law to stifle dissent, and to crush any Palestinian form of expression or solidarity with Gaza. You probably saw the video of the Palestinian woman detained from her house by the Israeli police, and they’ve read out loud the charges that she was facing, including spreading and praising terrorist organizations, posting content that incites violence and supports terrorism. Also she was investigated for being involved in a terrorist organization. Why? Because she changed her WhatsApp status and wrote: That may be victorious, or something like that. A vague reference. It could be to anyone, it could have referred to Palestinians in Gaza, not necessarily Hamas. There are many, many stories like that where Palestinians have been detained. There was a Palestinian student in a university in Haifa, where she posted an Instagram story of her making Shakshuka and saying that this is the Shakshuka victory. And she was also detained on similar allegations.
The Israeli authorities have been very, very clear. They said that they will open an investigation into any type of content, even if it’s a Whatsapp or a Instagram story that disappears after 24 hours. And they’ve also banned any pro-Palestine solidarity and people are afraid they’re petrified, as a matter of fact. They can’t share their opinions online, they can’t go out on the streets to express themselves. They feel threatened in their schools and their universities and in their jobs, because anyone also can report on them. Because here is a question of who’s watching you? Who’s watching you on social media? It could be the authorities, but it also could be your classmates, your employer, your neighbor, anyone on your list of followers can report it to the authorities. And we all know that the Israeli justice system does not serve Palestinians well. It is really designed to crush Palestinian expressions of identity and Palestinians ability to express themselves. So it is terrifying.
The interesting thing here to see how this will will evolve is that how these laws will be applied to Jewish Israelis. Because as I said, it’s been mostly Palestinians impacted by such measures. but now we hear reports of Jewish Israelis being prosecuted or detained because of things they’ve expressed online. And one thing, also, to remind everyone is that this law, which is quite draconian, has been the law under which Israel designated six prominent human rights organizations. And so one thing that I’m concerned about how, potentially, if the situation deteriorates, the Israeli authorities can also prohibit the consumption of reports, documentation, and content from these leading incredible human rights organizations in the West Bank. The same authorities that can decide that a human rights organization is a terrorist organization can also prohibit the consumption of their work and their material if they if they want to. None of this is assurig, let me put it this way. It’s quite concerning thinking of how this can evolve further.
PM: To be clear, it’s not just Palestinian human rights organizations, or Arab human rights organizations. The Israeli state and the Israeli government, as I understand, has been quite hostile toward Israeli human rights organizations as well, like B’Tselem and Yesh Din too, have called what they’re doing in the West Bank and Gaza, a system of apartheid, very, very clearly. And I don’t think that can be denied at this point. And on top of that, the genocide that’s ongoing in Gaza, I want to ask as well, this notion of Israel, technological superiority has been really important, not just for the image of Israel globally, and the interaction of tech companies with it. But also the idea that it’s so hard to push back against Israel, because it has this surveillance power, it has this military technological might, that is so difficult to push back against from the perspective of Palestinians who are under occupation, and who don’t have nearly the same degree of tools.
I think that that narrative was really punctured on October 7th, whatever you feel about that event, it’s hard not to deny that by being able to breach the the high tech security fence. And the fact that Israeli authorities were not able to detect the fact that Hamas was planning this attack on them, because they were using analog communication methods that could not be picked up by their kind of digital surveillance tools, and also their human surveillance was not as reliable as they thought. I guess what does this do for the narrative of Israeli technological supremacy and the continued way that Israel uses its surveillance technologies and whatnot to buy support abroad, by selling those to other governments that want to spy on their citizens?
MF: I think the name of this podcast is a good caption for that event that, “Tech Wont Save Us.” Tech won’t save anyone. But I mean, Israel has relied on its so called homeland security industry. It prides itself of being a startup nation, it prides itself in being the jurisdiction that houses many so called unicorns, including spyware outfits and surveillance companies, like NSO group and others. And has used its occupation, and has used its so called experience in homeland security, to sell that technology to governments around the world. Of course, sell it as them as tools that are battle tested and feel tested. I remember one of the Israeli biometric surveillance companies that provide biometric identification tech in the West Bank, but also to airports around the world. And in which they also refer to their technology as field tested in one of the most challenging security contexts, referring again, to the occupied Palestinian territories. And as you said, the events of October 7th just shattered that image and right now I think some of those really bioware or companies, like NSO group, are trying to utilize or seize the moment to brand themselves as forces for good, or as tech for good. For example, a couple of Israeli companies said that we, including NSO group, that they want to help the Israeli authorities locate and find the hostages.
There are also reports that it’s trying to seize the moment to remove the blacklisting by the US Department of Commerce, and attempt to position themselves around the lines of we are, indeed, very important, or we sell very important tools for governments, concerned governments, to combat and disclose terrorism and terrorist attacks. But again, it’s important to question this entire pipeline, and this entire military industrial-complex and where and how that technology comes from and how it is tested, and how it evolves. And also at what expense. I’ve said before, and I want to share here again, that I think Israeli tech should be treated like blood diamonds, because the inception, and the prototyping, and the testing of those technologies often involve the violation of Palestinians human rights. Palestinians do not consent to the use of these technologies on them, as individuals and as communities — whether it be spyware, whether it be biometric surveillance tools, whether it be automated weapon — we have not consented to the use of these technologies, or the testing of them on us.
Even now in Gaza in terms of traditional weapons, some doctors say that some of the injuries they’re treating, they have no clue. They have not seen burns or types of injuries like this before. So it pulls the question of: What tools are in arms and weapons, whether it be cyber or traditional or chemical, the Israelis are using on Palestinians? And the importance for governments around the world, and companies that import and use these technologies, is to conduct Proper human rights due diligence. Which I mean, for me it’s easy to draw the the lines and the dots between those technologies and how they’re being weaponized against Palestinians. But maybe for others that is not as visible. So it’s important to interrogate that entire supply-line, and understand how the purchase and the use of such technology can further undermine Palestinians rights, and entrench their oppression under Israeli apartheid and occupation.
PM: A very important point, to recognize how these technologies are used, how they’re developed. It’s long overdue to question these things and not to allow these technologies to be rolled out, because not only are they being developed under apartheid, or they to be being developed on an occupied population? But these are surveillance technologies, these are biometrics technologies, these are military technologies. These are not things that we want to be rolled out in our societies, and that we should be pushing back against. I think that brings me well to my final question that I wanted to ask you. We could talk for another hour and a half, and there are a million things I could ask you about and talk to you about. But one of the things that I think many people will have felt over the past month or so is looking at these videos — whether they’re on Al Jazeera, or Western media channels, or on the various social media that they’re consuming — and seeing just death and destruction, and feeling that powerlessness. That all of this tragedy is happening, and it feels like there’s nothing that you can do to contribute to the end of it. And so, I wonder, in the face of that, is there anything that people can do? Or how do you feel that people might be able to respond in a positive way in the face of those atrocities in that tragedy?
MF: There’s a lot that people can do, and I want listeners to know that you have so much power, more than you think you have. In every little acts of solidarity, or every act of solidarity, no matter how big or small, is extremely, extremely important. People in Gaza have been calling for a ceasefire. They want the ceasefire, and we’re demanding a ceasefire. So you can also continue demanding a ceasefire, you can go out on demonstrations that are now happening every weekend, in many capitals around the world. You can write to your representatives, you can call your representatives, the people that you’ve elected and demand that they call for a ceasefire. You can help amplify Palestinian voices on social media despite the censorship, and despite the flood of disinformation and dehumanization we see online.
I think the reason why we are having this conversation, the reason why many people are out protesting on the streets, the reason why people are even bursting into conferences, and meetings, and even train rides where these officials are, is because of people sharing on social media. So continue sharing, continue amplifying Palestinian voices, raise and share fact. Testimonies from the ground, sadly, there’s less and less coming out. That’s why every voice and every piece of information matters. Do not give up, do not lose hope. And again, I really want to emphasize that anything you do is important, anything you do is powerful. And we should continue adding and building pressure, especially where we live here in western capitals, to call out the hypocrisy, to call out the complete disregard to human rights and human life and demand that Palestinian innocent lives are saved.
PM: That’s a really important way to end this conversation, to let people know that there are things that they can do. Social media has its problems, but it’s not going away. So especially in moments like this, use it positively, where you can. To raise up these voices so that people know what’s going on. I know in some parts of the world political leaders have been warning people against going out on marches in support of Palestinian rights and the end to an occupation and for a ceasefire, in this stage of the conflict. I was out in Montreal this weekend and it was fantastic to be around thousands of people calling for an end to the occupation and for a ceasefire, and I would highly encourage you to do the same if it’s happening in your own city. So Marwa, it was really fantastic to speak with you. I can only imagine how difficult this past month or so has been, but I thank you so much for the work that you do and coming to speak to us and sharing that with us.
MF: It was great speaking with you. Thank you again for having me.