The Major Role of Social Media Networks
An important aspect of the terror wave of recent months is the major role of social media networks in shaping the Palestinian narrative about the incidents and influencing their course. The contents conveyed in these networks significantly affect events on the ground, which was already evident before the recent clamor over the Temple Mount, particularly in the Arab world during the Arab Spring. Young residents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries, who suffered from difficult economic realities, rising unemployment, and longstanding repression by the local security forces, used these social networks – which became more and more accessible via their cellular phones – to wage online campaigns against their governments.
These campaigns – which gained momentum and were very easily propagated among young people through the social networks – sparked mass demonstrations in which these countries’ youth demanded the ouster of regimes and the resignation of leaders. The networks not only made it possible to plan these demonstrations in concert, but also to circumvent the established media outlets, which immediately suppressed any attempt to send out such calls to action. The young people could thereby transmit content among themselves without the authorities being able to filter or block information. Through the social networks, then, the young people generated narratives that spawned the mass protests, which, in turn, overthrew the regimes in several countries after violent clashes of different magnitudes. The use of these social networks, whose potency was proved during those Arab Spring events, is important to understanding what fostered the wave of Palestinian terror that erupted last September.
This chapter will survey the presentations, themes, and characterizations that were disseminated in the social networks at the time of these violent events. It should be noted that the content discussed here is only a sample of the significant materials that have surfaced in these networks. This content will be described in various relevant contexts (such as incitement over the Temple Mount compound, calls for violence, or the glorification of fatalities), and will then be presented as the main feature of each topic as they emerged in these networks. Finally, some conclusions will be offered.
The Situation On and Near the Temple Mount in September 2015 from the Palestinian Standpoint
The month of September 2015 saw an increase in various propaganda activities in the social networks concerning Israel’s measures on the Temple Mount. These numerous presentations portrayed the situation on the ground, gave the Israeli measures a Palestinian interpretation, and suggested how the Palestinians should respond. In different ways this content influenced considerable numbers of Palestinian youths who shared it, stirring up ferment on a large scale.
During that month, the Palestinian and Arab media networks, and especially the local online news pages, gave extensive coverage to the events occurring on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem in what was a tense and delicate period. These reports, accompanied by numerous photos and videos, inundated the social networks; they were widely viewed and abundantly shared. The reports, photos, and videos dealt with visits to the Temple Mount by religious Jews, conducted under intensified surveillance by the security forces.1 The Arab media, as has been their custom in recent years, called such visits “break-ins” (iktacham in Arabic). The basic underlying perspective is that the Mount is actually Islamic and Palestinian, with the Jewish presence forbidden and achieved only through the use of force. The reports also dealt with daily clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian youths within the compound, and sometimes within the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself,2 and with attempts by the security forces to prevent the Palestinians from preparing attacks from inside the mosque. Israeli Police and Border Police were filmed clashing with Muslim women at one of the entrances to the compound; this incident garnered hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of shares.3
The measures that Israel took on the Temple Mount, such as imposing age restrictions on Muslim visitors to the mosque while allowing visits to the Mount by Jews, were seen by young social-network users as a deliberate attempt to change the status quo that has been practiced on the Mount for decades. This was evident, in their view, in the division of the compound between Jews and Muslims with regard to visiting or prayer times, as was instituted in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, or in the location of visits to the Mount. Israel, it was claimed, wanted to expropriate parts of the compound to build synagogues there.4
To bear out these charges, contrived photos were spread through the networks ostensibly depicting the effort to divide the compound in terms of visiting times5 or, simply, physically.6The aim was to link the struggle with the Dome of the Rock and not only with the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The use of the “#al-aqsa” and “#lan yukasam” (“Al-Aqsa will not be divided” in Arabic) hashtags helped propagate these messages all over the networks.
A Facebook event under that name was also circulated and attracted about 4,500 users.7 Also transmitted under these hashtags were various statements by leaders and politicians from both sides of the Palestinian map as well as prominent religious figures; these were in the same vein and warned that Israel’s plans would not be implemented.8 Palestinian and even pan-Arab media networks also used these hashtags to depict the events occurring in these locales. These included the Al-Quds News Network9 and the Gaza-based Shehab News Network10as well as the pan-Arab Al Jazeera channel.11 These pages gave the impression that Israel was changing the status quo or aiming to do so, and hence, Al-Aqsa was in danger.12
What Should the Palestinians Do in Light of Israel’s Measures on the Temple Mount?
On the social networks in September, there were calls upon Palestinians distressed by the situation on the Temple Mount to vent their anger at the Israeli measures. A video distributed on the networks urged the Palestinians to “take a decision by yourselves. Do not wait for this or that leader or senior official; go out in the city squares, for this is the day of confrontation. This day is your day, heroes.”
The video was accompanied by dramatic music along with graphics that included clashes between IDF soldiers and masked demonstrators. At the end, the Palestinians were summoned to take part in the “Day of Rage” that was planned for a few days later. The video was viewed by thousands and shared by hundreds.13In other graphic material that was disseminated, Gaza’s Shehab News Network used one of the abovementioned incidents to ask, “When will you express your rage?”– an inducement to go out and demonstrate against the Israeli measures.14
These messages about Israeli plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, and on how to cope with them, were also illustrated in the Palestinian social networks with cartoon videos. One of them shows Palestinian children playing in a yard when suddenly, out of the blue, the Israelis capitalize on Palestinian lethargy to build the Jewish Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock and conduct Jewish rituals in the compound. At the end, words appear in black and red: “Are you prepared to take responsibility for this? Don’t wait [for it to happen], arise [launch an intifada] now!”15
In another cartoon video, which was posted on the YouTube page of the Al-Aqsa television channel of Hamas in Gaza, an IDF soldier prevents a Muslim woman from entering the Temple Mount but grants free passage to a Jew, depicted in stereotypical anti-Semitic fashion as an ultra-Orthodox Jew who is planning to perform Jewish rituals in the compound. The angry woman hits the soldier with her bag and then slams the Jew.16 By very simplistically bearing out Palestinian claims about Israeli measures on the Mount, cartoon videos of this kind can strongly affect children.
The Social Networks Glorify the Knife and Its Use
With the outbreak of the stabbing attacks by lone-wolf perpetrators in late September and early October, the social networks got to work legitimizing these attacks and stressing their importance in light of the Israeli measures on the Temple Mount. In numerous content that appeared in the networks, including widely disseminated cartoons, the knife was presented as a tool that, if used by Palestinians in attacks, could induce Israel to put a stop to its measures on the Mount17 and could actually remove it from the site altogether by “peeling away” its influence.18
Moreover, the images that were circulated conveyed a larger message that knife attacks could bring about the liberation of all of Palestine, not only of Al-Aqsa. Some of the cartoons showed a knife in the shape of the Greater Land of Israel adorned with the Palestinian flag, with the caption, “Your knife is your freedom.”19
Another cartoon depicts a Palestinian youth holding a knife as well as a key, alluding to the Palestinian demand to fulfill the refugees’ right of return to the homeland; the Dome of the Rock is seen in the background.20 The simple Palestinian youth holding the knife, sometimes even a child, is also shown threatening Israeli soldiers who, armed from head to toe with the best military gear, look on in fear and dread.21 In these presentations, the knife constitutes a legitimate means to force Israel to halt its measures on the Mount and to drive it out of the land.
Not only did the social networks legitimize the attacks being perpetrated, but some also used them to urge Palestinian youths to go out and commit further attacks. The “#stab” (aan’itin Arabic) hashtag provides numerous illustrations of how Palestinians can go about stabbing Jews, with bloodstains or the Dome of the Rock in the background.22One of the more prominent recent videos shows a Salafi sheikh from Gaza giving a sermon while holding a knife and slashing it in the air. He calls upon Palestinian youths to go out in small groups, look for Jews, then stab them and indeed cut them to pieces. This lengthy video repeats the word aan’it several times consecutively, intensifying its impact on the youths.23
In a video that was circulated after the terror wave began, reportedly by Hamas, that was then removed by the networks after several days, a Palestinian youth is sitting unsuspectingly when two Jews go by after bothering Palestinian children who were playing. The youth reacts by ambushing the Jews and stabbing them with a knife.24 The producer of another video that encourages the stabbing of Jews and includes the burning of the Israeli flag, with rap music in the background, was located by security forces and charged with incitement.25
A noteworthy stabbing attack in this context is the one that was filmed in front of cameras by Iyad Awawdeh in Hebron on October 16, 2015. Awawdeh, a native of the city, pretended to be a journalist and even wore a “press” jacket as he approached a group of IDF soldiers who were there to quell disturbances. He was able to stab and moderately wound a soldier who tried to flee from him. The attack, which was filmed by Awawdeh’s colleagues, made waves in the social networks and became a kind of symbol.26
In another picture that was shared, the terrorist was displayed as a lion adorned with the flag of Palestine springing on the soldier who lies on the ground in fear, symbolizing the notion that the stabber restores the Palestinians’ honor in their anti-Israel struggle.27
Women and Incitement on the Networks
In the incendiary contents dealing with purported Israeli infractions on the Temple Mount and how the Palestinians should respond to them, young Muslim women play an active role in the national struggle against Israel, similar to that of male Palestinians. This notion is also well evident in the social networks and in content that was disseminated during this period. Cartoons showed a Muslim woman deliberating on what weapon to use against the Israelis, or a Muslim woman stepping on an Israeli tank or throwing stones at IDF soldiers.28Another cartoon shows a pregnant woman digging her fingers into an Israeli soldier’s eyes and brandishing a rifle as she warns him: “If you kill my child in my womb I will tear out your eyes and your roots from our land.”29
“I am carrying in my womb the 7-month-old martyr to be,” October 12, 201530
A Gaza-based website tweeted another cartoon in which the body of a young Muslim woman lies with her blood oozing on the ground, which is shaped as the Land of Israel.31 Still another cartoon criticizes Palestinian gunmen for busying themselves with mundane matters like “selfie” photos while a young Palestinian woman goes to the front on behalf of Al-Aqsa bearing a knife and scissors with which to stab an Israeli, and is then shot.32
The Palestinian Factions Encourage the Violence through the Networks
The main Palestinian movements could hardly have remained indifferent to the wave of terror attacks, which occurred mainly in Jerusalem and the Hebron region and were spurred on by individuals through the social networks. Hamas, of course, praised these actions as heroic deeds proving that the Palestinian people would not accept Israel’s measures at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The movement also warned of additional attacks that would be a natural reaction to crimes against the Palestinian people by Israel and the settlers.33A few days after the incidents began, Hamas dubbed them the “Jerusalem Intifada.” It circulated a video in the networks calling upon the Palestinians to keep committing attacks. “Arise and wage an intifada,” the video began, and continued: “Go out and stab, go out and ram with vehicles.” The video illustrates how to carry out a vehicle ramming and also encourages shooting attacks.34
Since the young perpetrators had not undergone relevant operational training in the Palestinian terror organizations, the movement explained in one of its forums how stabbings were to be performed. The video that was posted in the networks shows a masked Hamas operative demonstrating on a companion how to carry out a stabbing, including what places to sink the knife into, while incendiary music plays in the background.35Unidentified users also posted stabbing-attack guides for youths in the social networks; these explained which parts of the human body are most sensitive so that stabbing can cause maximal or even fatal injury.36
Indeed, most knife attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers are concentrated on the neck and chest.
Fatah Competes with Hamas
Fatah’s social-network accounts also offered encouragement to the perpetrators of stabbing attacks, though to less of an extent than the Hamas accounts. In the first days after the stabbing attacks began, Fatah’s official Facebook page posted a cartoon in which a Jew is stabbed by a knife bearing the colors of the Palestinian flag with the Dome of the Rock in the background. A caption says: “This is Jerusalem. Crazy ones, be warned.”37 This cartoon, along with the fact that it was shared, indicates that initially Fatah supported the stabbing attacks by lone wolves. This was, however, the only reference to the attacks on the official page that included approval of them. A few days later a picture appeared that urged participation in the struggle but made no mention of a knife or the Temple Mount.38A further reference to the struggle on Fatah’s Facebook page is a picture of a masked person throwing a stone, with the caption in English: “Intifada – until freedom and justice. Palestinians are fighting for their lives; Israel is fighting for its occupation.”39As noted below, most of the content on Fatah’s official page deals with two other topics: the alleged staging of attacks by Israeli security forces and the glorification of martyrs.
The Glorification and Commemoration of Martyrs
Another major theme of the Palestinian social networks’ incendiary content is the glorification of the perpetrators of attacks. Those who carry out terror attacks and especially those killed during them are described as heroes, and Palestinian and Arab public opinion awards them the status of shaheeds (martyrs) whose deaths are a sanctification of Allah’s name and a sacrifice for his sake. Palestinian public life marks this special status with large funerals and with the provision of stipends for relatives by the different factions. During the recent terror wave, these practices have continued. Shaheeds are also honored in the Palestinian social networks, which are rife with content commemorating them and exalting their heroism.
In the course of this latest wave, one of the main ways to pay tribute to a shaheed has been to open a fan page in the networks. Relatives post pictures of the person, and participants express their lamentation with thoughts and reminiscences. Also posted are images of family members who eulogize the shaheeds with stories about them. For example, after the death of the first lone-wolf terrorist in this wave, Muhanad Halabi, his fan page gained over 11,000 members.40This page also exported incendiary content on its own. Other terrorists as well have been commemorated in this way.41The terrorists are also honored in songs written in their memory that praise their heroism42 and Photoshop pictures show their portraits with the heavens in the background, adding to their aggrandizement. Such pictures carry captions stating, for instance, “The shaheeds do not die, rather their blood adorns the revolution.”43This treatment of terrorists causes others to view them as heroes and models for emulation, which can, of course, help induce them to carry out attacks with the expectation of similar lionization.
Pictures eulogizing and exalting some of the shaheeds have also appeared on Fatah’s main Facebook page. Although the movement did not take responsibility for the attacks, it posted announcements on the networks carrying pictures of former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and of current Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, along with the movement’s symbol. These announcements proclaim: “With full honor and esteem, the movement [or sometimes a certain branch in one of the districts] mourns the death of the hero shaheed, a shaheed of Jerusalem. Our souls will redeem Al-Aqsa.” The Dome of the Rock, of course, is in the background.44These online glorifications make sure to note that the shaheeds were killed while carrying out an attack on Israelis or attempting to do so. The fact that this movement, at whose helm stands the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, portrays the terror perpetrators in this way is seen as legitimizing and even encouraging such attacks. At the same time, Hamas accounts in the social networks shared the shaheeds’ pictures while calling them heroes and “soldiers of Palestine.”45
The “Execution” of Ahmed Manasra
Although the quantity of incendiary content about the al-Aqsa Mosque declined in late October and early November, it was replaced by content on other topics, particularly the glorification of shaheeds and claims that Israel was “executing” innocent Palestinian youths. In the first month of the terror wave, a stabbing attack that was especially touted in the Palestinian social networks was one in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood of Jerusalem on October 12, 2015, in which two Palestinian boys came to the neighborhood and stabbed several Israelis, including a 12-year-old boy.
Minutes after the incident, Israeli social networks posted footage of one of the boy terrorists lying on the sidewalk after having been shot while an Israeli photographer cursed him. In the Palestinian social networks, however, it was believed that the child, named Ahmed Manasra, had died. These networks erupted in rage with a picture circulated in which Manasra appeared alongside Muhammad al-Dura, a Palestinian child whom, it was claimed, Israel killed in Gaza at the start of the Second Intifada.46The picture bore the hashtag “#the new al-Dura” (in Arabic), launching it and widely disseminating it on the network.
Many users who shared the picture in this hashtag declared that the boy had to be avenged: “Your cry has reached everyone who has a conscience. The response and the revenge will come, O Zionists. Your blood will not be spilled in vain!”47 The hashtag “#execution of a Palestinian boy” also had a great impact. A day later Abbas used this picture to assert, in a speech broadcast live on Palestinian television, that Israel was killing innocent Palestinian children.48 Only after another day passed did Israel publish pictures of the boy alive and being treated in an Israeli hospital.49
In the wake of the Pisgat Ze’ev attack, not only did Palestinian social networks devote attention to the notion that Manasra had died, but also to the footage of him lying on the sidewalk. Palestinians who shared this clip said it manifested Israeli barbarism and the fact that Israelis were not human beings or even beasts, but less than that.50 Cartoons circulated in the Palestinian networks depicted the photographer filming the video and cursing Manasra as a monkey, with a pig beside him,51or showed an IDF soldier shooting Manasra and also filming the event for his enjoyment.52
“Executions” Instead of Terror Attacks
During October, claims began to arise in the Palestinian social networks that the stabbing attacks by young Palestinians were an Israeli ruse aimed at covering up ostensible executions of these youngsters. Many users posted “before and after” pictures on the networks of corpses of perpetrators (or attempted perpetrators), saying they had been killed in cold blood by the Israelis. The Israelis, it was alleged, then planted knives at the scenes of the incidents so they could assert that the shooting was done during an attack and not as cold-blooded murder.53Fatah adopted this accusation on its official Facebook page and broadly shared these pictures, sometimes even explaining their purpose in English.54In one cartoon widely disseminated in the social networks, an IDF soldier is seen planting knives beside bodies of those who have been shot to death and drinking the blood of young Palestinians of both sexes. The caption summed up the message the Palestinians wanted to transmit: “Kill, plant a knife, take a picture.” This cartoon, too, was shared on Fatah’s official Facebook page.55
Conclusions and Prospects
This survey reviewed major aspects of the Palestinian social-network discourse beginning in September 2015, a few weeks before the outbreak of the terror wave that in its first 100 days had resulted in the deaths of 27 Israelis and over 150 Palestinians. Clearly, a certain view of Israel’s measures on the Temple Mount during that month generated numerous presentations in these social networks, the content of which did much to provoke the outbreak and incite whole sectors. This incitement was not confined to claims that Israel was changing the status quo on the Mount. As it evolved, it dealt more and more with the “shaheed industry,” that is, the increasing glorification and commemoration of the perpetrators of attacks, the legitimization of these attacks, and the portrayal of details of the attacks, up to the point of denying that they were being committed at all. This content was disseminated by Palestinians across the political spectrum, from pages identified with Hamas to those identified with Fatah. It is also clear that much of the incitement issued from pages originating in Gaza.
An important element of these incendiary contents is how the Israeli “aggressor” is portrayed. In many of the presentations, the Palestinians view their enemies on the Temple Mount compound as IDF soldiers (or other security forces) and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are quite often depicted with the use of anti-Semitic staples that recall anti-Semitic incitement from other eras. It is no surprise, then, that large percentages of the victims of the stabbing attacks are soldiers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. This is clear testimony to the fact that these incendiary presentations, which have spread throughout the social networks, have influenced the perpetrators’ perceptions and shaped their actions.
In late October and early November, another important trend in the incitement in social networks emerged: a decline in the volume of the provocations concerning Israel’s measures on the Temple Mount and the need to defend the Mount against them. The number of presentations dealing with this topic decreased, though it was not forgotten completely. Their place was taken in the networks by other topics that helped keep the flames of incitement burning, such as the major motifs of the glorification of shaheeds, which appeared at all stages of the terror wave, and the charges that Israel was executing Palestinian youths. The waning of the Temple Mount theme can perhaps be ascribed to the understanding that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry achieved at the time with regard to maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem57 or in the realization that the al-Aqsa theme had played itself out and that there was a need for a new motive to ignite the public, especially the youth, to continue to perpetrate the terror attacks.
On January 25, 2016, two Palestinian terrorists jumped a fence and entered the Jewish community of Beit Horon where they stabbed two Jewish women, killing 23-year-old Shlomit Krigman. The assailants were shot and killed by the community’s security guard.
The next day the Fatah organization published this poster mourning the “brave shahid [martyr]” Ibrahim Osama Alan. The message, issued by the Fatah branches in Ramallah, Al Bira and Beit Ur al Tahta in the “name of Allah the merciful and beneficent,” mourned their “son.” The background for the terrorist’s portrait is the Dome of the Rock, the gilded icon that has replaced the less photogenic al-Aqsa mosque in the Palestinian public relations campaign, despite al-Aqsa’s superior Islamic holiness.
Ibrahim Osama Alan may not have been a member of any organized terrorist cell nor received instructions from a Fatah leader, but there is another clear trail.
After terror attacks just a few years ago, Israeli investigators looked beyond the Palestinian suicide bomber and followed the trail of the bomber’s driver, religious handler, paymaster, bomb maker, recruiter, and ultimately the commander. In the current surge of attacks the terrorist trail may not be apparent before the attack, but the terror incitement trail after the attack certainly is.
Upon learning of Ibrahim Osama Alan’s attack and death, someone of authority in Fatah ordered this poster. A copywriter was assigned, photos had to be obtained from the terrorist’s family, a graphic artist was employed, and a printing and internet production crew was activated. The Fatah authority then approved it, and if printed posters were published, a crew was dispatched to plaster them everywhere.
The terrorist chain could not be detected before this attack, but it can be examined after the fact, especially since it serves as an incitement tool for the next terrorist attack.
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20https://twitter.com/y_bn_m/status/659023255932653569. Further examples: https://twitter.com/abdulrzak_fadl/status/655141530450137089/photo/1; https://twitter.com/new_jerusalem3/status/667346447998697472; https://twitter.com/ghlab777/status/659059676512931843
49 “The terrorist who was ‘executed’ is alive in the hospital,” Channel 2 News (Hebrew), October 15, 2015, http://www.mako.co.il/news-military/security-q4_2015/Article-a2d1ed07daa6051004.htm
54 https://www.facebook.com/Official.Fateh.1965/photos/a.1591709777754363.1073741828.1591249977800343/1639075199684487/?type=3&permPage=1; https://www.facebook.com/Official.Fateh.1965/photos/pb.1591249977800343.-2207520000.1450937407./1636196203305720/?type=3&theater