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The dangerous influence of online hate speech in Gaza

How anti-Arab rhetoric on social media divides Israeli society

July 12, 2014 7:00AM ET

A series of unsettling events in the past week has once again provoked new waves of violence inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Just hours after the bodies of the three kidnapped settler youths, Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, were buried near Modi’in, a 16-year old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped, beaten, burned alive and left in a forest, throwing Jerusalem into a state of upheaval.

News of the murder of four innocent boys has left Israeli and Palestinian communities devastated and angered. Vengeful messages on social networking sites following the deaths of these four boys, by both Israeli government officials and Jewish Israeli citizens, demonstrate the ways in which Israeli society is divided along religious and ethnic lines. The racist sentiments expressed show how Israeli society has cultivated a false “us vs. them” paradigm, leading many to mistakenly believe that violence against the state is a byproduct of cultural or religious differences, instead of understanding that it is a symptom of Israel’s brutal occupation. 

Out for blood

Social media served as a platform to incite nationalist passions and violent actions after the bodies of the three kidnapped teens were discovered a little less than two weeks ago. At a time when Israeli government officials should have been instilling a sense of calm and order to bring the murderers of the three youths to justice, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter to use vengeance-filled rhetoric from Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem: “vengeance for the blood of a small child ...”  

At a time when Netanyahu could have easily called for all citizens of Israel to collectively mourn for the senseless deaths, his comment on Twitter seemed to further isolate Arab Israeli citizens, excluding them from sharing in the sense of grief and anger and further exacerbating tensions along religious lines.

Other ministers of Netanyahu’s conservative right-wing ilk expressed similar inciting sentiment, some even advocating for violence and destruction and using the teens’ death as a justification for war. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on Facebook, “There is no forgiveness to the murderers of children, this is the time for actions and not for talk.” 

Just a day before the kidnapping and death of the Palestinian boy, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked published a status on Facebook declaring the “entire Palestinian people as the enemy,” which received almost 5,000 likes. And when the bodies of the Israeli teens were discovered, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Haneghbi declared, “I don’t know how many leaders of Hamas will stay alive after tonight.”

‘Price tag’ attacks

It would be nice to believe that the vengeance-filled rhetoric over social media following the deaths of the Israeli kids was only an initial spontaneous reaction. But that isn’t the case: This type of incitement and violence against the Palestinian community has been going on for years inside the West Bank as “price tag” attacks — acts of violence intended as payback against Palestinians in the occupied territories carried out by radical Israeli settlers.

Netanyahu’s government’s refusal to label the perpetrators of price tag attacks as terrorists typifies the reluctance of conservative Israeli lawmakers to intervene when violence is waged against Palestinians. The only difference this time is that these types of behaviors have escalated and entered the Green Line — the demarcation between Israel and the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Ignoring these sorts of displays of discrimination has enabled racist sentiments to grow and develop over time, instilling a sense of normalcy about this narrative within Israeli society.

The government has done little to stop the violence inside the Green Line between Israelis and Palestinians. As long as certain individuals call for war, demolish homes and increase the number of Israeli settlements, peace won’t stand a chance. And as Israel bombards Gaza, killing more than 100 people so far with complete impunity, Israel’s right-wing conservative party is able to successfully navigate the aftermath of the kidnappings in order to benefit politically while denying wrongdoing. Through statements and appearances on the news, the conservative Israeli Likud Yisrael Beiteinu alliance could simultaneously communicate a message of rightful indignation to one segment of the community while threatening to take revenge against another. Both signals serve the same purpose: to justify that the Israelis are acting in self-defense, and that the burden of responsibility for the escalation of violence does not fall on them. 

On July 2, Netanyahu realized just how much the violence in Jerusalem had escalated:

But by the time he tried to take back his previous statements, it was too late. A Facebook campaign called “The people of Israel demand revenge” drew 35,000 “likes” before it was taken down and replaced by another Facebook group called “Until the boys are back, every hour we shoot a terrorist,” which has drawn more than 20,000 “likes” so far by calling for military action and violence against Palestinians.

When the body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir was found, extremist Israelis turned to Facebook to celebrate. “I hope the murder of Arab bodies will multiply,” wrote one. “One is not enough, we need all them,” wrote another.  

‘Death to Arabs’

The hate speech against Arabs that gathered momentum on Facebook and Twitter soon spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem as extremist Israelis kicked up violence and caused chaos. This violence then made its way back online: YouTube and Facebook videos show hundreds of angry Israeli mobs running around chanting, “Death to Arabs,” and looking for Palestinians to attack. A video of an Israeli Jew attacking a Palestinian on a public bus shouting, “Filthy Arabs, filthy Arab murderers of children,” emerged from Tel Aviv. And more video footage showing Israeli security forces using excessive force on a handcuffed Palestinian-American boy further called into question who was really inciting this chaos. 

Not all Israelis hate Palestinians or approve of this base, crass brutality. Indeed, many government officials and Israelis have denounced the violence and murder of Palestinians. However, it's important to question why Israeli extremists are allowed to spew hatred with such freedom, both online and off, when their Arab counterparts can't so much as criticize Israel without being branded as terrorists.

It is Netanyahu and his conservative coalition’s vindictive musings that have provoked or enabled extremists to act as vigilantes. The anti-Palestinian rhetoric seen over social media might not have directly created violence in the streets, but it does show how Israel’s religious foundations and nationalistic education system have created an ethnic-religious divide, one that claims that any aggression against Israel is a depiction of inherent characteristics of Arab-Palestinian culture or Islam. This culture pins one part of society against the other, rather than noting that Palestinians are simply resisting the occupation of their homeland.

As Netanyahu explained in a speech last week following the murder of the Palestinian teen: “That’s the difference between us and our neighbors. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them and we put them on trial and we’ll put them in prison.”

In fact, Israeli aggression toward Palestinians is politically expedient. It creates support for Netanyahu’s government and helps cement the legitimacy of the right-wing Israel narrative by provoking violent Palestinian actions, which, in turn, become instrumental in shaping violent Israeli (and American) policies in the region. Unfortunately, all this does in the long run is exacerbate the cycle of violence, at the expense of dozens of civilians — many of them innocent Palestinians. 

Melissa Etehad is an Iranian-American researcher and writer on Middle East affairs, with a particular focus on U.S.-Iran relations and U.S. foreign policy. She previously worked with the Project on Middle East Democracy as an Iran program intern.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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