“Where are you Mohammed?” I muttered to myself while scrolling down my Facebook feed. Since the start of war in Gaza, as soon as I wake up in the morning, I check Facebook in search of reassuring signs that my Gazan friends are still alive. A week ago I noticed that for more than 24 hours there had been no new posts by Mohammed. I was extremely worried and immediately tried to click onto his own profile, only to find that his whole account had disappeared. I rang him and luckily found he was alive.
“Where are you Mohammed?” I asked, relieved.
“I need to become invisible,” he said and explained that he had to deactivate his account after receiving death threats. He was told that ‘traitors’ like him would be properly dealt with once hostilities were over. They made it clear, Mohammed told me, that they were not going to ask questions first and shoot later. They were just going to shoot. They were Hamas security forces.
A prominent poet among a new generation of gifted poets in Gaza, and an eloquent writer, Mohammed had for many years been a cautious critic of Hamas’ rule in Gaza. But with the unfolding horror of the Israeli retaliation for Hamas’ atrocious attack of 7 October, he could no longer restrain himself. His criticism of Hamas’s leadership and its recent disastrous war policies suddenly became uncompromising. He ridiculed those who praised Hamas’ Tawafan Al-Aqsa operation, Hamas’ name for its attack on Israel, pointing out that it was in general morally and politically damaging to Palestinian people and particularly destructive to Gaza citizens’ lives and properties.
In one of his posts Mohammed declared that Hamas did not represent him and his family, nor indeed people like him. He clearly stated that if his wife and two-year-old daughter, or any other members of his extended family, were killed under Israeli bombardments, he would hold Hamas as responsible as Israel.
Mohammed is a descendant of a refugee family. His grandparents escaped to Gaza during the war of 1948. He himself was born in a refugee camp. Since 2007, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was ousted from power in Gaza, Mohammed has lived under Hamas’ rule. Like many people of his generation, especially creative, liberal-minded people, he has been calling for peaceful engagement with the Israelis, whether through nonviolent protests or peace negotiations, in the hope that life in Gaza could somehow become less insufferable. But to no avail.
Voices of dissent in Gaza have been getting louder since 2007, especially after Hamas’ various disastrous military engagements with Israel. But since 7 October, and given the scale of the ongoing catastrophe that has resulted from that day, many people in Gaza have completely lost patience. There can be no end to the tragic situation in Gaza, they have come to believe, without the total disarmament of Hamas and other militant groups.
Hamas has never tolerated critical views of its leadership and polices. A 2018 report from Human Rights Watch revealed that Hamas carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism, typically targeting supporters of the PA following the Fatah-Hamas feud. When there have been protests, they’ve quickly been crushed.
But critics, such as Mohammed, are independent voices, not affiliated with the PA. They do not represent an alternative authority. Indeed sometimes they are as critical of the PA as they are of Hamas. To this end Hamas has largely turned a blind eye to them. Hamas has also wanted to appear in front of its “friends” in the West to show a degree of respect for freedom of speech. Now things have changed; with its entire fate on the line, they’ve accelerated efforts to stamp out any voices of dissent.
People in Gaza are praying for an immediate and lasting ceasefire, which they see as their only chance of surviving. But for Mohammed, and dissidents like him, leaving Gaza altogether might be the only way to survive both the danger of Israeli bombardment and Hamas’ prosecution. He is hoping to escape to Egypt as soon as possible and in whatever way possible.
“This is our second Nakba (catastrophe),” he told me, the first being the war of 1948 which turned his grandparents and their successors into refugees in Gaza. Were he to succeed in escaping from Gaza, he, his wife and his daughter would suffer the life of refugees all over again.
With people like Mohammed leaving, Gaza will be left with no one who can freely express their views apart from Hamas supporters whose extreme political views and visions are delusional. Some of these people believe that the ongoing war is bound to cause the total destruction of Israel. With people like Mohammed gone, there will be nobody in Gaza left to challenge their absurdly self-destructive views.
Yet had Mohammed been born in what after 1948 became the State of Israel, and thus became a Palestinian citizen of Israel himself, he would still have no other option but to stay silent, even in the absence of death threats. After all it’s not just anti-war voices in Gaza that are being gagged. While searching for posts by Gazan friends I noticed that Palestinian-Israeli friends were suspiciously quiet too. I had known them to be typically outspoken in their criticism of both the Israeli government and Palestinian leadership – in the West Bank and Gaza – so I was surprised to see no posts of theirs, nor any comments on posts related to the Hamas’ assault and subsequent Israeli reprisals. I wrote sarcastically, wondering out loud, whether Palestinian-Israelis were keeping silent out of fear of Hamas’ rockets. The next day I received a private message with one simple question: “Haven’t you heard what’s happened to Dalal Abu Amneh?”
Dalal Abu Amneh is a popular Palestinian singer, influencer and doctor from Nazareth. She had been questioned by the Israeli authorities, I soon learned, over an Instagram post consisting of only a single Quranic verse, the meaning of which was that there is no ultimate victor but God. For some reason the Israeli police suspected that the use of such verse was an expression of solidarity with Hamas, and so she spent two days in detention.
Then I received news that activists from Standing Together, one of the largest grassroots Israeli-Palestinian groups working for peace, had been arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”
The Israeli public debate has also not been immune from the decline of rationality. Some far-right politicians and news commentators have even been arguing that destroying Gaza in the same way that cities like Dresden and Hiroshima were destroyed during World War II is the best possible way to put an end to the danger posed by Hamas.
Israel is considered the only democracy in the Middle East, yet its Palestinian citizens are frightened to protest against such calls for mass murder of the civilians of Gaza. Hoping to find out the source of such fear, a few days after the start of the war, I got in touch with Noha, a Palestinian friend from Haifa. Noha is a teacher and writer and she is usually chatty and blunt in expressing her opinions, but this time she seemed withdrawn and reticent.
“We can’t write anything about the current situation,” she replied curtly.
I asked whether Palestinians in Israel are frightened because they are exposed to a general sense of intimidation or whether there were actually state laws which prohibited them from freely expressing their views. Again her reply was brisk, “Every word is being monitored.”
“Who is monitoring every word?” I hoped to hear her explanation but she remained silent in a way that implied that our private conversation itself was being monitored. I nearly told her, jokingly, that she was just being paranoid; but after what had happened to Dalal Abu Amneh, a couple of days earlier, I couldn’t blame her even if she was merely being paranoid.
The Israeli government has vowed to continue its offensive until Hamas is eradicated. Those of us with first-hand knowledge of politics and history in Palestine-Israel know for sure that such an objective could not be achieved unless the whole of Gaza was totally destroyed. In other words, in order to achieve its goal, the Israeli government would have to follow the advice of those who have been calling to do to Gaza what was done to Dresden or Hiroshima.
In a later conversation with Mohammed he told me that many ordinary people in Gaza believe that Hamas is going to win in the end. “But how can that be when it’s obvious that Hamas is fighting for its life?” I protested. “Or is it the case that its mere survival would be considered a victory?”
“The people of Gaza have been living under siege for more than 16 years,” Mohammed said, adding that things have been getting despairingly worse. “Isolation and despair have made people seek refuge in political fantasies and delusions,” he explained.
Mohammed told me that when the news broke out, on the morning of 7 October, hundreds of Gazan civilians crossed the border into Israel literally following in the footsteps of Hamas’ attackers. The aim of some of these civilians was looting wealthy Israeli homes and properties. Others, however, believed that they were going home, returning, to the land from which their ancestors had fled during the war of 1948. They believed Israel was being conquered and that the Israeli population were leaving, and they, the civilians, wanted to make sure that they got in before anybody else so they could occupy the best vacant properties.
Political delusions and absurd views, such as the ones expressed by extremists on both sides, would be harmless if those who held them were not in power, nor armed. But that is not the case in Gaza and Israel. With the silencing of voices of reason such insane views could very easily win the attention of those in charge. The outcome would be a disaster on a scale not witnessed since World War II.
The tragedies unfolding in Israel and Gaza are putting the social media platform X to the test – a test that X keeps failing. X, formerly known as Twitter, has elevated disinformation alongside fact-based reports on the conflict that range from graphic images created through AI, video game footage, and a plethora of recycled clips from Syria’s decade-long conflict.
Yet X’s disinformation overload should have been expected. Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform, it has undergone a series of algorithmic and “aesthetic” changes that upended the credibility of the content. Instead of boosting posts from experts and on-the-ground reporting, X’s algorithm promotes Twitter Blue subscriptions, accounts which pay for a verification checkmark. This “pay to play” method has served to boost accounts of bots and propagandists, and has enabled disinformation to go viral in a short amount of time.
Musk’s favourite sycophants are being rewarded for their click-baiting methods amid the violence in Israel and on the Gaza Strip. Mario Nawfal – an obscure businessman who gained a following on X from his endorsements by Musk – posted a 2020 YouTube video showing Turkish missiles fired in northern Syria. Nawfal misstated: “Salvo of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip towards Israel” alongside the video.
His message was tagged with a “community note” – an X fact-check system implemented through crowd-sourcing. But the post remained up, highly visible because of X’s algorithm. As of this writing, the post had more than two million views.
Musk’s own attention-seeking posts amid the violence demonstrate that. “All Tesla superchargers in Israel are free,” Musk posted. But his gesture was not all about altruism. There was a caveat. The post was restricted to replies from paid subscribers only.
Of greater concern is the platform’s role and influence in spreading distortion and disinformation. Musk bought Twitter for his own ideological reasons, and has viewed himself at war with “woke” values, which he argues erodes the foundations of democracy. Through his own personal crusades he has aligned himself with far-right ideologues and authoritarian leaders. And in turn he has garnered their loyalty.
Musk has made other changes on X that also have had a profound impact on how facts are represented. Earlier this month, X removed media-composed headlines from news articles. Musk argued the change was to “greatly improve the aesthetics” of the platform. But now users are shown images without context, allowing for bots, propagandists and even meme accounts to fill in the blanks with unsubstantiated claims. The result has created an alternative reality where conspiracies reign over fact.
As Twitter, the platform was a digital democratiser that gave voice to ordinary citizens beyond the confines of traditional media. In times of political upheaval or natural disaster, Twitter had a reputation for delivering on-the-ground reporting and firsthand accounts in real time.
Now it is Musk’s personal megaphone promoting his political views and business interests.
X’s representation of the events in Israel and Gaza reveal that the platform’s strengths for truth-telling are eroded and all but gone. Will we heed the warnings by Twitter’s demise or even realise the impact X now has on how we see the world?
The events of the last week have been horrific. We won’t rehash them here — the videos, photos and details coming out of the Middle East are everywhere you look. For an organisation that campaigns for free speech, we have struggled to find words to respond to the mounting loss of life and the horrendous accounts that emerge every day. But at Index our job is not to report on all of this. Instead our job is to uphold free expression, and to alert the world to the instances where this has been curtailed. So that’s what we’ll do. Here are the free speech issues we are most concerned about:
Killed and missing journalists
Amid the deaths of civilians, journalists are losing their lives. While there’s nothing to suggest that the journalists are being specifically targeted, their lack of protection is of huge concern, both for them and for the knock-on effect for media freedom more broadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that at least 10 journalists have been killed so far. The first was Yaniv Zohar, an Israeli photographer working for the Israeli Hebrew-language daily newspaper Israel Hayom, who was killed alongside his wife and two daughters during the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on 7 October. Israel Hayom’s editor-in-chief has said that Yaniv was working that day. Nine Palestinian journalists have also been confirmed dead as of yesterday and one Israeli journalist is reported missing.
Across the world, buildings are being lit up with blue and white, while green, white, black and red flags are being held aloft in protest. While these vigils and protests are being enacted, so too are calls to shut them down. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested waving Palestinian flags might be a criminal act (depending on the context) and told police chiefs to be on “alert and ready to respond to any potential offences”. In France, the interior minister yesterday announced a systematic ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Police have also warned against pro-Palestine rallies in Sydney, after some people chanted antisemitic slogans at a previous demonstration. The Sydney event organisers have distanced themselves from those people and said: “This behaviour has no place at these rallies.” Meanwhile, police in Sydney placed restrictions on Jewish people by warning them to stay at home while that first rally went ahead, and even arrested a man who was carrying an Israeli flag for “breach of the peace”.
There are certain areas that fall into “grey free speech” areas. Protest is usually not one of them. Only sometimes it is. The office was divided, for example, on whether there should be restrictions on protest outside abortion clinics. Today we are similarly divided. The Times argues here that some protests are making the leap from a peaceful right to expression to hate crimes. The Daily Beast argues the opposite and that these bans would erode our free speech rights.
This week we’ve heard reports of social media accounts being suspended or blocked. NetBlocks, a former Index award-winner which maps media freedom, has also reported on declining internet connectivity in areas of both Israel and Palestine, after attacks and counter-attacks. In Gaza, a total blackout is anticipated if further internet infrastructure is damaged, making access to social media all but impossible before the apps are even opened. As we reported when Erdogan cut off access to social media following the Turkey earthquakes, access to the internet and these platforms is crucial during times of disaster and war. It can be a lifeline, connecting people to aid as well as to their loved ones.
On Wednesday, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins called out a video seemingly from the BBC being circulated by Russian social media users, which claimed Ukraine was smuggling weapons to Hamas. The video was entirely fake. Others have highlighted video after video claiming to be footage of Israel bombing Gaza or Hamas airstrikes on Israel, which are in fact a combination of Assad airstrikes in Syria, fireworks in Algeria and even video game footage. Both faked and reappropriated content are running rampant on X (formerly Twitter), which is not necessarily anything new. But a Wired report suggests that the scale of the problem is new. Boosted posts from premium subscribers take precedence over once-verified news providers and hordes of fired misinformation researchers now spend their time updating their CVs rather than fighting fake news on the platform. And in an added twist fake news to smear both Muslims and Jews is also running rampant behind China’s Great Firewall on Sina Weibo.
Getting news from on the ground is a huge challenge in this conflict, and it’s in that vacuum that the kind of misinformation we just outlined takes hold. So it’s all the more concerning that Israel’s public broadcaster Kan News reported that the Israeli cabinet is planning emergency legislation to ban Al Jazeera, which does have a presence on the ground in Gaza. This is not the first time Israel has announced a ban on the network. Back in 2017 Israel looked set to join a boycott by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which all accused the network of sponsoring terrorism. Relationships between Al Jazeera and Israel have also been very strained since the May 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. But if Al Jazeera is banned, one of the few media outlets reporting from within Gaza will go silent.
We know that conflicts can deal a blow to free expression. At Index we are here to ensure that doesn’t happen, or at least if it does happen that it doesn’t go unnoticed. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The internet is a vital platform for Palestinians to express themselves, but web access and targeting of social media users, bloggers and journalists remain big challenges, according to a new report from the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (MADA).
“The internet and the broad tools of communication made available by the social networks gained great importance specifically in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who have been under firm siege by the Israeli occupation forces since 2006, and for the Palestinian people in general due to the dispersion they have experienced since the Nakba of 1984 [sic], and now they can communicate with their relatives and friends in the different parts of the world quickly and immediately”, said Mr. Mousa Rimawi, MADA’s general director.
The report states that 67% of Palestinians polled by MADA in 2012 believe Facebook contributes to the promotion of freedom of expression.
However, the latest figures quoted show that internet penetration in Palestine is at 32.1%; 34.3% in the West Bank and 27.9% in the Gaza Strip. Lack of infrastructure due to the Israeli occupation and high service charges are the biggest blocks to access, the report finds.
The report also highlighted threats to journalists working in Palestine. Examples included the imprisonment of Al Quds TV reporter Mamdouh Hamamrah for posting an image deemed to be offensive to President Mahmoud Abbas, and the arrest of journalist Esmat Abdel Khalek for a comment she made on Facebook demanding an end to the Palestinian Authority.
“Violations against journalists and citizens simply for expressing their opinions lead to the strengthening of self-censorship, which is incompatible with the idea of having the social platforms that is suppose to make it easier for citizens and journalists to express their opinions”, said Riham Abu Aita, a MADA spokesperson.
The article was edited on 30 September at 12.00 pm to acknowledge an error in the quote from Mr. Mousa Rimawi, which gives the year of the Nakba as 1984, it took place in 1948.