‘Burn their homes’: Israeli WhatsApp groups are organizing attacks on Arabs [Palestinians]

Emanuel Maiberg

Vice  /  April 5, 2022

One WhatsApp group where Israelis have been inciting violence has been open for a year.

A number of Israeli WhatsApp and Telegram groups, some of which have been active since similar violence erupted in the country a year ago, are once again openly calling for and organizing real-world violence against Arabs [Palestinians], including offering to sell and use rifles and grenades. 

Israeli calls for violence on social media follow a wave of terrorist shooting and stabbing attacks in Israel that have killed 11 people in 10 days

“Friends, we have to shake the country,” said one user in a WhatsApp group called “Love Israel” that’s been active since April 2021. The user called for members of the group to meet at a specific time and place in the West Bank where many Palestinians pass on their way to work in Israel. “If the government is not going to make a mess, we will!”

The exact same message circulated across multiple WhatsApp and Telegram groups in recent days, according to screenshots of messages viewed by Motherboard.

“Bring knives brass knuckles sticks and stones,” one user said in response to the message posted in a Telegram group. “Molotov cocktails.” 

“We’re 17 people already, some of us are armed,” another user said.

“Set for tonight,” a user in a WhatsApp Group called “we will not be silent” said next to a picture of him holding two hand grenades. Ynet reported that the police identified, questioned, and released the user who posted the picture: a 13-year-old who took the grenades from his older brother, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force.

“We need to burn their homes,” one user in the same WhatsApp group said.

Users in the same group posted pictures of and offered to sell AK-47 and M-16 rifles.

Users in the WhatsApp group specifically said they need to repeat the kind of violence that was organized on WhatsApp in May 2021, when Israeli citizens carried out several acts of violence against Arabs [Palestinians]  including destroying an Arab owned ice cream shop in the city of Bat Yam. 

The WhatsApp and Telegram posts by Israelis inciting violence were collected by FakeReporter, a group that monitors and reports disinformation and extremist content online, and Democratic Bloc, an organization dedicated to defending democracy in Israel, and shared with Motherboard. The posts were also reported in Israeli media

Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter, told Motherboard that, compared to last year, this time Israeli police were quicker to act when presented with such posts, and that he believes that at least some violence was prevented because of this.

Schatz acknowledged that unlike Telegram, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, meaning the company can’t actively scan what people are saying, nor should it (WhatsApp users can still report content to the company, at which point the receive that last five messages sent to the user by the reported account, as well as the reported user or group ID). However, Schatz said that social media companies’ response after the groups have been reported in the media and to them directly hasn’t improved much since last year. 

“I don’t want them to monitor groups, but I want a clear process for what you do about these groups,” Schatz said. “Things are working too slow. There are groups that are active on WhatsApp a year later after they organized lynching. It’s the same groups. Something is messed up about the system and the reporting.”

“As a private messaging service we do not have access to the contents of people’s personal chats. We provide simple options for users to make reports to us and we respond to valid legal requests from law enforcement,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Motherboard.

Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Most of the groups, Schatz noted, are heavily influenced by and promote “Kahanism”, a Jewish extremist ideology named after Meir Kahane that views all ‘Arabs’ living in Israel as enemies of a Jewish theocratic state. 

“The vast majority of Israeli citizens are experiencing this as trauma,” Schatz said. “But there’s a minority that’s enjoying it. In the far right Kahanist population, they see it as an opportunity to recruit followers. The feeling is that they want violence in the streets and it’s a Kahanist action. they talk about in terms of religious wars. But in many cases people who join these groups are not religious. They’re people from the margins, teens from low income families. They’re offering them a solution.” 

Emanuel Maiberg is a journalist and editor based in San Francisco