Last Wednesday, a message appeared in a new WhatsApp channel titled “Death to the Arabs”. The post urged Israelis to join a mass street brawl against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Within hours, dozens of other new WhatsApp groups appeared with variations of the same name and message. The groups quickly arranged a 6 p.m. start time for a clash in Bat Yam, a town on the coast of Israel.
“Together we organize and together we act,” read a message in one of the WhatsApp groups. “Tell your friends to join the group, because here we know how to defend Jewish honor.”
That evening, live scenes of Israelis dressed in black smashing car windows and wandering the streets of Bat Yam were shown. The mob pulled a man they presumed to be Arab from their car and beat him unconscious. He was hospitalized in serious condition.
The episode was one of dozens across Israel that authorities have linked to a wave of activity by Jewish extremists on WhatsApp, Facebook’s cryptic messaging service. Since violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated last week, at least 100 new WhatsApp groups have been formed for the express purpose of committing violence against Palestinians, according to an analysis by the New York Times and FakeReporter, a group. Israeli watchdog who studies disinformation.
WhatsApp groups, with names like “The Jewish Guard” and “The Revenge Troops,” have added hundreds of new members per day over the past week, according to the Times analysis. The groups, which are in Hebrew, have also been featured on mailing lists and online message boards used by far-right extremists in Israel.
While social media and messaging apps have been used in the past to spread hate speech and inspire violence, these WhatsApp groups go further, researchers say. This is because the groups explicitly plan and execute acts of violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up around 20 percent of the population and lead largely integrated lives with Jewish neighbors.
This is much more specific than previous WhatsApp-powered crowd attacks in India, where calls for violence were vague and generally did not target individuals or businesses, the researchers said. Even the Stop the Steal groups in the United States that staged the January 6 protests in Washington did not openly direct the attacks using social media or messaging apps, they said.
The proliferation of these WhatsApp groups has alarmed Israeli security officials and disinformation researchers. Within the groups, the attacks have been carefully documented, with members often gloating over having taken part in the violence, according to the Times review. Some said they were getting their revenge for the rockets fired at Israel by militants from the Gaza Strip, while others cited different grievances. Many solicited names of Arab-owned businesses that they could then target.
“It’s a perfect storm of people with the ability to use their own names and phone numbers to openly call for violence, and have a tool like WhatsApp to organize themselves into crowds,” said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter.
He said his organization had reported many of the new WhatsApp groups to the Israel Police, who initially took no action “but now are starting to act and try to prevent the violence.”
Israel Police did not respond to a request for comment, but Israeli security officials said law enforcement authorities began monitoring WhatsApp groups after being alerted by FakeReporter. Police, Mr Schatz said, believed the attacks by Jewish extremists had been inflamed and organized against WhatsApp groups.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that police had not seen similar WhatsApp groups forming among Palestinians. Islamist movements, including Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza Strip, have long organized and recruited followers on social media but do not plan attacks on the services for fear of discovery.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
A spokeswoman for WhatsApp said the messaging service was concerned about the activity of Israeli extremists. She said the company deleted some accounts from people who participated in the groups. WhatsApp cannot read encrypted messages on its service, she added, but it took action when accounts were reported to it for violating its terms of service.
“We are taking action to ban accounts that we believe may be involved in imminent damage,” she said.
In Israel, WhatsApp has long been used to form groups so that people can communicate and share their interests or plan school activities. As violence escalated between Israeli and Palestinian military militants in Gaza over the past week, WhatsApp was also one of the platforms on which false information about the conflict spread.
Tensions in the region were so high that new groups calling for revenge against Palestinians began to emerge on WhatsApp and other messaging services like Telegram. The first WhatsApp groups appeared last Tuesday, Mr Schatz said. Last Wednesday, his organization found dozens of groups.
People can join groups through a link, many of which are shared within existing WhatsApp groups. Once they join a group, other groups are announced to them.
Since then, the groups have grown steadily in size, said Schatz. Some have grown so large that they branched out into local chapters dedicated to certain towns and villages. To escape detection by WhatsApp, group organizers are urging people to check new members, he said.
On Telegram, the Israelis have formed about 20 channels to commit and plan violence against Palestinians, according to FakeReporter. Much of the content and messages in these groups mimic what is in WhatsApp channels.
On a new WhatsApp group the Times reviewed, “The Revenge Troops,” people recently shared instructions on how to build makeshift Molotov cocktails and explosives. The group has asked its 400 members to also provide the addresses of Arab-owned businesses that could be targeted.
In another group with just under 100 members, people shared photos of guns, knives and other weapons as they discussed the engagement in street fighting in mixed Jewish towns. -arabs. Another new WhatsApp group has been named “The Right Group Without Any Excuse”.
After participating in attacks, members of the groups posted photos of their exploits and encouraged others to emulate them.
“We destroyed them, we left them in pieces,” said a person from the WhatsApp group “The Revenge Troops”, next to a photo showing broken car windows. In another group, a video was uploaded of young Jews dressed in black stopping cars on an unnamed street and asking drivers if they were Jews or Arabs.
We beat “the enemy car by car,” a comment posted below the video said, using a curse.
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Lod, a mixed Judeo-Arab town in central Israel that has been the scene of recent clashes.
“There is no greater threat today than these riots, and it is essential to restore law and order,” Netanyahu said.
Within some WhatsApp groups, Mr. Netanyahu’s calls for peace have been ridiculed.
“Our government is too weak to do what is necessary, so we are taking it in hand,” wrote a person from a dedicated WhatsApp group in the town of Ramle in central Israel. “Now that we’ve organized ourselves, they can’t stop us.”
Ben decker contributed to the research.