The recent wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has set old tensions to boil on the streets and across social media platforms on both sides of the border. On Facebook, newly formed groups calling for vengeance against Palestinians—and a few calling for peace—appeared as early as Monday, just hours after the bodies of three Jewish teens were found murdered.
The victims, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, were kidnapped in the West Bank by Palestinian militants on June 13. Their abductions triggered targeted Israeli military raids in the West Bank, and a public outcry that culminated with the discovery of the victims' bodies on Monday. The following night, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen disappeared from Shuafat refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem. A body was found hours later, believed to be his. Israeli police and security service have yet to determine if he was killed in an act of revenge, but Palestinians have no doubt that was the case.
While Israelis and Palestinians have used Facebook for years to make their political views known, the events of this week have given an additional charge to the content posted to the social network. And online behavior is becoming increasingly bold. Many young people are no longer hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet; instead, they're revealing their identities by posting selflies and claiming full ownership of their comments and emotions.
One of the fastest-growing pages on Facebook, "The people of Israel demand revenge," gathered 40,000 followers this week, including many soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Group members published selfies with angry slogans and racist epitaphs written on the palm of their hand or on a piece of paper laid next to a rifle. The page was taken down on Thursday, after Israel's Minister of Justice publicly condemned it.
"When something like this influences soldiers to take their photo with their weapons, or teens stand with texts calling for the death of Arabs, then this is terrible, and they need to pay a price for it," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said in an interview with Israeli military radio. The Israeli Defense Forces responded by sending four of its soldiers to 10 days in prison for posting for such photos, while the Attorney General instructed the police to investigate that and similar Facebook pages, which are still going strong.
But it's not just hatred that's inspiring new content on social media. Some groups are using Facebook to call for restraint, tolerance and reconciliation. In just one day, some 1,800 people liked the group "I choose peace," a Facebook page that was created on Wednesday. Many of the group members responded to the admin statement that "A pen, camera and hope is all you need to spread hope and bring balance to the overdose of hate" by uploading colorful, optimistic photos, with words of inspiration in Hebrew and Arabic. Followers of another page, "The people of Israel demand comfort," uploaded similar photos.
Others chose to communicate directly with specific hate photos, such as this one of two girls holding a sign that reads, "Hating Arabs is a value — it's not racism." The response to such hateful messages came in the form of selfies with messages such as, "Loving human beings is a value —Not being Naïve."
Some groups have a new-age edge, with names such as "Spreading light in Facebook"—-a group that calls on its members to share posts of "free love and peace."
Or-ly Barlev, a social activist and a blogger, is one of the founders of "Situation Room," an alternative media organization founded three years ago after a summer of social demonstrations in Israel. In a conversation with Fusion, she explains that over the last few days she and her colleagues discussed ways to fight the "darkness" that she says has taken over are large section of the Internet.
But Barlev sees rays of light coming from unexpected corners of cyberspace. She points to a message posted by the family of victim Naftali Frankel, one of the Jewish teens found murdered this week, who denounced the murder of Palestinian Abu Khdeir.
"Murder is murder, whatever the nationality and age. There is no justification, nor forgiving, and no atonement for any murder," the family wrote.
Barlev says that message from the family "can’t get any stronger" or be any clearer.
"They said the most powerful things in the most horrible circumstances. We distributed it, but we were merely the amplifier," she said. The post has since been shared thousands of times and, according to Barlev, has reached the Facebook feeds of half a million Israelis.
Ido Kenan, Digital Culture Blogger of Room404.net, said in an email correspondence that Facebook can be used for good in bad times.
"Of course social networks can be used to promote dialog and peace, as demonstrated by the Israel Loves Iran grassroots viral campaign, where Israelis and Iranians posted posters of peace and friendship," he said. "Some Israelis are reacting to the current viral campaigns, which depict soldiers and citizens holding up signs demanding revenge in the Palestinians, with similar photos of pro-peace signs. Problem is, hate and rage seem to be much stronger viral catalysts than love and tolerance."
So which side is gaining more traction on Facebook, the lovers or the haters?
"It seems to me that the revenge-speech pages have more followers; so I'd assume it has bigger reach," says Kenan. "Like with newspapers, on social media, when it bleeds it leads. However, I believe a large part of the interaction with the revenge-speech comes from people who oppose it, and are either curious or want to actively criticize it or fight it."
Gadi Gvaryahu is the chairman of "Tag-Meir," which literally translates as "Light Tag"—a play on words with "Price Tag," the term used to describe attacks against Palestinians. The group is a non-profit founded in 2011 to fight racism in Israel. On Wednesday, Gvaryahu told Fusion in a phone call that they used their Facebook page to initiate a demonstration against attacks on Palestinians.
"Within 10 hours we managed to get 3,000 people to the center of Jerusalem," he explains. Demonstrators showed up holding signs such as, "We don’t have enough kids for unnecessary vengeance." The event was widely covered by the Israeli media.
"Tag-Meir," Gvaryahu said, "cooperates with 43 different organizations and have a significant power and effect."
The group acknowledges that attacks on Palestinian groups have not diminished since its creation, but says they will maintain the course for peace.
"We believe in our way," he said. "We try to deter and we hope that at the end of the day people will realize that."