Last Wednesday, a message appeared in a new WhatsApp channel called “Death to the Arabs.” The message urged Israelis to join a mass street brawl against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Within hours, dozens of other new WhatsApp groups popped up with variations of the same name and message. The groups soon organized a 6 p.m. start time for a clash in Bat Yam, a town on Israel’s coast.
“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 aired of black-clad Israelis smashing car windows and roaming the streets of Bat Yam. The mob pulled one man they presumed to be Arab from his car and beat him unconscious. He was hospitalized in serious condition.
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, an Israeli watchdog group that studies misinformation.
The WhatsApp groups, with names like “The Jewish Guard” and “The Revenge Troops,” have added hundreds of new members a day over the past week, according to The Times’s analysis. The groups, which are in Hebrew, have also been featured on email 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 said. That’s because the groups are explicitly planning and executing violent acts against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population and live largely integrated lives with Jewish neighbors.
That is far more specific than past WhatsApp-fueled mob attacks in India, where calls for violence were vague and generally not targeted at individuals or businesses, the researchers said. Even the Stop the Steal groups in the United States that organized the Jan. 6 protests in Washington did not openly direct attacks using social media or messaging apps, they said.
The proliferation of these WhatsApp groups has alarmed Israeli security officials and disinformation researchers. In the groups, attacks have been carefully documented, with members often gloating about taking part in the violence, according to The Times’s review. Some said they were taking revenge for rockets being fired onto Israel from militants in the Gaza Strip, while others cited different grievances. Many solicited names of Arab-owned businesses they could target next.
do not plan attacks on the services for fear of being discovered.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A WhatsApp spokeswoman said the messaging service was concerned by the activity from Israeli extremists. She said the company had removed some accounts of people who participated in the groups. WhatsApp cannot read the encrypted messages on its service, she added, but it has acted when accounts were reported to it for violating its terms of service.
“We take action to ban accounts we believe may be involved in causing imminent harm,” she said.
In Israel, WhatsApp has long been used to form groups so people can communicate and share interests or plan school activities. As violence soared between Israel’s military and Palestinian militants in Gaza over the past week, WhatsApp was also one of the platforms where false information about the conflict has spread.