'We're a Democracy, But': Israel Police Chief Calls to Block Social Media in Next Flare-up

Israel's police commissioner Kobi Shabtai says he had suggested such a step during last year's violent clashes

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Haaretz
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Israel's Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, earlier this month.
Israel's Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, earlier this month.Credit: Tomer Applebaum
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Haaretz

Israel's Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said in an interview published Wednesday that social media in Israel should be shut down when the next round of violence erupts in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. Later on Wednesday, officials clarified that the police chief was referring to "extreme situations."

According to Shabtai, who gave an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, such a move would prevent the violence seen during the May 2021 flare-up with Gaza, which saw clashes erupt in mixed cities in Israel.

"We're a democratic country, but there's a limit," Shabtai said. "I'm talking about fully shutting down the networks, calming the situation on the ground, and when it's calm reactivating them." He added that he had suggested such steps be taken during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year.

In the interview, Shabtai claimed there is a direct a connection between the wave of violence in mixed cities and social media: "The world of TikTok has erupted, and together with what happened in the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets towards Jerusalem, it gave people legitimacy to act violently," the police chief said.

Shabtai added that "nobody could foresee" the violent events last year – "not the police, not the Shin Bet Security Service and not the army."

The idea floated by Shabtai received significant backlash from Israelis, leading to police officials publishing a "clarification."

"The police chief was referring to extreme scenarios in which Israeli democracy and security are at risk, and in which there is an uprising that combines broad elements of terror in Israel," said a police spokesperson in a statement. "Shabtai spoke about blocking those who are inciting terror attacks and calling for people to head to the streets, specifically about a scenario in which there are hundreds and thousands of inciting posts."

The statement added that "at no point was there any intent to take away the rights of Israeli citizens, but rather a temporary step that may be needed in order to save lives and protect Israeli democracy at a time of risk to national security."

Public Security Ministry Director-General Tomer Lotan also reacted to Shabtai's interview, saying that "the practice of shutting down social media is unknown to me, and is also unacceptable – especially in a democratic country. I simply cannot accept [Shabtai's] statement."

The suggestion to block access to social media was brought up during the May 2021 wave of violence by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who considered blocking TikTok in order to deescalate the situation in mixed cities. According to sources with knowledge on the matter, Netanyahu brought up the idea at two separate meetings, but was rebuffed by the Attorney General, the Shin Bet and other defense officials. Netanyahu's initiative was first reported by Israeli website Walla.

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