Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai shared with Yedioth Ahronoth and its Ynet website his creative solution for suppressing violent clashes. “I am of the opinion that in such situations, blocking [social media] is necessary,” he said. “The social networks are the ones that bring people out to the streets. I’m talking about a broad closure of the networks. Shut them down, let the situation simmer down, and when it does, release them. We are a democratic country, but there is a limit.” Yet this remark actually shows that limits, or boundaries, are disappearing and Israeli democracy is increasingly eroding.
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Shabtai related that he proposed this draconian measure to the cabinet during the riots in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in May 2021. Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to explore this idea, but was blocked by the attorney general and the Shin Bet security service (Sam Sokol, Haaretz, May 30, 2021). Had it been accepted, Israel would have joined the ranks of countries such as China, Russia, Turkey and Iran that bar their own citizens from using social media.
It’s true that social media are a vector for spreading incitement, fake news, disinformation and anti-democratic manipulation, and must be regulated. But they are also important sounding boards, and blocking them is not a legitimate way for a democratic country to suppress riots. Blocking social media deprives people of fundamental rights including freedom of expression, association and protest. Shabtai sought to block social media to suppress violent nationalist clashes, but in the future it could be used to silence civil protest against the cost of living or police racism. Blocking social media would not stop protests and would only harm democracy.
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This wasn’t the first time Shabtai has shown contempt for the rule of law and basic civil rights. He was national police chief also in April 2021, when overcrowding during Lag Ba’omer celebrations on Mount Meron – permitted in violation of pandemic rules – took the lives of 45 people. Together with his superiors at the time, Netanyahu and then-public security minister Amir Ohana, he recently received a warning letter from the state commission of inquiry investigating that disaster.
On his watch, police used excessive, disgraceful force against pallbearers at the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and nonviolent protesters outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem when he was prime minister, and continued their unauthorized use against Israelis of surveillance systems like Hawkeye and NSO Group’s Pegasus. These control and monitoring technologies are tried initially on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and then turned against citizens of the state inside Israel.
“We are a democratic country, but there is a limit,” Shabtai said. But it appears that it is actually the absence of limits, of political borders and democratic boundaries, that causes anti-democratic ideas like these to appear frequently.