Last Wednesday a message appeared on a new WhatsApp channel called “Death to the Arabs”. The embassy urged the Israelis to join a mass 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 soon organized a start time at 6 p.m. for a clash in Bat Yam, a town on the Israeli coast.
“Together we organize and together we act,” says one of the WhatsApp groups. “Tell your friends to join the group because this is where we know how to defend Jewish honor.”
That evening, live scenes were broadcast of Israelis dressed in black breaking car windows and roaming the streets of Bat Yam. The mob pulled a man they suspected was an Arab out of his car and knocked him unconscious. He was hospitalized in serious condition.
The episode was one of dozens across Israel that authorities have linked to a surge in activity by Jewish extremists on WhatsApp, Facebook’s encrypted messaging service. According to analysis by the New York Times and by FakeReporter, an Israeli surveillance group that investigates misinformation, at least 100 new WhatsApp groups have been formed to commit violence against Palestinians since the violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated last week.
WhatsApp groups with names like “The Jewish Guard” and “The Revenge Troops” added hundreds of new members daily over the past week, according to the Times analysis. The Hebrew groups have also been featured on email lists and online forums used by right-wing extremists in Israel.
While social media and messaging apps have been used in the past to spread hate speech and incite violence, these WhatsApp groups go even further, according to researchers. This is because the groups explicitly plan and carry out acts of violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up around 20 percent of the population and lead a largely integrated life with Jewish neighbors.
This is far more specific than previous WhatsApp mob attacks in India, which calls for violence were vague and generally not directed at individuals or companies, the researchers said. Even the Stop the Steal groups in the US that organized the January 6 protests in Washington did not openly target attacks through social media or messaging apps.
The proliferation of these WhatsApp groups has alarmed Israeli security officials and disinformation researchers. Attacks have been carefully documented in the groups, and members are often happy to be involved in the violence, according to The Times. Some said they would take revenge for rockets being fired at Israel by militants in Gaza, while others cited various grievances. Many asked for names of Arab-owned companies that they could target next.
“It’s a perfect storm of people empowered to use their own names and phone numbers to openly call for violence and have a tool like WhatsApp to organize themselves into mobs,” said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter .
He said his organization had reported many of the new WhatsApp groups to the Israeli police, which initially took no action “but are now starting to act and try to prevent the violence”.
Israeli police did not respond to a request for comment, but Israeli security officials said law enforcement began monitoring the WhatsApp groups after being alerted by FakeReporter. The police, Schatz said, believed attacks by the Jewish extremists were inflamed and organized by the WhatsApp groups.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that police had not seen any similar WhatsApp groups 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 are not planning any attacks on the services for fear of being discovered.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
May 19, 2021 at 8:04 p.m. ET
A WhatsApp spokeswoman said the intelligence service was concerned about the activities of Israeli extremists. She said the company removed some accounts from people who participated in the groups. WhatsApp cannot read the encrypted messages on its service, she added, but it acted when accounts were reported to it for violating its Terms of Service.
“We are taking steps to ban accounts that we believe could cause imminent harm,” she said.
In Israel, WhatsApp has long been used to form groups so that people can communicate and share interests or plan school activities. When violence between Israel’s military and Palestinian militants in Gaza increased last week, WhatsApp was also one of the platforms on which false information about the conflict was spread.
Tensions in the region were so high that new groups seeking revenge on Palestinians appeared on WhatsApp and other news outlets like Telegram. The first WhatsApp groups appeared last Tuesday, Schatz said. By last Wednesday, his organization had found dozens of groups.
People can join the groups through a link, many of which are shared in existing WhatsApp groups. As soon as they join a group, other groups will be announced to them.
The groups have grown steadily since then, Schatz said. Some have grown so large that they have branched into local chapters dedicated to specific cities. To avoid detection by WhatsApp, the group’s organizers are asking people to screen new members, he said.
According to FakeReporter, Israelis have formed around 20 channels in the Telegram to commit and plan violence against Palestinians. Much of the content and messages in these groups mimics the content of the WhatsApp channels.
In a new WhatsApp group that reviewed The Times, “The Revenge Troops,” people recently shared instructions on building Molotov cocktails and makeshift explosives. The group asked its 400 members to also provide addresses of Arab-owned companies that could be targeted.
In another group of just under 100 members, people exchanged photos of guns, knives, and other weapons while discussing street fighting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. Another new WhatsApp group was dubbed “The Non-Apologetic Right-Wing Group”.
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 in the WhatsApp group “The Revenge Troops” next to a photo showing the broken car window. Another group uploaded a video of Jewish youths dressed in black stopping cars on an unnamed street and asking drivers if they were Jewish or Arab.
We have “defeated the enemy car for car,” said a comment below the video with an expletive.
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel that was the site of the recent clashes.
“There is currently no greater threat than this unrest and it is important to restore law and order,” said Netanyahu.
In some WhatsApp groups, Mr. Netanyahu’s calls for peace have been ridiculed.
“Our government is too weak to do what is necessary, so we take it into our own hands,” wrote one person on a WhatsApp group dedicated to the city of Ramle, central Israel. “Now that we are organized, they can no longer stop us.”
Ben Decker contributed to the research.