On May 12, a message appeared on a new WhatsApp channel titled “Death to the Arabs”. The message called on the Israelis to participate in a major street fight against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Within hours, dozens of new WhatsApp groups appeared with name and message variations. The groups quickly arranged the 6 p.m. start time for a shock in the town of Bat Yam on the Israeli coast.
“Together we organize and together we act,” the shared message said. “Tell your friends to join the group, because here we know how to defend Jewish honor.”
That night, live scenes of Israelis dressed in black smashing car windows and wandering the streets of Bat Yam were broadcast live. They pulled a man believed to be an Arab from inside his car and beat him until he lost consciousness – he was hospitalized in serious condition.
The episode was one of dozens recorded across the country that authorities were linked to increased activity by Jewish extremists on WhatsApp, Facebook’s proprietary crypto messaging service.
Since violence between Israelis and Palestinians increased last week, at least 100 new groups have formed on WhatsApp, expressing their intention to commit violence against Palestinians, according to an analysis by the New York Times and FakeReporter, a group of activists who study disinformation.
WhatsApp groups, with names like “The Jewish Guard” and “The Revenge Troops,” have gained hundreds of members per day over the past week. The messages, which are published in Hebrew, were also featured on mailing lists and online message boards used by right-wing extremists in Israel.
Social media apps and messaging have previously been used to spread hate speech and inspire violence, but these WhatsApp groups go further, researchers say. They explicitly plan and execute acts of violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up around 20% of the population and generally live in close contact with Jewish neighbors.
This is much more specific than previous attacks launched by WhatsApp in India, where calls for violence were vague and generally not directed against individuals or businesses. Even “Stop the Theft” groups in the United States, which staged the protests that led to the January 6 invasion of the Capitol in Washington, DC, have openly directed attacks using social media or messaging apps. .
The proliferation of these groups on WhatsApp has alarmed Israeli security officials and disinformation researchers. In communities, attacks have been carefully documented, with members often boasting of participating in the violence, according to NYT magazine. Some said they were getting their revenge on rockets fired at Israel by militants in the Gaza Strip, while others cited different complaints. And many have asked for names of Arab-owned businesses they could attack.
“It’s a perfect storm of empowered people using their own names and phone numbers to openly propose violence and have a tool like WhatsApp to organize themselves into gangs,” said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter.
He said his organization had reported many of the new groups on WhatsApp to the Israel Police, who initially took no action, “but are acting now and trying to stop the violence.”
Micky Rosenfeld, an Israel Police spokesperson, said “the police are following social media and monitoring movements there.” According to him, the Israelis were involved in some attacks, but generally “protected themselves” from attacks by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
According to Israeli security officials, police began monitoring groups on WhatsApp after being alerted by FakeReporter. An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that police had not seen similar groups form among Palestinians.
Islamic movements, including Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have long organized and recruited followers on social media, but have not planned attacks on the platforms for fear of discovery.
A spokeswoman for WhatsApp said the messaging service was concerned about the activity of Israeli extremists. According to her, the company deleted some accounts of people who participated in the groups.
WhatsApp cannot read encrypted messages, she added, but took action when the accounts were flagged for violating their terms of service.
“We have taken steps to ban accounts that may be involved in imminent damage,” she said.
In Israel, WhatsApp has long been used to form groups so that people can communicate, share their interests, or plan school activities. As violence escalated between the IDF and Palestinian militants in Gaza over the past week, WhatsApp has also been one of the platforms on which false information about the conflict has spread.
Tensions in the region were so high that new groups calling for vengeance on Palestinians began to emerge on WhatsApp and other messaging services, such as Telegram. The first WhatsApp groups appeared on May 11, Schatz said. By the 12th, his organization had found dozens of them.
Users can join groups through a link, many of which are shared with groups already present in the app. After joining a group, other groups are announced.
The groups have since grown steadily in size, according to Schatz.
Some have grown so large that they have branched out into local sections dedicated to certain cities. In order not to be detected by the company, the organizers ask people to carefully select new members.
On Telegram, the Israelis formed about 20 channels to commit and plan violence against Palestinians, according to FakeReporter. Much of the content and messages in these groups mimic what is on WhatsApp channels.
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Lod, a city with a mixed population of Arabs and Jews in the country’s central region, which has been the scene of recent shocks.
“There is no greater threat today than these riots, and it is essential to restore law and order,” he said.
In some WhatsApp groups, the Prime Minister’s demands for peace have been ridiculed.
“Our government is too weak to do what is necessary, so we are taking matters into our own hands,” wrote a person in a dedicated community in the town of Ramle, in central Israel. “Now that we have organized ourselves, they cannot stop us.”