An erroneous automatic translation has triggered Israeli police in the West Bank, leading them to believe that an innocuous Facebook greeting written in Arabic by a Palestinian man was a call to launch an attack. The man was briefly arrested.
The bizarre incident occurred last week in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit, 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) south of Jerusalem, Haaretz reported on Sunday.
The source of Halawim Halawi’s troubles with the law became a photo of him leaning against a bulldozer with a “good morning” caption in Arabic which he posted on Facebook. Halawi, a worker at a construction site, could hardly imagine that Facebook’s automated translation system would twist his words in such a way as to mean “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English.
The translation mistake would have been instantly spotted by an Arabic speaker, though the Israeli police apparently preferred to jump to a conclusion rather than double-check, rushing to arrest the man on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. The presence of the bulldozer in the image had only strengthened their suspicions, as exactly the same type of vehicle had been used to carry out deadly terrorist acts on more than one occasion.
Having questioned the man, the police released him without charge and admitted their mistake, according to the publication.
While this reaction was over the top, it is established practice rigorously to monitor all public social media communications in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This has led to a profusion of arrests of Palestinians on incitement grounds.
Back in April, Haaretz reported that the Israeli intelligence agencies have created a database of Palestinians and their social media profiles, and have automatized a screening process. The purpose of the database is to limit the number of potential attacks on Israeli targets. Last year, some 2,200 Palestinians were subjected to checks under the method, including 400 who were subsequently arrested after their names were handed to the Palestinian Authority. The practice was reported to have proved effective, significantly decreasing the number of attacks.
However, with blanket surveillance there is always room for error.
Last year, a Bedouin social activist was arrested over a sarcastic post in which he parodied those who were praising forest fires then ravaging Israel. Using an overly dramatic tone, the man was calling to boycott countries assisting Israel in battling the fire and urged Palestinians to set fire to every forest remaining unaffected by the blaze.
Although he wrote “sarcasm, not serious” at the end of the post, the precaution did not save him from being held in custody for several days.