Home inContext Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Rages on Wikipedia

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Rages on Wikipedia

Samara Greenberg

The campaign to de-legitimize Israel is expanding into the online encyclopedia world of Wikipedia, as articles about Israel or the Palestinians are slowly being taken over by pro-Palestinian campaigners, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday. While the internet site employs a system of controls meant to prevent an “edit war” over controversial topics such as this, the system has many loopholes that advocates can sidestep. As a result, according to the encyclopedia’s Israeli editors, Wikipedia is rife with narratives that question Israel’s legitimacy and call for international legal and political action against the Jewish state.

For example, the activists employ a tactic known as “POV [point-of-view] forking,” in which they write an article on a subject that is nearly identical to an existing article for the purposes of presenting the original subject through a new narrative. Since the second article is closely related, it appears in searches alongside the original. Indeed, today, on the “Palestinian territories” article page, a note at the top reads: “It has been suggested that ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ be merged into this article or section.”

As another example, in a recent Wikipedia debate, editors discussed the technical definition of Mandatory Palestine as a state. In this debate, pro-Palestinian activists used quotations from Western, British, Ottoman and UN sources to argue that Palestine has always had the legal status of statehood, even under Ottoman and British control. While the statement is historically inaccurate, the purpose of this narrative is clear. If Palestine has always been a state, the Palestinian people today have the right to return as well as to legally sue Israel for war crimes in international tribunals, a move that is currently difficult for non-state actors under the law.

A similar issue was raised one year ago, when leading Israeli internet researchers claimed that Wikipedia’s coverage of Israel-related issues was “problematic.” At that time, Hamas was not defined as a terrorist group in the first paragraph that describes the organization on the English site. It now is. In addition, according to Eli Hacohen, director of Tel Aviv University’s Netvision Institute for Internet Studies, his repeated attempts to define Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a Holocaust-denier on Wikipedia were erased by users and editors, despite Ahmadinejad’s public Holocaust denials.

The activists’ tactics have not gone unnoticed, however. Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee consulted for months over what to do about contributors who promote an anti-Israel narrative. In the end, the committee recommends employing a series of sanctions on any user caught manipulating articles. Indeed, while the encyclopedia’s desire to thwart activists from slanting articles is certainly commendable, that Wikipedia has become the new battleground for Israeli de-legitimizers exemplifies the real threat Israel faces today.