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Hacked Twitter accounts used to promote Saudi and its leadership | Saudi Arabia News

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Several verified Twitter accounts have been taken over by pro-Saudi operatives and some have been used to promote Saudi Arabia or its leadership, according to an academic who researches digital propaganda and Twitter bots.

At least four verified Twitter accounts, including one that belonged to an American meteorologist who died more than two years ago, appear to have been hacked and sold to pro-Saudi entities, Marc Owen Jones wrote in a blog post on Saturday.

A verified Twitter account usually signals that the person maintaining it is who they claim to be.

One of the verified hacked accounts originally belonged to the Weather Channel meteorologist David Schwartz who died in 2016.

That account, @TWCDaveSchwartz, has now been followed by dozens of pro-Saudi and Saudi-based accounts.

The account itself appears to have posted a single tweet, which praises the al Qassim region of Saudi Arabia, and its governor, Prince Faisal bin Mishal. But a screenshot of the same account taken in 2018 shows it was used to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia at the time.

Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said that verified accounts were more desirable as users are more likely to accept them as a legitimate source of information.

“[A verified account] would gain credibility and followers more rapidly than a non-verified account,” Jones told Al Jazeera.

“In practice, it is limited by the fact you cannot change the handle, meaning anything obviously incongruous would stand out in the local context,” he added.

Jones identified several other profiles that were taken over, including one belonging to Sheyna Steiner, a personal finance writer who previously appeared as an analyst on Fox News. 

In practice, it is limited by the fact you cannot change the handle, meaning anything obviously incongruous would stand out in the local context

Marc Owen Jones

Steiner’s account has posted and re-tweeted dozens of pro-Saudi posts in recent days. On Sunday, the account lost the verified blue tick mark that it carried on Saturday, but it continued to tweet messages promoting Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).

One of the messages included a picture of King Salman and Prince Mohammed, saying “we are all Salman, we are all Mohammed”.

Another tweet from the account said: “I tell those idiots who have been reporting my account since yesterday, do so… Your actions will not stop me from defending my country,” and then claimed that “if my account is shut down there are a thousand others”.

The tweet also included several hashtags calling Saudi Arabia and the Saudi leadership a “red line”, a reference to Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir comments that calls for a change in leadership in Saudi are a “red line”.





 Steiner’s account has posted tweets promoting Saudi leaders [Al Jazeera]

Another verified account, seemingly hacked, is that of Australian Nicole Jade Parks, a former Winter Olympian.

Although the profile has no recent tweets, it is followed by numerous pro-Saudi and Saudi-based accounts, similar to the accounts that follow the Schwartz and Steiner accounts.

‘Manipulate Twitter en masse’

Over the past year, Saudi Arabia’s use of Twitter come under increased scrutiny.

Research by the Digital Forensic Research (DFR) lab, part of the Atlantic Council think-tank, uncovered fake accounts spreading pro-government tweets that cast doubt on reports that Khashoggi was murdered.

According to that research, a YouTube video containing an unfounded conspiracy theory, claiming Khashoggi was still alive, was spread using a combination of real Saudi Twitter influencers and a large number of fake accounts.

“Twitter has emerged as a major battleground in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic conflicts, though it’s difficult to differentiate between regime-controlled use and pro-regime, voluntary use,” Ben Nimmo, head of DFR lab, told Al Jazeera. 

“We saw a surge in automated, bot-driven activity during the Saudi-Qatar row which started in the summer of 2017, [although] it’s only fair to mention that a lot of bots were used to boost pro-Qatar messaging in 2017, too,” Nimmo said. “So this is not unique to Saudi Arabia.”

That drive was aimed mostly at the Arabic-speaking audience whereas, following Khashoggi’s murder last year, there was a bigger English-language component to the traffic.

Silencing critics

In October, the New York Times published an investigation into how Saudi Arabia used Twitter accounts to stifle dissent and silence critics on the social media platform. 

“In one conversation viewed by The Times, dozens of leaders decided to mute critics of Saudi Arabia’s military attacks on Yemen by reporting the messages to Twitter as ‘sensitive’,” the report said.

“Such reported posts are one of the things Twitter considers as signals when it decides to hide content from other users, blunting its impact,” the New York Times said.

The same article also alleges Twitter fired one of its employees in 2015 after the Saudi Arabian government approached that person to spy on the company on the country’s behalf.

So far, Twitter has removed the verified status, including the blue check mark, for at least two of the suspicious accounts.

Al Jazeera contacted Twitter about those accounts but did not receive a response prior to publication. Al Jazeera also contacted the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior for comment.

“Given the ever-expanding amount of evidence highlighting Saudi’s manipulation of Twitter, whether through moles in Twitter’s San Francisco HQ, or through massive troll armies, it is not improbable to wager that these accounts may have been obtained by some nefarious entity for some sinister purpose,” Jones wrote in his analysis on the takeover of the verified accounts.

The tactical goal is to get hashtags which support the monarchy to trend, either locally or globally. Once a hashtag trends, far more users will see it

Ben Nimmo

“While such a risky strategy would likely be found out at some point, it is also possible that there are numerous far more credible instances of verified accounts being stolen and used,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Often Saudi strategy is to manipulate Twitter en masse, as opposed to be concerned about the consequences of people finding individual accounts suspicious,” he said.

But, according to Nimmo, the effects of trying to manipulate Twitter in such large numbers might be minimal.

“The tactical goal is to get hashtags which support the monarchy to trend, either locally or globally. Once a hashtag trends, far more users will see it,” said Nimmo. 

“At best, they’ll click on it to see the message; at the very least, it can have a subliminal effect on perception. The challenge is that Twitter isn’t a vacuum.”

Buying accounts from hackers

Last year, Twitter suspended its verification programme because many users interpreted the blue mark that accompanies verified accounts as an endorsement by the company.

As a result, access to verified accounts has become coveted among hackers, who sell the login information online.

“Verified accounts are a particularly attractive target for fraudsters, because the assumption is that it is a legitimate account,” said Nimmo.

According to Jones, it is not unlikely that the pro-Saudi operatives bought access to these pages on one of the many forums where access to hacked accounts is sold.

“Mashable did a report saying people would pay upwards of $1,200 for a verified Instagram account,” he said.



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Israeli ‘centrism’ and what it means for Palestinians | Israel

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With less than two months until Israel holds an election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s ruling Likud party is maintaining a strong lead in the opinion polls.

His main rival – and currently the only plausible threat to another Likud-dominated government – is former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz and his newly-formed party Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience).

In his bid to be prime minister, Gantz – whose party is currently predicted to pick up around 19-24 seats in the 120-seat parliament – is branding himself as a ‘centrist’, hoping to replicate (or better) the success of similar such candidates in recent elections.

‘New centrists’

Edo Konrad, deputy editor of +972 Magazine, an independent blog, told Al Jazeera that the dominant form of Israeli centrism today is found in a group of “new centrists” who emerged in the wake of the 2011 social justice protests, including Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, “and to a certain degree Benny Gantz”.

“They are less keen on dealing with the Palestinian issue and instead want to focus on socioeconomic issues, such as the cost of living,” Konrad added.

Some observers identify a conscious effort by centrist parties and politicians “not to look ‘left’, so they de-emphasise the conflict”, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has advised five national campaigns in Israel.

Gantz is also hoping to take advantage of the “anyone but Netanyahu” sentiment among voters. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, describing Gantz’s maiden speech as a combination of “hawkish militarism…and meaningless platitudes”, pointed out that for many voters, “the one and only measure of a candidate is whether he is theoretically capable of defeating the prime minister”.

For Netanyahu’s critics, as Shalev’s Haaretz colleague Noa Landau pointed out, Gantz’s candidacy is about “a return to statesmanship…the war on corruption, defending state institutions, particularly those dealing with rule of law, defending culture and the media; separation of church and state; and of major importance, modesty and a spirit of optimism instead of foulness and aggressiveness”.





An election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv shows Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump [File: Ariel Schalit/AP]

But what could Gantz’s brand of centrism mean for Palestinians? If his first speech is anything to go by, the answer is a familiar one.

“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border,” Gantz declared. “We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.”

Such a vision – one where Israel remains in effective control of the entirety of the occupied West Bank but without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship – sounds not only similar to the status quo, but also like Netanyahu’s own proposal for a Palestinian “state-minus”.

Differences ‘meaningless for Palestinians’

Gantz’s approach to the Palestinians is also consistent with that of centrist rival Lapid. Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, told Al Jazeera that “from a Palestinian perspective”, the differences between Netanyahu and the likes of Lapid are “meaningless”.

“Lapid is a proponent of a two-state settlement, but his vision of a Palestinian state has little in common with the concept of statehood as generally understood,” Rabbani said, arguing that Lapid sees negotiations with the Palestinians as a “tactical exercise, the purpose of which is to normalise relations with the Arab states”.

Last year, Gantz told an interviewer that West Bank settlements such as the so-called Gush Etzion “bloc”, as well as Ariel, Ofra and Elkana “will remain forever“. On 11 February, Gantz visited Kfar Etzion settlement, hailing it and other colonies as “a strategic, spiritual and settlement asset”.

Gantz’s running mate, former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has already broadcast a campaign video from a settlement, declaring “our right to settle every part of the Land of Israel”.





Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv [File: Oded Balilty/AP]

It comes as no surprise to Palestinian analysts. “If there’s one thing Israeli politicians are agreed on, it is that there will be no independent sovereign Palestinian state,” Nadia Hijab, board president of al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Moreover, the settler movement is so strong that any Israeli seeking power will support it whatever noises they may make about removing settlements,” she added.

‘Permanent control’

For human rights activists in Israel, the politics of Gantz’s “centrism” is a grim reminder of what B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad called “a clear truth”: that “there is an across-the-board consensus for Israel to retain control over its Palestinian subjects in the occupied territories”.

While Gantz’s candidacy is mainly being discussed in terms of his likelihood of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, he may also bring Hosen L’Yisrael into a Likud-led coalition as a senior minister.

According to Scheindlin, such a scenario “is absolutely possible and even likely – Gantz has said as much with his code phrase that he won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu if [subtext: and only if] he is indicted”.

“A new party wants more than anything to enter government, to gain experience and hold ministerial portfolios,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s exactly what Yair Lapid did in 2013 and makes sense – such a party hopes to be the next in line if Likud ever falls, especially since Gantz is consistently polling second place.”

Konrad made reference to the 2016 talks between then-Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu over forming a unity government, but also noted how, for now, Netanyahu has indicated that he is not interested in a coalition with Gantz.

For Rabbani, a government led by someone like Gantz would pose a challenge for the Palestinians. “The West will respond as if he has no history and that his previously espoused positions were not serious statements of intent, and embrace him as the messiah and prince of peace,” he said.

“If the Palestinians decide to play along with this charade until it is exposed,” he continued, “much as they did with other Israeli leaders since the early 1990s, they will get nowhere and once again pull the short end of the stick.”

Indeed, vague remarks by Gantz that Israel does not seek to “rule over others” were greeted by an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with cautious optimism.

“Any attempt by the Palestinian ‘leadership’ to read positive signals on Israeli lips is yet another sign of their bankruptcy,” Hijab told Al Jazeera, “and their powerlessness to achieve their stated goal of an independent Palestinian state.”



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Dutch Palestinians remain disappointed after birthplace ruling | News

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The man whose case led to the Netherlands recognising the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces, said he is still dissatisfied because the new ruling avoids the word Palestine and therefore fails to acknowledge his identity.

Emiel de Bruijne, who was born in East Jerusalem in 1992 and has Dutch citizenship, sued the Netherlands and took his case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seeking his right to register as Palestinian-born, instead of Israeli.

On February 9, in a widely celebrated move, the Dutch government announced it would begin to recognise the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces for Palestinians born in the country from May 15, 1948, onwards, after the establishment of Israel when the British Mandate officially ended.

“This decision means that we are no longer registered as being born in Israel. That is a step in the right direction but by avoiding the word Palestine, our identity is still denied,” De Bruijne told Al Jazeera.






Israel opens ‘apartheid road’ in occupied West Bank

In the ruling, published by the Dutch Interior Ministry, a footnote maintains the development “is also in agreement with the Dutch position that Israel has no sovereignty over these territories and its position on the non-recognition of the ‘State of Palestine’.”

Raymond Knops, Interior Ministry state secretary, said the new category reflects the Oslo Peace Accords terms signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s, and later the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

De Bruijne, the son of a Dutch father and Palestinian mother, moved with his family to the Netherlands when he was nine.

He has been trying to change his registration since 2010 to secure his “right to Palestinian identity”.

“Identity is very important to Palestinians. The administrative aspect is, therefore, a key issue. It says something about how we are seen as Palestinians,” he said, adding that he will not be happy until the words “Palestinian Territories” are added to the Dutch civil registry.

“The term is internationally accepted, and various Dutch government websites already use it,” he said.

De Bruijne lost his appeal in 2018 to the Council of State – which advises the Dutch government and serves as a top administrative court – but the Council nonetheless advised the Interior Ministry to amend the registration.

In spite of repeated requests, the registration was not changed, so De Bruijne decided to file the case at the ECHR.

Despite the recent announcement, De Bruijne’s lawyer Tom de Boer told Al Jazeera that he would continue to pursue the case at the ECHR.

Other Dutch Palestinians were also left disappointed.

Ghada Zeidan, De Bruijne’s mother, chairs Palestine Link, an organisation that promotes Palestinian interests in the Netherlands.





Palestinians have fought a decades-long battle for self-determination and recognition [Darren Whiteside/Reuters]

“In our opinion, it’s a bureaucratic solution, completely decoupled from the human interest of the issue. It feels like the Netherlands is setting aside our Palestinian identity,” she said.

She noted that the Netherlands includes other non-recognised areas in the civil registry, such as Western Sahara, Taiwan and the Panama Canal Zone.

Previously, as well as Israel, “unknown” was an option as a birthplace – it was added in 2014 after Palestinians protested against putting “Israel” down.

Dutch activist Ibrahim al-Baz is one of 5,000 Palestinians in Vlaardingen, a city near Rotterdam with the largest Palestinian community.

“My Palestinian nationality means everything to me. It’s my right to self-determination which is now denied,” said al-Baz, a first-generation Palestinian who arrived in the sixties.

More than 130 countries including Bulgaria, India and Nigeria, and the UN General Assembly, recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, but most European Union members do not.

Marcel Brus, professor of public international law at the University of Groningen, said that the Palestinian nationality is still being denied but called the decision to recognise the birthplaces as an “acceptable solution”.

“Although the declaration of the State of Palestine took place in 1989, its recognition as a state according to international law at that time was very controversial. Therefore, I believe that recognising Gaza and the occupied West Bank as birthplace for people born around that time or before it is an acceptable compromise,” he told Al Jazeera.

However, Brus said the recognition of the State of Palestine has advanced since, and that it would be reasonable to give children who are born now the choice to opt for “Palestinian Territories” or “Palestine” as their place of birth.



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Macron condemns anti-Semitic abuse at ‘yellow vest’ protest | News

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French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned anti-Semitic abuse directed towards a prominent intellectual by “yellow vest” protesters on Saturday.

“These abuses are the absolute negation of what makes France a great nation. We won’t tolerate them”, Macron said on Twitter.

Alain Finkielkraut was walking on the fringes of a demonstration in central Paris on Saturday when a group of “yellow vests” started insulted him with offensive remarks such as “dirty Zionist” and “France is ours” according to a video broadcast by Yahoo News.

“I felt absolute hatred and, unfortunately, this is not the first time,” the French writer and philosopher told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. He expressed relief that police intervened.

Finkielkraut has expressed his solidarity and sympathy with the “yellow vest” protesters from the outset but in an interview published Saturday in Le Figaro, he criticised the leaders of the movement, saying “arrogance has changed sides”. 

Saturday’s incident triggered a wave of condemnation and messages of support for the philosopher. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said it was “simply intolerable” while the leader of the Republican opposition party, Laurent Wauquiez, denounced the “abject idiots.”

Ian Brossat, chief French Communist Party candidate for the European Parliament, said “We can hate Finkielkraut’s ideas”, but “nothing can justify attacking him as a Jew”. 

Finkielkraut, who is seen as having pro-establishment beliefs, has since January 2016 been a member of the French Academy, the prestigious institution in charge of defining the French language.

Rising anti-semitism in France 

Sebastien Lecornu, the junior foreign minister, pointed the finger at “yellow vest” protesters for the latest offences.

The “yellow vest” protests began three months ago over fuel taxes but quickly grew into a broader anti-government rebellion fuelled by anger at Macron, with some using anti-Semitic tropes to refer to his former job as an investment banker.

“Conspiracy theorists are very present among their ranks,” Lecornu said, before referring to a survey released on Monday.

The Ifop poll said nearly half of the “yellow vests” believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot”, as well as the “Great Replacement” theory, which posits that immigration is being organised deliberately “to replace Europe’s native populations”.

But the rise in anti-Semitic acts in France predates the “yellow vest” demonstrations. A recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti in and around Paris has stoked fresh concerns about an increase in hate crimes against Jews. 

Fourteen political parties on Thursday launched a call for action against anti-Semitism after the interior ministry reported a 74 percent increase in anti-Jewish acts last year.

During the latest episodes, the memorial for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was kidnapped and killed in 2006, was desecrated when a tree planted in his memory was chopped down.

In addition, mailboxes decorated with portraits of the late Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and a European Parliament president who died in 2017, were daubed with swastikas.

The ‘yellow vest’ movement 

The “yellow vests” were protesting for the 14th consecutive Saturday, but according to French media quoting the interior minister, the number of people protesting across the country has decreased.

Around 41,500 protesters nationwide turned out Saturday, some 10,000 less than the previous week, with 5,000 in Paris.

In the capital, tensions mounted as the more than four-hour march ended at Les Invalides, with projectiles thrown at police, some by masked individuals dressed in black, a uniform for the ultra-leftist Black blocs.

Lines of riot police used tear gas and an impressive backup, a special horse brigade and water cannon – apparently not used – to force the agitated crowd to disperse.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said 15 people were detained for questioning, far fewer than the scores detained in earlier, larger demonstrations that degenerated into scattered rioting and destruction.

However, the increasingly divided movement is having trouble maintaining momentum and support from the public that initially massively backed protesters, polls showed.



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