For Palestinian Americans and activists, doxxing is nothing new

4 mins read

Before college, Fouad Abu-Hijleh, 25, did not know of a world where it was wrong to support Palestinians.

Abu-Hijleh is the descendant of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when after Israel was created roughly 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by armed Jewish groups in what Palestinians have since called al-Nakba or “the catastrophe.” His family eventually settled in neighboring Jordan, where he grew up with descendants of other Palestinian refugees.

But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Abu-Hijleh found his name on an anonymously run site dedicated to blacklisting those it believes to be anti-Israel or antisemitic, after he said he was quoted in a news article despite requesting his name not be used. CNN is not naming the site because it reveals the identities of students and other individuals without their consent.

He said he was constantly looking over his shoulder while applying to medical school and has not visited the West Bank since then in fear of extended interrogations and trouble at the border because of the page.

Nor is he alone in finding his personal information detailed for the world to see: This week, a billboard truck drove near Harvard University’s campus displaying the names and photos of Harvard students whose organizations signed a statement blaming Israel alone for the deadly attacks by Hamas. A conservative nonprofit said it organized the truck featuring the virtual billboards with students’ names and images under a banner that reads: “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

Palestinian human rights activists say doxxing is nothing new. They told CNN they’ve feared losing jobs and endured psychological harm for advocating for fair treatment of Palestinians under occupation – or for simply being Palestinian themselves.

Doxxing is the release of personal information without a person’s consent, often with malicious intent, according to the International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication.

The website posted photos of Abu-Hijleh he hadn’t uploaded to the internet himself, his career history, and even the name he goes by on Facebook. His page kept updating, as if someone was tracking his every move. It continues to be one of the first pages that pops up when you Google his name.

“It was a shock to read, especially as a private person,” Abu-Hijleh said. “To see so much written about me on a website that is so filled with hate and misinformation, it was very disheartening.”

CNN has reached out to the website for comment.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a pressure cooker on college campuses. But tensions have reached new levels following the attacks last week by Hamas, which killed more than 1,300 people in Israel. Israeli air strikes in Gaza killed at least 1,900 people and trapped Palestinians, including Palestinian Americans, in the territory; Israel warned some 1.1 million people to evacuate to southern Gaza, though the UN described the order as “impossible.”

“Doxxing and blacklists have for years now been a major tactic of Israel advocacy groups to suppress pro-Palestine political expression and raise the stakes of engaging in Palestine organizing and advocacy,” Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, an organization that provides legal aid to those who support Palestinian rights, said.

“It’s extremely distressing to folks,” Saba said. “People do get death threats, personal threats, and indeed negative consequences in terms of employment.”

Lena Ghrama, a City University of New York School of Law student, had her photos and tweets published on the same website, even though her social media has been private for years without a profile picture.

“They even posted an hour-long protest that I went to, and I don’t go to protests very often. But the one time that I did last year, they managed to find me and they went to the exact timestamp that I was at,” Ghrama said.

Ghrama, who is Yemeni-American with Jewish lineage, grew up in a mixed Brooklyn community.

“We coexist with one another,” she said. This is strictly a humanitarian issue that I feel like is my responsibility to speak on.”

Harvard Hillel, the university’s Jewish student organization, condemned the billboard truck from the conservative nonprofit and attempts to intimidate signatories. Harvard Executive Vice President Meredith Weenick said the school does “not condone or ignore threats or acts of harassment or violence.”

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance says antisemitism could manifest as “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Activists contended speaking up about Israeli policies should not be conflated with antisemitism.

One Harvard graduate student of Palestinian descent said they were first doxxed after speaking out about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in undergrad, a boycott movement that a bipartisan group of lawmakers has said is an effort to delegitimize Israel. They said they then received messages calling them a terrorist as they applied to graduate school. CNN is not revealing the student’s name due to safety concerns.

Despite the reality of harassment for Palestinian Americans, the student said, the current sense of hysteria on the Harvard campus is unprecedented. After the letter condemning Israel was made public, for example, billionaire hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman and several other business leaders demanded Harvard University release the names of student signatories so they would know not to hire them.

“They’re not allowing us room to grieve what’s happening back home,” they said, calling the harassment toward students Islamophobic and criticizing the Harvard administration for not saying more. “I’m dealing with this backlash and back home people are dying.”

The same floating billboard tactic was used at the University of California, Berkeley, and was also sent to students’ family homes, the organization behind the Harvard truck confirmed to CNN. A controversy at Berkeley’s law school went viral after a student group’s bylaw banned Zionist supporters from speaking at its events, resulting in an intense debate on campus free speech and an investigation by the Department of Education, the Daily Cal reported.

In June, after pressure from students and organizations saying they were being harassed, UC Berkeley Law Dean Berkeley law dean Erwin Chemerinsky published an open letter condemning the doxxing site, saying “I may disagree with some of my students’ views on specific issues, it is my firm belief that” the site “should not be used as a resource to evaluate students’ qualifications for hiring.” He added that students getting barred from employment because of the site would have a “grave effect of chilling speech and stifling the exchange of ideas on campus.”

Saba said sites like this fall under the US’s strong free speech protections, as long they don’t cross legal thresholds such as inciting direct harm and defamation.

Abu-Hijleh decided he is fine with his name on the website. It asks those who want their name removed to give them a letter where they denounce antisemitism and organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and BDS.

“They want to humiliate you either way, by keeping your page up or by making you denounce your own cause,” Abu-Hijleh said.

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