The WhatsApp messaging app has blocked the accounts of over a dozen far-right activists associated with the Otzma Yehudit party, among them the account of the wife of its leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir and that of Bentzi Gopstein, who heads the extremist anti-LGBT Lehava group.
Sources in Otzma Yehudit, now a faction within the Religious Zionism party, told Channel 12 news on Monday that the activists did not receive any advance warning of the action against them, and insisted they had not been circulating hate material or calls to violence.
According to some Hebrew media reports, as many as 30 accounts were blocked.
In a post to his Facebook page, Ben Gvir wrote Tuesday that he found his wife, Ayala, “in bitter tears” that morning after she discovered that the closure of her WhatsApp account had also deleted backups of her final exchanges with her late sister.
“This is the last memory she has left of her,” Ben Gvir wrote. “WhatsApp, shame on you!”
The Lehava group said in a statement that “another red line has been crossed. They are also beginning to intrude on our privacy. We will not be silent, and we are going to fight.”
It was not clear who had initiated the account closures.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, said in a response to Channel 12 that it “suspends accounts that do not comply with our policies in order to prevent infringement in accordance with our policies or local law,” but did not give any specific information about the Otzma Yehudit activists’ accounts.
The Justice Ministry told Channel 12 that it was not behind the request to close down the accounts on WhatsApp, although it noted that it had made similar requests to other social media platforms.
MK Ben Gvir on Monday sent a letter to the director-general of the Communications Ministry demanding that he take action against Facebook. Ben Gvir, a lawyer by profession, also said he intends to file a lawsuit for financial damage caused to those whose accounts were closed.
Speaking in the Knesset plenum, Ben Gvir declared the developments were “a new phase in censoring and escalating the impact on political activists.”
Ben Gvir is a disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane and head of the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, which merged into the Religious Zionism alliance before the election in a move chaperoned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He spent many hours in court as a defendant in his youth before passing the bar and going on to represent ultra-nationalist Jews accused of perpetrating racially motivated attacks against Arab Israelis and Palestinians.
Recently, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai reportedly accused Ben Gvir of being responsible for recent rioting between the Jews and Arabs, saying in a briefing that he was “fanning the flames” of unrest.
Earlier this month, in the midst of the violence, Ben Gvir ceremoniously moved his office to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where there has been international outcry due to Israeli plans to evict Palestinian families and hand over the homes to Jews who had proven their pre-1948 ownership. He later removed the makeshift setup.
Gopstein’s Lehava group opposes intermarriage and assimilation of Jews, as well as LGBT rights, and tries to stifle any public activity by non-Jews in Israel, including coexistence events. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have tried to designate it as a terrorist group.
In the early days of the recent intercommunal rioting, Lehava organized an ultranationalist march to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, which was a hotspot of violent clashes between East Jerusalem Palestinians and police.