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Families of Israelis and Americans killed in recent Palestinian attacks are suing Facebook for more than $1 billion (£770 million), accusing the social media giant of allowing Hamas to use its platforms to incite violence.
The case is the largest of a raft of lawsuits that could potentially set precedent about Facebook’s responsibilities for monitoring – and in some cases censoring – the billions of posts shared on its sites everyday.
The lawsuit was filed in New York by the families of four American citizens who were killed by Palestinians in the last two years, including a US army veteran stabbed to death in March and a baby killed in car ramming attack in Jerusalem in 2014.
The case alleges that Facebook has violated US anti-terror laws by knowingly allowing Hamas, a designated terrorist group, to use its platforms “as a tool for engaging in terrorism”.
“Facebook must now be held accountable for its role in facilitating Hamas’s terrorism,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer who heads the Shurat HaDin centre, which organised the case.
Ms Darshan Leitner argued that US banks which knowingly allowed terror groups to have bank accounts would be prosecuted and that Facebook should face the same sanctions for allowing terror groups to have social media accounts.
For each of the victims, lawyers try to show how Hamas used Facebook to incite violence against Jews and Israelis.
They list how in the weeks leading up to the murder of Richard Lakin, a 76-year-old American-Israeli teacher, Hamas-linked Facebook accounts posted calls for an “intifada”, or uprising, against Israel.
Hamas accounts also praised the two attackers after they stabbed and shot Mr Lakin to death on a Jerusalem bus, although it is not clear either of the young assailants had formal links to Hamas.
The lawsuit is one of several working its way through the American courts, which charge that internet companies are knowingly allowing terror groups to use their technology.
A suit filed in June by the father of one of the US victims of the 2015 Paris attack accuses Facebook, Twitter and Google and of providing “material support” to the Islamic State.
The Shurat HaDin centre filed a similar lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of 20,000 Israelis last year, demand that the company stop allowing videos that incite violence or glorify attacks.
James Grimmelman, a professor of internal law at Cornell University, said the case against Facebook was probably unlikely to succeed but could still have an impact on the debate over terror groups’ use of the internet.
“I don’t think it’s likely to win but even it doesn’t the goal is to put more pressure on Facebook to remove some of these pages,” Mr Grimmelman said.
To succeed in their suit, the plaintiffs would have to prove not only that Facebook knowingly allowed Hamas to use its services but that its posts were directly linked to the terror attacks cited.
They would also that Hamas’s internet activities were not protected under America’s free speech laws, he said.
The case – which combines issues of terrorism, free speech, and big business – could ultimately be settled before the US Supreme Court.
An Israeli public relations firm acting for Facebook in Israel said the company “does not respond on any issue currently subject to legal procedure”.
A Hamas spokesman told Reuters that it hoped Facebook would “resist this pressure” and said Israeli politicians had also posted content revelling in the deaths of Palestinians.