Palestinians are using online activism to forge a new narrative

Palestinians are using online activism to forge a new narrative

Social networks have disrupted Palestinian activism and changed the image of the conflict internationally, online, and on the ground. The rallying cry ‘Palestinian Lives Matter’, inspired by the US slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, features on a banner during a demonstration in support of Palestine in Toulouse, France, on 15 May 2021.

(NurPhoto via AFP/Alain Pitton)
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This story has been translated from French.

A narrow, ramshackle street lined with modest makeshift constructions. A tangle of electric cables hangs like a giant spider web between the houses. We are in the Burj al-Barajneh camp, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Murals depicting the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, decorate some of the buildings. The population here is mainly made up of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 at the time of the Nakba, Arabic for ‘the Catastrophe’, the term used to refer to the forced expulsion of local populations following the establishment of the State of Israel.

Leaning against a wall, Rami, a 25-year-old Palestinian who was born and raised in this camp in Lebanon and has never seen the land of his ancestors, scrolls through videos on his smartphone: “This is al-Lidd [Lod, in Israel], ’48 Palestinians [Palestinians who live within the borders of the state founded in 1948] rebelling against the Israeli police. It was live on Instagram, something we have never seen before,” he tells Equal Times.

Since the beginning of May, Palestinians, be they in the occupied territories, in Israel, in Gaza or abroad, have been witnessing unprecedented mobilisations: “We are following, live, the uprising of thousands of Palestinians and the support received from people all around the world after seeing the Israeli repression. Our hope has been restored within just a few weeks,” says Rami. “And it’s thanks to social media!”

Reappropriating the narrative

Noor sits in a café in Ramallah, in the West Bank, sipping a cappuccino. The 24-year-old Palestinian with the look of a modern working woman does not miss a thing about the Palestinian uprising: “I follow what is happening on Instagram, on [the profiles of] Eye on Palestine, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), and thanks to the activists,” she tells Equal Times. Some of their names are becoming increasingly well-known: Rami Younis, who lives in Israel, and Mariam Afifi and Tarek Bakri, both from East Jerusalem, are now followed by thousands of people. They post videos about the violence of the Israeli security forces and settlers.

But the uprising started with Mohammed and Muna al-Kurd, among others. The al-Kurd family, who live in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, are one of several families facing eviction from their homes after Israeli courts ruled that the houses should be handed over to Israeli settlers. “At the end of April, Mohammed and Muna launched the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, and various movements supporting the Palestinian cause, such as the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign relayed their message,” says Laura Albast of the PYM, an independent, transnational grassroots movement based in Washington DC.

Demonstrations are on the rise and Israeli repression is ever harsher in Jerusalem.

“The world is seeing live footage of Israeli police attacking worshippers in the al-Aqsa mosque and then the Israeli army flattening international media buildings in Gaza. It stirs up a lot of emotion,” adds Albast.

Every day, the photos and the names of Palestinian families killed in the bombings are widely shared, with details of their ages, their occupations, and their lives in Gaza. By seizing the means of communication available to them, Palestinians are able to present their side of the story. According to Albast: “In the past, only the traditional media talked about the conflict, and that created distance with the victims. Now the Palestinians themselves can show what they are going through.” At the end of May, a new online campaign was launched, #SaveSilwan, exposing the case of 86 Palestinian families threatened with eviction in the Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.

Increasingly well-organised activism

In a context where official communication is gridlocked on all sides, between the propaganda, the military censorship, and the media outlets controlled by political leaders, Palestinians are now turning to the internet for most of their information.

Social media platforms have always been a vital tool for expression and are an escape from day-to-day life under occupation, but also from the abuses of the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, which are not exempt from acts of violence and corruption. They constitute spaces for expression that are free from the shackles of the traditional political currents, in which younger generations no longer really find themselves reflected. Equally important is the fact that they also enable the renewal of family ties broken by the restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli policy of dividing the Palestinian territories.

A Palestine 2.0 has been emerging for several years, and even more so since the opening of the 3G network in the West Bank in 2018 (until then banned by Israel, which cited security reasons). People are beginning to master the digital tools available to them and to use them to inform the world about the occupation. Already at the end of 2017, a video of a Palestinian teenager from the West Bank, Ahed Tamimi, hitting an Israeli soldier who was entering her home, went viral. The young girl was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison after the broadcast of the video.

But now, “the use of social media networks has intensified,” Ines Abdel Razek, director of advocacy at Rabet, a platform that promotes digital initiatives related to the defence of Palestinian rights, tells Equal Times. “Civil society initiatives and solidarity campaigns are better organised”.

Among the best educated in the Arab world, the young people of Palestine are also connected to a global diaspora. Many young Palestinians have been able to study abroad. They speak English and are familiar with Western codes. Abdel Razek, who studied in France, is one such example.

Those engaged in online activism are very much inspired by US activism, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2020, the hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter went viral. It is used to denounce the silencing of acts of Israeli repression against the Palestinian population. The desire to name Palestinian victims was also inspired by the #SayHerName movement launched in 2015 to raise awareness about the African-American women killed by the police.

According to Abaher Elsaka, a Palestinian sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank: “Palestinians use recognisable, simple slogans in English and short videos. They also draw on the support of influential personalities, such as the Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid.” The messages on both sides of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are powerful. The narrative on the Israeli side is struggling to adjust to the battle of images.

Following a universal and decolonial narrative

Activists on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are trying to reverse the traditional narrative on the Palestinian issue. For them, it is not an equal conflict between two countries: Palestine and Israel. It is the struggle of an oppressed people, the Palestinians, to win their freedom against an oppressor, the State of Israel. As the war in Gaza raged on, in mid-May, activists were calling for a change of vocabulary about the conflict in their digital narrative.

According to the IMEU, we should no longer be talking of “clashes” and “both sides” but of “apartheid” and “state-sanctioned violence”. The online stories are challenging the reader: “Are you progressive except for Palestine?” The Palestinian struggle now seems to have shifted the narrative from that of national resistance to one of universal human rights. It seeks to echo the struggles of Black Americans and Black South Africans during Apartheid.

This new narrative reaches a wider audience, according to researcher Leila Seurat: “Long the preserve of Arab nationalism, the Palestinian cause was taken up by the left in the 1960s and 1970s, then by anti-imperialist and alter-globalisation activists. Today, it draws those fighting against all forms of discrimination and is inspired by intersectionality and post-colonial theories.”

As with other recent movements in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, this modern intifada has no identified leader. It is the crystallisation, rather, of the anger of a young population without representatives. “Many young people can’t rely on the Palestinian Authority,” says Abdel Razek. In April, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, cancelled the Palestinian elections scheduled for the end of May.

This decision created great frustration among young Palestinians who wanted to vote for the first time (the last elections were in 2006). Palestinians are also dismayed by the fratricidal conflict that has been waged between Hamas and Fatah factions since 2007. In the absence of political unity, “civil society has had to organise itself,” says Abdel Razek – a civil society that prefers to promote and believe in cultural unity, beyond partisan divisions.

A new era for Palestinian mobilisation

Social media is not the only platform for mobilisation. To denounce Israeli repression in East Jerusalem and Gaza, the Higher Monitoring Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, which has provided extra-parliamentary representation for the Israeli Arab population since the early 1980s, called for a general strike on 18 May. Supported by all political parties and trade unions, it was followed by Palestinians in the occupied territories, those living in Israel, and Palestinian refugees, particularly those in Jordan and Lebanon. A mobilisation on this scale had not been seen since the strike of 30 March 1976, organised against the confiscation of Palestinian land by Israel in Galilee.

Trade unions have always played an important role in mobilising civil society, and were central to the call for a boycott of Israeli products. According to Rana Shaheen, head of the international department of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, the struggle for the Palestinian cause is closely linked to the defence of social rights, as “the Israeli occupation leads to many violations of Palestinian workers’ rights,” she tells Equal Times.

However, involvement in the trade union movement is in decline, as sociologist Elsaka explains: “There is a general crisis in the unions and political parties.” Today, young Palestinians are less partisan than older generations, but they still have a strong political and social conscience. Like many of his generation, Firas, a 21-year-old salesman from Jenin in the northern West Bank, does not feel represented by the traditional parties: “Neither Fatah nor Hamas,” he tells Equal Times. He is not a union member either. But he did take part in the strike: “It was important to me,” he says. And so did Amir, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who “does not vote” but tells Equal Times that he did “demonstrate in Haifa on 18 May”.

According to many observers, after the recent sequence of events, the Palestinian national movement seems to have entered a new era. Some wonder whether it may be the start of a new intifada? For Firas, “the future is uncertain,” but “Palestinian unity is already a great victory”.