Palestinians use online activism to forge new narrative

A narrow and dilapidated street lined with modest makeshift buildings. A tangle of electric cables hangs like a giant spider’s web between the houses. We are in the Burj al-Barajneh camp, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Murals depicting the former head 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 during the Nakba, in Arabic for “the Catastrophe”, a term used to designate the forced expulsion of local populations following the creation of the State of Israel.

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

Since the beginning of May, Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories, in Israel, in Gaza or abroad, have witnessed unprecedented mobilizations: “We are following, living, the uprising of thousands of Palestinians and the support received. from all over the world after seeing the Israeli crackdown. Our hope was restored in just a few weeks, ”said Rami. “And it’s thanks to social networks!

Reclaiming the story

Noor sits in a cafe in Ramallah, West Bank, sipping a cappuccino. The 24-year-old Palestinian woman who looks like a modern worker doesn’t 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 said Equal times. Some of their names are 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 publish videos about the violence of the Israeli security forces and settlers.

But “the uprising started with Mohammed and Muna al-Kurd,” says Laura Albast of the Washington branch of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an independent, transnational grassroots movement. The al-Kurd family, who live in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, is one of the several families threatened with eviction from their homes after the Israeli courts ruled that the houses should be turned 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 PYM, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, relayed their message,” she said. Equal times.

Protests are on the increase and Israeli repression is getting harsher in Jerusalem.

“The world is seeing live footage of Israeli police attack worshipers in al-Aqsa mosque and then the Israeli army razes international media buildings in Gaza. It arouses a lot of emotion, ”adds Albast.

Every day, photos and names of Palestinian families killed in the bombings are shared widely, with details of their ages, occupations and lives in Gaza. By seizing the means of communication at their disposal, the Palestinians are able to present their side of the story. According to Albast: “In the past, only the mainstream media reported on the conflict, and that created a 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 cases of 86 Palestinian families. threatened with eviction in the district of Silwan of East Jerusalem.

Increasingly organized activism

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

Social media platforms have always been an essential tool of expression and allow escape from everyday 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 of expression freed from the shackles of traditional political currents, in which the younger generations are no longer truly reflected. Equally important is the fact that they also allow the renewal of family ties severed by 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 since the opening of the 3G network in the West Bank in 2018 (until then banned by Israel, which cited security reasons). People are starting to master the digital tools at their disposal and use them to educate the world about the occupation. Already at the end of 2017, a video of a Palestinian teenager from the West Bank, Ahed Tamimi, beating an Israeli soldier who entered her home, went viral. The girl was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison after the video was shown.

But today, “the use of social networks has intensified”, Ines Abdel Razek, director of advocacy at Rabet, a platform that promotes digital initiatives related to the defense of Palestinian rights, says Equal times. “Civil society initiatives and solidarity campaigns are better organized”.

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

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

According to Abaher Elsaka, a Palestinian sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank: “Palestinians use simple, recognizable slogans in English and short videos. They also have the support of influential figures, 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 adapt to the battle of images.

Follow a universal and decolonial narrative

Activists on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are trying to reverse the traditional discourse on the Palestinian question. 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, in mid-May, activists called for a shift in the vocabulary of the conflict in their digital narrative.

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

This new story touches a wider audience, according to researcher Leila Seurat: “For a long time the prerogative of Arab nationalism, the Palestinian cause was taken up by the left in the 1960s and 1970s, then by anti-imperialist and anti-globalization activists. Today it attracts those who fight against all forms of discrimination and draws inspiration from intersectional and post-colonial theories.

Like other recent movements in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, this modern intifada has no identified leader. Rather, it is the crystallization of the anger of a young population without representatives. “A lot of young people cannot count on the Palestinian Authority,” says Abdel Razek. In April, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, canceled 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 held in 2006). Palestinians are also appalled by the fratricidal conflict between factions of Hamas and Fatah since 2007. In the absence of political unity, “civil society has had to organize,” says Abdel Razek – a civil society that prefers promote and believe in cultural unity, beyond partisan divisions.

A new era for Palestinian mobilization

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

Trade unions have always played an important role in mobilizing civil society and have been at the heart of the call to boycott 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 defense of social rights, because “the Israeli occupation leads to numerous violations of the rights of Palestinian workers,” she said. said Equal times.

However, involvement in the trade union movement is on the decline, as sociologist Elsaka explains: “There is a general crisis in 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 mainstream parties: “Neither Fatah nor Hamas,” he says. Equal times. He is not unionized either. But he took part in the strike: “It was important to me,” he says. And Amir too, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who “does not vote” but says Equal times that he “demonstrated in Haifa on May 18”.

According to many observers, after the recent sequence of events, the Palestinian national movement appears to have entered a new era. Some people wonder if this is not the start of a new Intifada? For Firas, “the future is uncertain”, but “Palestinian unity is already a great victory”.

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