Palestinian online advocacy countering Israeli propaganda

The rise of the internet has spawned a new generation and new forms of resistance to Israeli occupation. Yousef Helou looks at the growing role social media is playing in the fight against Israeli occupation.

Palestinian history has been subjected to distortion by Israel and its supporters since the days of the Nakba in 1948 — from the old notion that Palestine was a land without a people to today’s propaganda use of the term “self-defence” to justify an illegal military occupation’s killing of civilians.

Despite being colonised for seven decades, Palestinians say their narrative is not given equal space in Western media, which prefers to cite officials from the state of Israel.

The seven-decade Palestinian-Israeli conflict has taken a heavy toll on the Palestinian side. Everything has been politicised. Politics has become deep-rooted in the fabric of society. Social media platforms are used for socialising and for expressing political views, sharing statements, posting messages and breaking news in Arabic and English.

Applications such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, Whatsapp and Telegram enable Palestinians to break their geographical isolation and disseminate breaking news, information, photos and videos of events in a timely manner in an uncensored way not subject to Western editorial policy or certain guidelines. Palestinian citizen journalists and their online activism provide live commentary on international media outlets.

Thanks to the digital revolution and social media platforms, Palestinians are turning to a method with which they can try to redress the imbalance in traditional media reporting.

When media outlets quote official statements from the Israeli military, for example, Palestinians challenge the Israeli narrative by sharing photos, videos and witness statements of what took place.

Sometimes the online battles between pro-Palestinians and supporters of Israel are more ideological. Pro-Palestinian voices seek to counter Israel’s dehumanisation of Palestinians and show that they are simply yearning for freedom.

Palestinian online campaigns now aim to counter Israeli narratives and challenge Israeli trolls who spread inaccurate information and distorted facts. Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp are the main three tools in the hands of Palestinians.

The past few years have been a turning point in the struggle with the usage of these tools giving rise to a new phenomenon. 

First: Facebook

The most recent online campaign is called “Ihbid” (“Strike” in Arabic). Activists calling themselves the Electronic Army of Habed comment on Facebook and Twitter posts made by public pro-Israeli social media accounts.

They use the hashtag #Ihbid194, in reference to UN Resolution 194, which called for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel. The other significance of the number “194” is the bid of the Palestinian Authority to make Palestine the 194th member of the United Nations.

Ameen A’abed, one of the co-founders of Ihbid, said the group’s Facebook page has attracted some 26,000 followers and the main activity of the campaign is to dispel misinformation posted on pro-Israeli accounts.

“On May 15, we targeted the pages of 15 Israeli embassies around the world and embassies of countries that recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” said A’abed.

Another co-founder is Hassan al-Dawood, who said Ihbid volunteers are in the hundreds.

“Members of this electronic army are highly educated and many of them live outside [the Palestinian territories]. They are frustrated about Western media’s biased coverage in favour of Israel,” Dawood said.

The volunteers don’t always fight back with information. They have bombarded social media posts with photos of the Palestinian flag and other symbolic gestures.

“My account was disabled for three days by Facebook,” said Iman Mohammad. He suspects he was being reported to the social media giant by Israeli critics. “I was threatened five times by Israelis for my online activism and for being a member of this electronic army.”

Some volunteers said they went after posts by US President Donald Trump for his role in relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Our posts are polite. We do not use abusive language. We engage in discussions and support that with information, pictures, videos and links to articles. We were surprised to see Jews who are anti-Zionists support us in these online discussions,” said Ahmed Jouda, the head of the volunteer group.

Second: Twitter

The Palestinian leadership severed ties with Washington after Trump’s December 2017 announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Since then, Twitter has been the main communication channel between US and Israeli officials from one side and Palestinian officials on the other.

At the moment Twitter is the only means of communication between rival politicians from Israel/US and Palestine over the frozen Middle East peace process.

American, Israeli and Palestinian officials appear to be following Trump’s lead on how to behave on Twitter: Instead of being involved in secret peace talks behind closed doors, they are now engaged in open public relations warfare.

The chances that US President Donald Trump will be able to broker a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis appear dimmer by the day. Trump, however, does seem to be having another kind of influence on all the parties involved: Twitter spats.

Examples of this digital diplomatic offensive are hard to miss.

In February, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief peace negotiator, tweeted: “The US so-called peace team not only added to the separation of Gaza from the West Bank but has destroyed any chance of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, responded by tweeting: “Saeb: I saw your many tweets today. Your fears/emotions show — that won’t help Palestinians. I don’t agree w/ your assertions & you have offered no realistic solutions. Time to get serious & use your intellect. Palestinians deserve it. My door is open — don’t waste more time.”

Greenblatt also took aim at Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, tweeting in April: “Basically, you’re saying: Give us the deal we demand or no deal. That’s consistent with Palestinian prior attempts. How has that worked out for Palestinians? Do you want to lead your people to opportunity & prosperity or just keep saying the same tired lines over & over again?”

Saeb: I saw your many tweets today. Your fears/emotions show – that won’t help Palestinians. I don’t agree w/ your assertions & you have offered no realistic solutions. Time to get serious & use your intellect. Palestinians deserve it. My door is open – don’t waste more time.

Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) February 6, 2019

Shtayyeh replied: “Any political initiative that does not call for ending Israeli occupation and establishing an independent and sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on the borders of 1967 with settling the refugees cause is not acceptable to the Palestinians.”

Any Political initiative that does not call for ending Israeli occupation and establishing an independent and sovereign Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital on the borders of 1967 with settling the refugees cause is not acceptable to the Palestinians.

Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh د. محمد اشتية (@DrShtayyeh) April 17, 2019

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee, is one of the most active Palestinian officials on Twitter. This has exposed her to attacks from pro-Israel trolls. “Once again: I have blocked & will continue to block Israeli propagandists to prevent them from gaining access to my account & using it to spread their distortions & lies. I will not expose my interlocutors & friends to their venom,” she tweeted in April.

Once again: I have blocked & will continue to block Israeli propagandists to prevent them from gaining access to my account & using it to spread their distortions & lies. I will not expose my interlocutors & friends to their venom. #FreePalestine

Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) April 29, 2019

Ashrawi criticised the US-sponsored conference on the Palestinian economy, scheduled for late June in Bahrain. Palestinian officials are boycotting the conference because they accuse the United States of seeking to impose its policies, which the Palestinians say favour Israel.

“So #JaredKushner disclosed to Al-Quds newspaper that Jordan, Egypt & Morocco will be attending the Bahrain ‘workshop’ & that their official declaration will be forthcoming! Strange spokesman indeed,” she tweeted on June 11.

So #JaredKushner disclosed to Al-Quds newspaper that Jordan, Egypt & Morocco will be attending the Bahrain “workshop,” & that their official declaration will be forthcoming!<br>Strange spokesperson indeed

Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) June 11, 2019

Other Palestinian officials active on Twitter include the ambassador to the United Kingdom Husam Zomlot, Palestinian president’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Hasan Al-Shikh, head of the general authority of civil affairs and member of the Fatah central committee, and former Gaza Health Minister Basem Naim, the only Hamas official tweeting in English.

Israeli officials have not stood idly by on Twitter. When they’re not attacking the Palestinian side themselves, Israeli officials often express support for their American counterparts in online spats with Palestinians.

Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Eli Ben-Dahan was vocal in his support for Trump’s decision to cut funding to the Palestinians and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. “Finally, the US President tells the Palestinians the truth. These Arabs have cheated the world for years. They took money from donor countries and instead of building a state, the leaders lined their own pockets,” he tweeted last year.

“On the governmental and official level, I do not think twitter or Facebook is conducive to helping the peace process because there can be great misinterpretation of what is said, however for activists there is a route to engaging with officials through Twitter, but it is politicians who can choose what to respond to them” Kamel Hawwash, British-Palestinian academic told The Arab Weekly

Such a high volume of Twitter spats among US, Israeli and Palestinian officials was unheard of before Trump’s presidency.

Twitter diplomacy has become the only means of communication. It’s not known for how long it’s going to last but as long as American and Israeli officials turn their backs on any meaningful negotiation for peace, war in the Twittersphere will continue.

Third: Whatsapp

Whatsapp newsgroups have become, for many Palestinians, the favourite tool to keep up to date with the breaking news around the clock. The practice took root during Israel’s 51-day onslaught on Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Local media companies created newsgroups encouraging the public to join them to receive breaking news in the form of notifications, be it texts, videos, photos or links to news articles. This trend replaced the short one-by-one text messages and long, often boring e-mail messages containing the unfolding stories, news releases and invitations to events.

“WhatsApp has dramatically surpassed Facebook and Twitter in being the fastest most practical medium in disseminating the news. It has many features such as recording audio messages, live video chat and most importantly it’s ad-free. It also can be used offline as long-term messages” said Khalid Safi, a social media expert.

Anyone from anywhere in the world can join WhatsApp newsgroups by asking the administrators to add their numbers. “With the busy life here, I do not have much time to surf news websites or watch TV, so the WhatsApp newsgroups provide me with what I need to know, without the hassle of reading long analytical pieces,” said Murad, a Palestinian who lives in London.

Because Gazans have been experiencing many hours of power outages a day for 12 years, this means their connection to WI-FI routers are often disrupted. The alternative is to buy relatively expensive data bundles from local cellular companies. Ironically this service is only available on G2 telecommunication technology. The upgrade to the third generation is subject to Israeli approval because it has the final say in allocating radio frequencies.

Those who live outside Gaza enjoy this free service, making followers feel they are on the ground experiencing the events when they forward notifications to each other.

WhatsApp groups are run on a voluntary basis. Those who have English-language followers translate the breaking news and share it on other social media platforms. Any member of the group from different geographical locations can share and send or add any piece of information related to unfolding events.

The journalists’ and ordinary people need to receive news in summary format as it occurs, making WhatsApp groups the core of the transformation in alternative media.

The rise of the internet and the emergence of alternative media has enabled Palestinians to make their voices heard and present their narrative. The reliance on social media platforms has become a necessity considering what Palestinians say is Western media bias in favour of Israel’s narrative.

To this end, a wave of Palestinian citizen journalists, armed with laptops and smartphones, have decided to take the lead. A debate is taking place about Facebook’s integrity and its tight collaborations with Israel in censoring Palestinian content. Israeli officials said the collaboration aims to tackle “incitement” on the social media network.

Some Palestinians engage in a process of “cyber-democracy,” criticising their own leaders, expressing their point of view, calling for reforms and asking for their rights. They take part in a democratic process in which young people participate, debate, discuss and send messages to their rulers.

Whether they are WhatsApp notifications or Facebook posts, or Tweets, these are effective means to connect Palestinians in the occupied Palestinians territories and those in the diaspora. Israel’s enforced physical territorial separation between the Palestinians of besieged Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and those living inside Israel — the green line areas — has been overcome thanks to social media.

When Palestinians were gearing up for the climax of the “Great March of Return” on May 15 this year to mark the Nakba,- what Palestinians describe as the Catastrophe of 1948 when Israel was established at the expense, suffering and displacements of the indigenous Palestinians- Palestinian activists took to social media to advocate the aims of the march and coordinate events and demonstrations across Gaza.

As a journalist, Whatsapp news notifications spared me time watching the news and accessing news websites. I have become addicted to reading them and sharing them. It has become the umbilical cord that links me to my homeland.

Fourth: The power of the picture

Muthanna al-Najjar is a well-known local Palestinian photojournalist. His Facebook account was closed down by Facebook many times without any explanation.

Al-Najjar filmed the famous short video interview with 29-year-old wheelchair-bound Palestinian Ibrahim Abu Thuraya who was killed by an Israeli sniper on December,16th, 2017. The video went viral after he shared it on his Facebook page. Soon after he posted the clip and shared it, he said that his account was targeted repeatedly by hackers. 

Despite this, he has been overwhelmed with how widely his video has been shared across international news outlets, stressing that social media is a great tool. Without it, he knows his video would not have reached tens of thousands of Facebook users, and western audiences around the world.

“The phenomenon of citizen journalists has increased in recent years across Palestine, especially in Gaza which is often the target of air, sea and ground attacks. The reason for this is an awareness of the powerful role social media can play in drawing the attention of the international community to our plight, especially as there is training offered by media centres and educational institutions providing advice to users on the importance of being credible, using the correct terminology, posting accurate, genuine breaking news”, Al-Najjar said.

New media platforms have a role to play in showing the world what is happening on the ground. Social media allows people to share news, disseminate photos and videos which reflect daily life under occupation – all you need is a smartphone with internet data. We must not underestimate the power of pictures and footage emerging from inside the occupied territories and from around the world. Forms of resistance have evolved in light of social media compared to 17 years ago, before the rise of the internet

Palestinians are winning the online battle, and Israel cannot prevent the spread of harrowing images of Israeli injustices against Palestinians, some of which have become iconic symbols of resilience and defiance. 

Obstacles and Facebook’s fight against Palestinian content

While Israel’s ban on 3G technologies for the only two Palestinian telecommunications and mobile companies has caused problems, some Palestinian journalists and social media activists use Israeli Orange sim cards – a much faster network – in order to be able to live-stream, post and share content in real time.

Palestinian-British academic and author Ghada Karmi has said that “there is no question that social media has an important role, it is the best medium and primary source of information that people use, as Palestinians are often under the influence of the Israeli narrative that is trying to suppress the Palestinian side of the story”.

In recent years, Israeli authorities have been monitoring the Facebook accounts of Palestinians, arresting hundreds across the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel, accusing them of inciting violence. 

While Palestinians consider their posts an essential expression of their frustration, Israeli authorities often class these posts, including those with songs, as a crime punishable under Israeli law. The authorities are imposing a form of digital crackdown, a practice which attacks freedom of expression.

During the three Israeli devastating wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, Palestinian social media activists won the cyber war by countering the mainstream narrative of their besieged territory. Despite a suffocating physical and digital blockade imposed in 2007, they have reached vast numbers of people around the world.

Palestinian citizen journalists and activists say digital battles are effective. With technology, they can clarify the victim from the victimiser. They can defend their cause and combat attempts aimed at distorting the truth, especially considering the weakness of official Palestinian state-run media outlets when compared to the powerful and well-funded Israeli propaganda machines and media outlets.

It is also important to state that the digital space is targeted from time to time by local authorities in Gaza and the West Bank; therefore online censorship and repression of Palestinians’ free speech also exists. But the focus of this topic is on Palestinians’ advocacy to their struggle and freedom and exposing the gross human rights violations, crimes and racist polices committed by Israel.

Social media platforms are powerful tools in the hands of Palestinians and have changed the way events are covered in Palestine. Thanks to this technology, Palestinians are making their voices heard, highlighting their suffering, atrocities, frustrations and humiliation under years of Israeli military occupation in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and besieged Gaza.

Advocating for Palestine and national rights has become a campaign taken up by those who have the ability to reach an international audience, whether they are officials or activists, or normal citizen journalists

Yousef Alhelou is  a Palestinian journalist, political analyst based in London. He has been covering the Palestinian-Israeli affairs since 2005 and reported on the Israeli wars on Gaza in 2008 and 2012 as well as other major events. He got MA in International Relations, and currently a PhD candidate focusing on media and colonialism. He is a former Reuters journalist fellow, attended Oxford University and is a United Nations alumni.