Post-Sheikh Jarrah Palestinian Citizen Activism: New Prospects and Persistent Challenges

 The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often labeled as the world’s longest running, has been going on for more than 70 years. During this time, the Israeli narrative of the right of self-defense against so-called Palestinian terrorism and serious threats from Arab neighbors has largely dominated most mainstream international media outlets, especially mainstream American media. This has contributed to the marginalization, suffering, stigmatization, and invisibility of the Palestinians. Often (mis)perceived as the dangerous “Other,” the Palestinian people have faced severe dehumanization efforts that made it difficult for the world to acknowledge their national political rights, including the right to resist occupation, to determine their fate and future, and to return to their homeland.

When the latest chapter of this conflict unfolded, triggered by the efforts to forcibly evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, followed by attacks on Al Aqsa mosque and ultimately the eruption of the so-called Gaza war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, these eviction efforts were largely framed by Israeli media—and subsequently by a number of international media outlets—as a necessary enforcement of legal orders by Israeli courts against illegal tenants. However, this time around, there was a huge surge in Palestinian grassroots citizen-led activism, both online and offline, resisting this dominant narrative and reframing it, instead, as a form of ethnic cleansing against a vulnerable, marginalized community.

A New Wave of Palestinian Activism: The Recipe for Success

The new wave of Palestinian citizen activism, is characterized by a unique amalgamation of factors that contributed to its effectiveness in achieving its goals. These included a heightened global awareness about the plight of the Palestinian people; increased visibility of the Palestinian cause; amplification of largely muted Palestinian voices; the humanization of average Palestinians; and the reframing of the Palestinian narrative. All played a part in leading to a surge in an unprecedented global solidarity with Palestine and its people.

One of these factors is the vitality and dynamism of a number of pro-Palestine civil society organizations such as the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), which defines itself as a “transnational, independent, grassroots movement” comprised of young people who are dedicated to the liberation of Palestine and its people; American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which identifies its mission as educating the American public and media about issues related to Palestine, its heritage, and its history; and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which works on countering the underrepresentation of the Palestinian people by addressing their needs and rights and educating the public about their past, present, and future struggles through scores of chapters on American university campuses.

It is worth noting that these organizations, and many other Arab American organizations supporting the Palestinian cause, are mostly umbrella organizations with different branches and multiple chapters, regionally and internationally.

It is worth noting that these organizations, and many other Arab American organizations supporting the Palestinian cause, are mostly umbrella organizations with different branches and multiple chapters, regionally and internationally, thus increasing their outreach and intensifying their impact. The fact that a number of these organizations extended their efforts beyond national boundaries to appeal to a diverse global audience, cross-cutting the barriers of age, gender, ideology, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, created a broad umbrella of solidarity with the Palestinian people, giving birth to the new label of the Unity Intifada that reflected broad outreach, genuine inclusivity, and a diversity-sensitive approach.

An important factor in this context is the reliance on digital media to amplify the message of Palestinian resistance via a plethora of social media platforms, including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Instagram, and even TikTok, leading some observers to refer to this latest wave of Palestinian activism as the TikTok Intifada. It was, indeed, this increased reliance on digital media, thanks to its transnational and borderless nature, which enabled the global outreach, amplification, diversification, and enhanced impact of these efforts with hashtags such as #SaveSheikhJarrah and #FreePalestine going viral online and, subsequently, quite popular offline.

An equally important factor is that many of these movements are youth-led, and youth are, indeed, the blood of revolutionary and resistance movements globally with their dynamism, activism, technological-savviness, and ability to appeal to other youth everywhere. This was clearly the case in the Arab region during the first and second waves of the Arab Spring uprisings and was again visible in the recent pro-Palestine citizen activism. In fact, two of the key figures who became icons of this latest wave of post-Sheikh Jarrah citizen activism are the young Palestinian siblings Mohammed El-Kurd and Muna El-Kurd, who were detained by Israel and later released because of their visible activism during the Sheikh Jarrah events and their aftermath. They both brilliantly used their social media platforms, including Twitter accounts and Instagram pages, to share their side of the story about what was happening on the ground in their neighborhood, thus reframing the narrative from a genuine Palestinian perspective, which had been largely missing in the past.

By doing so, they were able to successfully attract other young people from all walks of life throughout the world, who became increasingly aware of the Palestinian cause and the day-to-day suffering of the Palestinian people, thus not only heightening the global visibility of the plight of the Palestinians but also enabling their humanization.

It was not just the abundance of social media platforms used to amplify Palestinian voices and narratives which was remarkably effective, but also the equally impressive multiplicity of methods and techniques used.

Moreover, it was not just the abundance of social media platforms used to amplify Palestinian voices and narratives which was remarkably effective, but also the equally impressive multiplicity of methods and techniques used, including art, music and singing, graffiti, and even face-painting tutorials on TikTok, with young Palestinian makeup artists using their TikTok accounts to draw the Palestinian flag on their faces, encouraging other young women to follow in their footsteps.

Another important success factor was building solidarity with other grassroots, citizen movements that share the struggle of fighting marginalization and resisting different forms of injustice, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to give one example. Although the solidarity between activists in the Black rights and Palestinian rights camps is not new, social media was effectively utilized to illustrate this solidarity and to magnify it, resulting in the new hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter trending on social media. This solidarity paid off by attracting the attention of citizen activists belonging to such movements and eventually inspiring them to join the ranks of pro-Palestine resistance and solidarity.

It is noteworthy that these groups did not restrict their efforts to the online domain alone. Rather, they combined their online activism with offline efforts through calling for on-the-ground rallies, demonstrations, and protests as well as organizing conferences and other events. One example is the PYM organizing what they described as the Alternative Palestinian Path Conference in Madrid, Spain, in October 2021, marking the 30th anniversary of the Madrid conference that initiated the Oslo process. They provided, as the name implies, an alternative revolutionary framework for supporting the Palestinian national liberation struggle, one that is different from what they perceive as the detrimental—or at best ineffective—actions and inactions of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In doing so, they stressed the need for collective grassroots action, solidarity, and resistance, which they believe is the only way forward to uphold the rights of the Palestinian people.

Functions and Fruits of the Struggle: The Positive Outcomes

It could be said that all the previously mentioned recent efforts had primarily three main functions. First, they were to spread awareness about the Palestinian people, including Palestinian prisoners and their suffering and struggles, since their true story remained barely told in most international media. To resist such obscurity and to fight underrepresentation and misrepresentation, many Palestinian citizen activists used their social media platforms for effective storytelling. By sharing the stories of real people who suffered day-in-and-day-out under Israeli occupation, they were able to reframe the narrative around Palestine and its people. One example was the grisly story of the Palestinian teenager who was tortured by Israeli settlers, which was shared via numerous social media platforms.

By sharing the stories of real people who suffered day-in-and-day-out under Israeli occupation, they were able to reframe the narrative around Palestine and its people.

Second, they engaged in much-needed documentation, thus filling the gap of insufficient or, even worse, skewed media coverage of their plight and suffering. One glaring example was the videotaped face-to-face confrontation between Muna El-Kurd and an Israeli settler who was trying to take over her home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. This brief encounter between them, during which El-Kurd was screaming “You are stealing my house,” and the settler replying “If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it,” went viral globally through various social media platforms, thanks to its compelling audio-visual nature and crystal clear messages.

Third, they triggered wide-scale mobilization not only online, as witnessed in the hundreds of thousands of likes, tweets and retweets, shares and reshares via various social media platforms, but, most importantly, offline. This was witnessed in the large rallies attracting thousands of protesters in major world capitals, such as Washington, DC, London, and Paris, as well as many other cities, signaling a spillover from the online realm of digital activism to the offline realm of on-the-ground activism.

Another positive outcome has been the spillover from the realm of citizen journalism into that of mainstream media, in an unprecedented way. One good example is the famous front page story in The New York Times which published the photos and names of all the Palestinian children who were killed during the Gaza war in May, under the touching headline “They Were Only Children.” This remarkable action on the part of one of the leading international media outlets not only boosted the visibility of the suffering of the Palestinian people, including innocent children, but it also humanized them, a consistently missing component of their media portrayal.

One more example was Mohammed El-Kurd’s remarkable and positively received interview on CNN, during which he brilliantly articulated the day-to-day suffering of fellow Palestinian citizens in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. This allowed their narrative to be heard in a genuine Palestinian voice and from an authentic Palestinian standpoint, by the rest of the world. Indeed, it was this outstanding interview, and subsequently interviews with other media outlets including MSNBC, which led to another equally extraordinary breakthrough into the realm of mainstream western media: when The Nation decided to take the brave and unprecedented step of hiring Mohammed El-Kurd as its Palestine correspondent. This move granted him the opportunity to bridge the gap between social media activism and mainstream journalism while providing rare opportunities to a much wider global and diverse audience to receive his unique insider coverage of Palestinian affairs.

Additionally, the fact that Time magazine featured the iconic El-Kurd twins among its list of 100 most influential figures worldwide for the year 2021 certainly reflects this newly growing trend and breakthrough into the realm of mainstream media.

Although it would be inaccurate, and too early, to consider these activities as indicative of a generalizable trend in western media, when it comes to covering the Palestinian cause, they are certainly marking the beginning of a significant shift, especially taking into account the international reputation of the above-mentioned media outlets.

Persistent Challenges and Threats

Despite the significant gains that have been achieved by the latest wave of Palestinian online and offline resistance and activism, or possibly because of it, there have also been some challenges and threats. One of them is the framing of these efforts as simply well-orchestrated and structured anti-Semitic campaigns with the sole purpose of spreading hatred against Jews, through tarnishing Israel’s image. For example, writing about Students for Justice in Palestine, the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) described it as an organization on US university campuses disseminating “anti-Israel propaganda often laced with inflammatory and at times combative rhetoric,” and as an organizer of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

A more recent serious threat has been the designation of six Palestinian human rights organizations as terrorist organizations by the Israeli government, as announced by the Israeli defense minister. These organizations are Defense for Children International-Palestine, Al Haq, Addameer: Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan Center for Research and Development, and Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. Such a designation, which is intended to curb these grassroots organizations’ efforts, hinder their activism, and limit their outreach, was widely condemned by a number of Palestinian organizations, using their social media platforms as their podiums of free expression. For example, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also put out a joint statement condemning Israel’s designation. Similarly, the group American Muslims for Palestine issued a statement condemning the terror designation, describing it as not only a misrepresentation of these civil society organizations but as an intentional effort to attack, undermine, and censor their work. Moreover, the hashtag #StopSilencingHRDs, referring to human rights defenders, started to go viral on Twitter and other social media platforms.

In the face of the growing wave of Palestinian citizen activism, and the wide international traction it gained, some mainstream media outlets made their pro-Israel stance even stronger and more publicly visible.

To be sure, the fields of mainstream and social media are themselves not free of challenges. In terms of mainstream media, the overall coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains largely in favor of the Israeli narrative, which is especially true when it comes to American media, particularly right-leaning outlets. In the face of the growing wave of Palestinian citizen activism, and the wide international traction it gained, some mainstream media outlets made their pro-Israel stance even stronger and more publicly visible. For example, the American news agency Politico, recently purchased by the German pro-Israel publishing house Axel Spring, made it clear to its employees that deviating from the parent company’s pro-Israel policy could cost them their jobs.

The decision to hire Mohammed El-Kurd as the Palestine correspondent for The Nation was not without pushback. The Nation received a lot of criticism of this move from a number of pro-Israel groups, coupled with mounting pressure to fire him. The editors of The Nation stood their ground, defending the importance of having accurate and balanced Palestinian coverage in the media. They also reached out to members of the Palestinian global community and their supporters, especially those who enjoy international visibility due to their activism and/or professions, to send messages of support in favor of this decision, which they said will not be reversed.

As for social media, ironically enough, the very same platforms that were hailed for allowing the amplification of Palestinian grassroots voices and the dissemination of pro-Palestine messages were also criticized for censoring Palestinian content, contributing to the phenomenon of systematic digital repression. A number of Palestinian activists and pro-Palestine organizations highlighted the fact that they have been witnessing the removal and censorship of pro-Palestine content on several social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This led the social media giants to either reverse their gatekeeping efforts on some occasions and/or to justify such actions using non-political excuses, citing reasons such as technical glitches or their inability to publicly share graphic content that is inappropriate for all ages, for example.

An Ongoing Tug-of-War

It is only realistic to conclude that what is being witnessed here in this new tide of grassroots Palestinian citizen activism is only the tip of the iceberg of what could be described as an ongoing tug-of-war between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups, which is becoming more visible in the realm of cyberspace, more than ever before. Although the conflict itself is more than seven decades old, the battleground of online citizen activism is certainly becoming an increasingly more powerful platform in the latest chapter of this conflict.

While Israel has always enjoyed the upper hand, not only in the military, economic, and technological domains but also in the international media arena, it is difficult to ignore the growing momentum, widening impact, and expanding visibility of the recent youth-led Palestinian citizen activism, both online and offline. That’s not to say that this new tide will be free of challenges, threats, pushback, and resistance. In fact, in addition to all the previously mentioned factors, there is always the underlying question of the sustainability of these grassroots movements and their ensuing activities in the long run. This is especially since they depend primarily on ordinary citizens’ efforts and financial resources through volunteerism, donations, and fundraising, not to mention the counterattacks, including the defaming and smearing campaigns, that they confront constantly.

One thing is certain: a new form of grassroots Palestinian citizen activism is here, one using a unique combination of both online and offline activities and platforms. It is creating far-reaching implications and reframing the Palestinian narrative through the voices of young Palestinians and in their own words, with a global audience tuning in.