While Israel’s manipulation of mainstream media bears the silken hallmarks of years of research, training and lobbying, the PR battles being fought online over this latest assault on Gaza are far more interesting and worthy of consideration.
There have been 14,000,000 tweets about Gaza in the last 30 days. The volume and pitch of outrage is palpable. The hashtag war is being overwhelmingly won by those in mourning for Gaza. There have been 6,500,000 uses of the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack compared to just 400,000 for the most popular of the Israeli hashtags, #IsraelUnderFire. Twitter, unlike mainstream media, is self-correcting and its peer reviewing structure filters falsities quickly. Photos embedded into timelines and Instagram accounts are impossible to ignore and are causing a serious and genuine disruption to the register of the online world. There is a secondary trauma rippling through the cyberpsyche. For those that want to see the world, and not simply exist in their own echo chamber, it now spreads out before them online, rendering editorial choices made by major media outlets increasingly irrelevant in their lazy complicity.
At the other end of the battle are the much-hyped Israeli Hasbara War Rooms. Young, educated volunteers doing their bit for their army and their country is a news-friendly piece. And though the PR stranglehold on mainstream media is unflinching in its rigor mortis, the story online is thankfully inversed as the electronic armies produce propaganda so crude and distasteful one wouldn’t be surprised to discover the insignia of Egypt’s Ministry of Information’s lurking in the metadata. There was a moment of web savvy in the appropriation of the White Saviour’s Hashtag of the Year™: #BringBackOurGirls. But now that Israel is focusing on rockets, tunnels and human shields, the online output has been little more than a toxic trickle of hate speech, incitement of violence, rallying of troops and shallow victimhood that, combined, are deeply confused as to whether they should be denying what is happening or justifying it. Sentences like “Hamas deprived Palestinian civilians of vital humanitarian aid” accept implicitly that there is a humanitarian catastrophe happening. Hamas, they write is “cynically sacrificing the residents of Gaza it uses as human shields. It must be stopped.” Who, exactly, is it sacrificing these civilians to? And how will it be stopped? By killing more of them?
In 2012 the @IDFSpokesperson account was a chilling progression in the technology of war. Today it feels largely outdated with tweets ranging from the childishly simplistic (“Hamas fires rockets at Israel from everywhere in Gaza – nowhere in the Strip is safe from Hamas’ reign of terror”) to the cinematically imaginative “Everything you need to know about Hamas’ underground city of terror.” Their infographics echo Rumsfeldian fantasies of Bin Laden’s mountain fortress, yet are presented in all seriousness to imbue operations like the carpet bombing of Shujaiya with moral authority. Online, these infographics are risible because they appear alongside photographs of the deaths and destruction in question.
There has been an unprecedented level of public celebrity support for Palestine. While their opinions are of no more value than anyone else’s, there is an economic calculation they have to make that most people do not: is my moral conviction of equal or greater value than the potential backlash and subsequent lack of cultural capital and earning? While Rihanna clearly miscalculated, others have stuck with their position and names such as Mark Ruffalo, Penelope Cruz, Selena Gomez, John Legend and Bryan Adams can be added to the growing list of public entertainers with a conscience. In an age of anti-intellectual digital individualism, this is not insignificant.
There has been an upswing in global protest – well over a million people took to the streets over the weekend of July 26 and thousands of events have taken place across the world over the past month. Though the scenes are more reminiscent of liberal opposition to the invasion of Iraq than the revolutionary fervour of 2011, they have demonstrated that around the world the views of the people are increasingly discordant with those of their governments.
This is with the happy exception of South America, where two countries have severed ties with Israel, one has limited them and two more have recalled their ambassadors. Europe, meanwhile, scrambles to save the two state solution, with all the major economic powers now advising their citizens that investments in settlement enterprises may have unpredictable legal and economic consequences for them in the future.
Finally, and crucially, there is a swelling of consciousness and mobilization of a new generation of Palestinians. The third generation of the 1948 diaspora are graduating now from universities around the world and have the economic stability to engage with the question of Palestine as an intellectual, political, and generational challenge. The older, whiter, leftist groups that have been organizing “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations and talking points for years are being replaced by young, intelligent diaspora kids who are taking the reins and shifting tactics away from picketing to boycotting. They working to connect the Palestinian struggle with other ethnic and economic parallels and injustices, while commanding the cultural tropes of their second homes. The same generation is rising in parallel inside historic Palestine and holds 1948 at the center of their culture and their consciousness: an unprecedented march of 10,000 people to Lubya – an ethnically cleansed village – marked 2014’s Nakba Day. And while protesting alone is not enough to change anything, it is a useful barometer for general political appetite and engagement. The evidence of this appetite was further reinforced last week when a march to the Qalandia Checkpoint, which closes off Jerusalem to Palestinians in the West Bank, saw the biggest turnout in ten years. It was prematurely labeled the “Last Intifada” on Twitter.
For any intifada to be the Last Intifada it has to swell from inside the 1948 territories. For an idea to bring about sweeping change it has to be undeniable in its simplicity, irresistible in its plainspoken and self-evident truth. For the Palestinians who survived the Nakba, for their grandchildren living inside what is now Israel, that idea can simply be “equal rights”. That idea travels across borders, walls, classrooms, prisons, refugee camps, airports and oceans. For the 1948 Palestinians, it means equal education, services, legal protections, housing rights. For Palestinians in Jerusalem, it means freedom to build, freedom to marry, freedom to choose where to live. For the Palestinians living in the West Bank, it means no wall, no biometric ID cards, freedom of movement, freedom to farm and travel. For Palestinians in Gaza, it means no siege, freedom to fish, freedom to leave and return, freedom to trade, freedom to work, freedom to breathe. For Palestinians in the diaspora it means freedom to return home. Decades of Israeli segregatory policies have deeply fragmented Palestinians, with each geographic group facing its own particular challenges and persecutions. But the demand for equal rights rises above local concerns and creates a unifying idea. Questions regarding borders, negotiated settlements, land swaps, dialogue and security are all distractions intended to divert attention away from the central truth that the contradiction at the heart of Zionism can never be resolved – there can be no state that is Jewish and democratic when 20% of your citizens and a full 50% of the lives under your control are not Jewish. There can be only equality or ethnic cleansing.