Israel’s so-called Operation Guardian of the Walls has sparked fierce criticism across the world. No longer just human rights organizations or pro-Palestinian groups – the tensions have started encroaching on the world of gaming, too.
It’s not the first time that artists and journalists from the world of culture have sounded off about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The BDS organizations have for years been calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, until a political solution is achieved, and not one that’s based on “occupation and colonization."
The operation now underway has arrived in a particularly charged period globally. Some countries are still licking the wounds of the coronavirus pandemic, while others are coping with the crisis at its devastating height. The lockdowns and the severe economic crisis have affected national morale. According to a study published last April from the University of Montreal, there has been a global rise in violent actions against women and children, or taking the form of crime and civil uprisings.
A few days into the Israeli operation in Gaza, gaming sites started to voice support for the Palestinians and called for immediate aid and a cessation of hostilities. The leading gaming site IGN added a small Palestinian flag to its logo, and a click on it produced an article detailing ways to help the Palestinians. The text elaborated on the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and listed aid organizations to which donations could be made.
“We want to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Palestine because, while there has been fighting in the region for decades, recent escalations have seen a catastrophic loss of Palestinian lives,” the post said, providing links to Palestinian aid groups.
Surprisingly, the article drew pro-Israeli responses when it was published on Facebook, and was closed to comments within a short time. However, on Sunday, it was deleted and the site posted an apology, noting: “Our philanthropic instincts to help those in need was not in line with our intent of trying to show support for all people impacted by tragic events… By highlighting only one population, the post mistakenly left the impression that we were politically aligned with one side. That was not our intention and we sincerely regret the error.”
It wasn’t the first time that IGN tried to support victims of serious events – in the past the site raised funds for victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters, and their site now refers American readers to a page explaining about coronavirus vaccines. However, it was the first time they had taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a particularly complex and sensitive issue about which most visitors to the site lack sufficient information.
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The call for aid to the Palestinians was also surprising in the light of the fact that IGN launched an Israeli version of the site less than a year ago. IGN Israel didn’t take the matter lying down: in short order they published an angry riposte on Facebook. Assailing what they termed the “prevaricating and misleading” campaign, they expressed full support for the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and for the State of Israel.
The original article was removed from the site quickly, with a laconic explanation from IGN to the effect that they want to treat all their readers as equals. It’s not clear whether that decision was made by the site itself or by the meta-company that runs it, the media giant Ziff Davis, which holds dozens of online properties and technology sites including Mashable, PCMag and Humble Bundle.
Talking to The Guardian, one IGN staff member said that “We’ve posted multiple, similar charity appeals in the past, and received nothing but support from the ownership – even on so-called ‘contentious’ issues like the Black Lives Matter movement.”
IGN was not alone in its first-time reference to the crisis. Game Informer, a video game magazine, also posted an article dealing with humanitarian aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip, and it, too, was removed within a few hours.
However, Kotaku, a veteran gaming and geek-culture site that leans toward the left side of the political map, decided to declare openly its support for the Palestinians. Kotaku also leveled a protest at IGN and Game Informer for caving at the last minute.
Developers get involved
Calls for taking action on behalf of the Palestinians are not coming only from gaming sites. Gaming creators themselves are joining in, from indie developers like the creators of the highly successful “Celeste,” to senior personnel of giant companies like Ubisoft and PlayStation.
“We need to raise our voice for our brethren the Palestinians,” tweeted Nuha, a young Arab narrative designer, who is currently putting the finishing touches to “Far Cry 6.” She added, “Israel has power, influence and means – they have nothing. We need to use the power we have as creators in a giant industry to let the Palestinians also voice their side and to stop the Israeli massacre and oppression.”
To which Rami Ismail, a Netherlands-based indie game developer, added, “We need more than an end to the present operation. We need to end the violence against the Palestinian people and liberate it from the Israeli occupation.”
Indeed, the impression is that the personnel of the gaming industry who back the Palestinians are adept at utilizing the social networks and are able to control the technological world for their benefit. Translated quotes from Israeli politicians like Transportation Minister Miri Regev (Likud) and MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) encouraging the use of brute force are getting an abundance of retweets on Twitter by game creators and fans alike. Videos of events in the Gaza Strip are receiving wide play on TikTok and in gaming and technology forums. It looks as though the supporters of the Palestinian people feel that the international media is biased in Israel’s favor and are trying to use the online media to change the situation.
Using social networks to promote demonstrations is nothing new. Many attribute the rise of the Arab Spring and its spread across the Middle East to young people on Facebook, among other reasons. Now the younger generation uses TikTok and Instagram. TikTok, which is especially popular among the younger members of Gen-Z, enables users to upload short video clips and broadcast live, and easily create new video clips in response to other clips.
During the last week, young Arabs and Jews took over TikTok. The most popular videos uploaded by the Arab participants were clips of protests, riots and informational videos about the situation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza. In some videos they shame Arab members of the Israeli police or security forces, calling them traitors and revealing their personal details. Many of the videos are broadcast live, and show inflammatory reactions on both sides.
Last weekend Palestinian and foreign users complained on Instagram that accounts mentioning Sheikh Jarrah or Al-Aqsa were restricted in various ways. The NGO 7aleh: Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition received over 200 reports about deleted posts and suspended Instagram accounts. Reuters reported on Monday that Instagram and Twitter blamed technical glitches for the deleted posts.
Operation Guardian of the Walls ignited a virtual powder keg that was waiting to explode. The tendency in the gaming world in recent years, along with the moves toward accepting and accommodating excluded communities – whether gender- or ethnic-based – have apparently led to this unprecedented insurgency in the gaming universe.
I tried to contact a number of gaming creators who spoke out against Israel on Twitter, but they chose not to reply in the meantime. IGN Israel apologized but said they were invoking the right to remain silent.