Opinion

Young Palestinians Are Digitally Breaking Israel's Gaza Blockade

The responses to the posts of the group of young people trying to speak out online about their desire to live freely are too hostile to be believable. Are they bots? Salaries employees of an Israeli ministry? Kahane supporters?

A photo taken by the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy on Valentine's Day in order to raise awareness of the issue of family unification
The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy

Are they bots, representatives of the Israeli Ministry for Strategic Affairs, supporters of Meir Kahane at American universities or real people who are responding to short Palestinian video clips posted on Facebook? I have no way of knowing, and I also won’t waste time and energy on an attempt to find out. But after watching a few of the eloquent clips of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, I made a mistake and glanced at the comments on them. It seems that the disgusting and similar responses – of real people, bots or salaried employees – sometimes manage to overwhelm the comments that are pertinent and supportive of the Palestinian cause.

Take for example, a clip about racist comments by Israelis on events concerning the Palestinians. A few young people, students from Birzeit University, reading an English translation of a few of these comments – such as a report on the Ynet news website about the collapse of a carousel in an amusement park in Ramallah, something that injured to 20 children. “It’s a shame they were only injured and not killed,” “great, they deserve it, it’s a shame dozens weren’t killed and thousands injured,” “Amen, and everyday things collapse in Gaza and Ramallah. The main thing is that they die, and as many as possible,” are just a few of the comments.

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In this video, about two minutes long, a few other repulsive posts are read. They are mentioned in the research conducted by 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, which is located in Haifa, about the frequency in which Israelis spread hatred on social networks, knowing that they are not risking an investigation, house arrest or a trial. “That I hate Arabs does not make me a racist. As proof, I hate rats too,” someone is quoted as saying.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 23Haaretz

The name of the group that made the videos is confusing: “The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy” gives the impression of a formal group, officials traveling all over the world, cocktail party regulars and other stereotypes that arise because of the word “diplomacy.” But the group – it is hard for me to use the word “institute” for it – is that of just a few young people, in their twenties, some volunteers, some who are paid in part and only a few on full salary, who use the up-to-date, cheap and accessible tools of social networks to tell about their desire to live free.

The group has been operating for about a year and a half and it has a number of Palestinian businessmen who are funding it. A number of veteran politicians serve on its board. Its members don’t deal with solutions, they put the emphasis on “sumud” (steadfastness in Arabic), and not misery, they are not slaves to news headlines and are trying to show sides of the reality of their lives under Israeli rule that do not receive attention. They hope that when they say that their desire is “freedom, justice, equality and rights” – their age peers around the world will understand them.

Maybe because of this hope, the group was surprised by the number of hostile responses to their videos in general, and especially to the one on hate speech. The inciteful comments, packed with hatred, and then their long chains of responses – have diverted the attention from the content itself, deplores the group’s director, Salem Barahmeh. He and his colleagues produced and posted a clip on April 1 in response to the abusive responses and this also received hateful responses. Some came from fake accounts, some from real people. In the clip, Barahmeh reads out a few of the responses to the previous video and urges the viewers to pay attention to the similarity between them and the atmosphere of racism in Israel, which denies the Palestinian being.

Barahmeh says they are trying to reach non-coverted audiences, and to acquaint them with Palestinians as human beings, like everyone. For example, a clip about charming Palestinian women athletes. The videos on Gaza are particularly heartrending. In a relatively long video, 11 minutes long, named “We Just Want to Play,” a number of children lucidly express their thoughts and fears from the wars that were and God forbid may yet be.

Abdel Minem Dababish weeps without embarrassment when he tells about a friend whose father was killed in an Israeli bombing. They played together and suddenly the child said how much he misses his father. “I felt lucky that my father is alive,” said the 10-year-old, crying.

According to United Nations estimates, over 300,000 children in the Gaza Strip need psychological support, Lama Odeh, a consultant and psychologist tells the camera. Many of the children suffer from trauma, depression and anxiety. “There is an entire generation of children that have never left Gaza, and know no other reality. They suffer far more than any child should,” sum up the creators of the video in a short explanation. The video was also shown in Ramallah to children and their parents. One shocked mother said the video needs to be shown in every school in the West Bank “because we have no idea,” said Barahmeh. It seems that this time the children, with their eyes longing for normalcy, managed to silence even the bots.

But Barahmeh nonetheless fears that pro-occupation missionaries are trying to shrink the Palestinian digital space too, and to overshadow the content through diverting attention and starting irrelevant discussions. My impression is that his fear is excessive. After all, their videos – in four languages: English, Spanish, French and German – have each been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Another way to break the blockade.