The Pizza Crisis: The Viral Palestinian Prisoners Campaigns

Dr. Michael Barak examines the reaction to the Palestinian prisoner's hunger strike on Middle Eastern social media.
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Facebook profile picture of a Saudi user identifying with the prisoner’s struggle by using the caption “Expressing solidarity”
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Facebook profile picture of a Saudi user identifying with the prisoner’s struggle by using the caption “Expressing solidarity.”



Beginning on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, on April 17, Marwan Barghouti led nearly 1,200 Palestinian security prisoners in a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention in Israeli jails. The Honor Strike (Akhtarab al-Karamah), which ended on May 27, was accompanied by a public relations campaign on social networking sites (SNS). The campaign enjoyed unprecedented support among users in Arab countries and the Palestinian diaspora. In addition to expressing solidarity with the strikers, many Palestinian SNS users, including supporters of Fatah, expressed deep distaste for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Users described Abbas as an opportunist seeking to suppress any threat to his standing, including the prisoners’ strike. In contrast, many considered Barghouti, currently serving five consecutive life sentences and 40 additional years, a worthy leader capable of rehabilitating Fatah’s image.

Over the course of the campaign, which received 4.5 million views, human rights organizations, BDS,[1] Arab media outlets,[2]and Arab users around the world[3] expressed solidarity with the prisoners’ struggle. Palestinian users described the hunger strike as a heroic act that restored respect for the Palestinians and reengaged global awareness of the Palestinian problem. [4] Barghouti was described as symbolizing the “new Palestine,” inspiring the Palestinian public with the spirit of struggle. Arab users, including Palestinians, encouraged efforts to leverage the struggle by moving from online protest to popular revolt, confronting Israeli security forces and blocking the roads used by settlers. [5]

A related SNS campaign, the “Water and Salt Challenge,” which received an unprecedented nearly 9 million views, called on users to symbolize the hunger strikers’ nutrient consumption by drinking a glass of salt water and posting a picture or video.[6] Participants in this challenge included popular Arab artists, such as Gaza singer Mohammad Assaf, [7] the presenter of Arabs Got Talent, a reality show broadcast in the Gulf states and other Arab countries, and members of Barghouti’s family, such as his son Aarab and his great-granddaughter.

YouTube video showing users from Gaza drinking a glass of salt water, as a sign of the support for the prisoners' struggle.
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YouTube video showing users from Gaza drinking a glass of salt water, as a sign of the support for the prisoners' struggle .


Another prominent SNS campaign called for a boycott of Pizza Hut, in response to the Israeli branch’s Twitter commercial ridiculing Barghouti after he was documented eating a Tortit sweet wafer. The commercial asked: “Barghouti, if you’re breaking the strike, wouldn’t pizza be better?” This SNS campaign was viewed tens of thousands of times, and shared several hundred thousand times. The video was later removed, and Pizza Hut severed its relationship with the advertising company.[8] Many users, including Barghouti’s son, commented on the contribution SNS had made to keeping the prisoners’ struggle on the public agenda, and the need to reinforce such online activity. [9] Many users claimed that the Tortit issue was an Israeli propaganda conspiracy designed to sabotage the strike. [10]

The discourse on SNS also reflected a deep distaste for PA Chairman Abbas, expressed by both Hamas and Fatah supporters, due to his perceived indifference to his people’s fate. For example, one Palestinian user wondered why the Palestinian Authority chairman had not presented the issue of the prisoners during his visit with US President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, West Bank users demanded that Abbas stand with the prisoners and not bury his head in the sand. Other users contended that Abbas is unworthy of leading the Palestinian people. For example, one Palestinian user from Jordan stated: “Trump must understand that Mahmoud Abbas lost his legitimacy in 2009, and that he controls no one other than the Fatah gang.”[11] Hamas supporters further fanned the flames, claiming that in addition to ignoring the prisoners, the PA chairman had also imposed sanctions on the Gaza Strip. One Hamas supporter wrote: “Our prisoners are struggling in prison with their empty stomachs, and Gaza is fighting against Mahmoud Abbas’ closure with patience and determination.”[12]  Another user remarked: “Israel has never cut off electricity in Gaza and has proven its humanity to the world, as opposed to the barbarism of Mahmoud Abbas!” [13] This user referenced the PA chairman’s threat to stop the financing the cost of electricity transmission from Israel to Gaza in April.

In contrast to Abbas’ criticism, Barghouti achieved striking popularity among Fatah supporters. They consider him the only one able to restore unity to the national movement. One user from east Jerusalem posted: “Fatah has deviated from its path... it is no longer considered at the forefront of the struggle...” and added that Barghouti is working to get Fatah back on track.[14] Another user claimed that Abbas was benefiting from Barghouti’s imprisonment because it kept the latter from realizing his political power.[15]Other Fatah supporters, including those from the Gaza Strip, wrote, “Marwan Barghouti represents me.”[16]These and other statements prove that Barghouti continues to enjoy the broad popular support evident in the Fatah Central Committee elections of December 2016, in which Barghouti garnered a majority vote (930 out of 1300 votes).

After 41 days, the Palestinian prisoners’ strike ended with Israeli Prison Service’s agreement to double the number of visits prisoners can receive each month, from a single visit to two visits, and to discuss the remaining demands. Users described the strike’s results as a glorious victory, which despite Israel’s attempts, had strengthened the morale of the Palestinian people, and proven the necessity of demonstrating devotion to the struggle against Israel.[17] SNS were a key platform for maintaining international awareness of the Palestinian prisoners’ situation. The dizzying success of the online campaigns confirmed the organizers’ confidence in the importance of exploiting SNS in the struggle against Israel. These campaigns strengthened Barghouti’s political power, against a backdrop of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership succession struggles, in light of Abbas’ imminent departure.

 



[2] See, for example, the support expressed on the Lebanese satellite channel Al-Mayadeen that used the hashtag #Al Mayadeen with the prisoners, 13.5.17: https://www.facebook.com/hashtag/الميادين_مع_الاسرى

[3] See, for example, the tags used by Kuwaiti users: #الكويت_تتضامن_مع_الأسرى_الفلسطينيين; #اضراب_الكرامة; #DignityStrike;#أنا_متضامن https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/اضراب_الكرامة/

[4] #اضراب_الاسرى

[6] See, for example, 9.5.17:

https://www.facebook.com/hashtag/saltwaterchallenge; #‏مي_وملح ; #تحدي_مي_وملح; Dean of the Birzeit University School of Education, 26.4.17: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EUxipVIj0k

[8] Pizza Hut franchisees in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia published a false apology from Pizza Hut International for the affair: #قاطعوا_بيتـــزا هـــات; BoycottPizzaHut; #‏بيتزا_هت_مكانك_الزبالة.

[10] #اضراب_الكرامة

[13] #اضراب_الاسرى

[15] #اضراب_الكرامة

[17] #اضراب_الكرامة