Responses, Incitement and Organization on Palestinian Social Media In Connection to the Recent Escalation

Harel Chorev and Moran Levanoni examine the place of Palestinian social media against the backdrop of the current escalation of violence.

The ongoing attacks in Israel and events on Palestinian social networking sites (SNS) in recent weeks are closely interrelated. The SNS, particularly Facebook (the most popular network among Palestinians) express the genuine fury and activist polemic now prevailing among Palestinians. The intensity characterizing this discourse goes far beyond the fury that was previously saved for grim incidents during the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Moreover, it has disrupted the passive, fatalistic belief – that the only real hope for the Palestinian situation comes from Allah, not humans – which characterized the discourse on Palestinian SNS until recently. Yet SNS are not limited to seemingly passive reflection of moods. Rather, they are also a platform for active forces – in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and abroad – who use them to further inflame tempers. These users encourage translating online fury into real action in the streets, whether by individual attackers or through confrontations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). SNS play a key role in the organization and management of events.

In Israel the general understanding is that the current escalation began with the murder of Alexander Levlovitz, who was killed by rocks thrown at his car on September 13. As reflected on SNS, Palestinians place the turning point a bit later, in the wake of the stabbing attacks carried out by Mohannad Rafiq Halabi from al-Bireh, who murdered Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and soldier Aharon Bennett, and by Fadi Alwan of Issawiya, who stabbed a 15-year-old boy. When the attacks became known, Facebook pages were established in memory of the two terrorists,[1] on which users wrote both messages of condolence and calls for revenge on the pages’ timelines. Conspicuously, many writers abandoned the caution normally characteristic of Palestinian users who fear a reprisal from Israeli and Palestinian security forces. This time, they gave expression to their worst feelings.

Thus, it took only hours for the relatively calm situation to be transformed, and SNS were flooded with calls for martyrdom (istishhad) and a new intifada. This response was evident in the use of hashtags including “the intifada has begun” and “Jerusalem resists” (Al-quds tatqawam),[2] and calls like the one posted by Issam, a student of civil engineering from Gaza, who wrote: “What, other than revolution, can liberate my land?”[3] Images of Halabi and Alwan were symbols that played a clear role in intensifying the discourse. A picture of Halabi kissing the head of Diaa Talahami went viral; Talahami was a friend’s father and Islamic Jihadist from al-Dura who was killed by IDF fire on September 21 after throwing an explosive device on a military jeep at Harsa junction. The image was widely distributed as a portent of things to come, demonstrating the Halabi’s membership in the “family of sacrifice.”

In addition to messages accompanying images of the two terrorists, calls for action, as well as reports – some fabricated – describing confrontations between Palestinian security forces and settlers, were uploaded to SNS and special purpose apps (like the Hamas-affiliated Quds TV), which were revitalized when the situation escalated. These reports have three goals: 1) incitement with the purpose of igniting the fiery atmosphere; 2) guidance for initiating attacks, such as “this is the most effective way to stab a Jew to death” (instructions on the most vulnerable parts of the body, how to coat the knife with poison, etc.); and 3) an uncensored means of communication for multifaceted discourse which could direct demonstrators to specific points of active confrontation with Israeli security forces, and a means of reacting to those events. These features of SNS make it advantageous for organizations like Hamas whose terror infrastructure has been systematically dismantled, as well as the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who are attempting to lower the profile of their incitement activities in order to avoid problems with Israeli law enforcement agencies.

Participants in Palestinian discourse frequently call for security forces of the PA to join the resistance against Israel, and for increased action from the irregular field forces of Fatah (Tanzim/Al-Aqsa Brigades), Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and others.[4] The writers occasionally include active-duty personnel serving in the Palestinian security forces, for example Mohamed al-Karnaz, who shared a photograph of PA security forces deployed in the al-Fawar refugee camp outside of Hebron, seemingly refusing to evacuate the camp as long as IDF forces were threatening it.[5]

The present reality places the PA in a difficult position. On the one hand, the PA is not interested in losing control of the situation, and is well aware of the devastating consequences that would have for both the Palestinian populace and the PA itself. It is alert to the fact that Hamas is behind some of the events (for example, the murder of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, z”l) and the incitement that preceded them. Aware that Hamas has been trying for years to undermine the PA’s control of the West Bank, the Authority thus takes measured, preventive steps to keep the situation from descending into anarchy similar to the second Intifada, and continues its effective cooperation with Israeli security forces.

On the other hand, the PA, and Abu Mazen more specifically, are attempting to maintain their relevance to the general Palestinian populace, which is quickly eroding. Consequently, the PA’s rhetoric and diplomacy has been filled with condemnations towards Israel, in an attempt to display a unified Palestinian front. This approach can be seen both in conventional media and on SNS. For example, the Facebook page of a Palestinian television network has recently uploaded a report showing IDF soldiers accompanied by dogs conducting searches, and pictures of the destruction that occurred, it claims, as a result of Israeli searches in Nablus. The page also frequently posts pictures of the Dome of the Rock, which has been a central motif in the current escalation, accompanied with the caption “Always in our hearts.”[6] Not advertised, however, are the PA’s actions on the ground in attempting to find an outlet for the pressure, whilst maintaining a certain level of control over the actions of their regular factions. In the case of the Fatah-identified Tanzim, this is also important for reinforcing the informal relationship between the PA and the “street". However, the loud presence of Tanzim, accompanied by their heavy fire in the streets of Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus has increased significantly in the recent past, and is well-documented in videos that are uploaded to SNS.

It should be emphasized that alongside the inflammatory remarks and calls for attacks and an uprising, other young people continue to post messages that express the same thoughts that have long been dominant on Palestinian SNS; a longing for routine and normality. Expressions of this type are apparent in the happy selfies, ordinary greetings and, optimistic descriptions of the beauty of nature that they upload. For example, the Facebook page of Zuhour Mayyaleh, a social activist from Sur Baher, one of the villages most conspicuous in the current escalation, shows a calm pastoral view through the vineyards on the way from Jerusalem to Hebron, which she writes remind her of similar trips in the United States.[7]

In conclusion, there is a clear correspondence between events in the field and discourse on Palestinian SNS. The advantages of SNS and smartphone-based apps as effective, inexpensive and user-friendly ways to close gaps in operational capabilities have become clearly evident during the current escalation. However, other contemporary examples of online revolutions – the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia and even the cottage cheese protests in Israel – should remind us that the burst of high energy that characterizes protests in which SNS played an important role is also its weak point. Protests in which SNS play a significant role tend to lack leadership, or have many leaders. Either way, the result is the same. The protest loses its ability to maintain itself in the long-term because it lacks effective organization. Unless institutionalized Palestinian organizations take control of the uprising (including those that are established on an ad hoc basis, as in the first Intifada) it is unlikely that the current escalation will survive in its current format. Even so, this is not necessarily a positive; we run the risk that the current model could also be replaced by a more serious escalation.