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Social intifada: Palestinians forge new medium for activism

The social intifada: How Palestinian youth use social media to forge instant forms of activism
5 min read
08 December, 2022
At the click of a button, the realities of life under Israeli occupation can be shared instantly with the world. Despite living under surveillance, Palestinian youth have utilised this medium to mobilise new forms of transnational activism.

I arrive in Nablus early one morning. The radio in the taxi shares news about yet another overnight raid by the Israeli army and rumours of a new, imminent incursion is quickly spreading.

For months the city has been under a large-scale Israeli military operation against the "Lions' Den", a newly formed armed Palestinian group responding to Israeli army and settler aggression with coordinated military operations. The group represents the changing face of Palestinian resistance and enjoys popular support.

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The city, turned into the stronghold of the group, became a battleground with daily operations from the Shabak (the Israeli internal security service) and the army, targeting militia members.

Entering the old citadel is difficult. There are no youngsters in cafes or on the streets. The old market is unnaturally silent, only the elderly and women walk the alleys. The atmosphere is tense, ready to explode at any moment.

"The soldiers struck the funeral of a martyr yesterday. People are furious, there is no respect even for death. We can't expect any good. The future is becoming increasingly uncertain," explains a local businessman while unlocking the entrance of his store.

The Lions' Den has recently experienced major blows with the killing of Wadee al-Houh, the leader of the organisation, and Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, another well-known personality of the group, along with dozens of its members. Others have surrendered to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for amnesty.

2022 witnessed an unprecedented level of violence toward Palestinians by the Israeli occupation [photo credit: Nino Orto]

Khalid, a 30-year-old working in Nablus as a taxi driver explained the situation. "Nowadays, people use smartphones as tools to stream live what is happening on the ground. This makes social media a powerful instrument to engage people, but it is also a dangerous medium that makes you vulnerable. Many of these youngsters have been tracked down because of mobile phones," he said.

According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey in Ramallah, the Nablus-based militia is mainly formed by young people aged between 18 and 24, without no religious or political background, and no connection with the historical Palestinian political parties. Many of them are relatives of the Palestinian Authority security forces.

 The group has quickly gained popularity because of its unbribable approach toward the Palestinian cause and won the hearts and minds of many, particularly teenagers, for their willingness to die to end the occupation. In Telegram and Tik Tok, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians celebrate the Lion's Den fighters as the new heroes.

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The people who support them are the new generation of Palestinian society, born after the second Intifada and increasingly critical of the economic and social conditions, the political system, and the relations with Israel – a new generation that is less religious and more liberal, and that considers the Palestinian Authority highly inefficient and corrupted.

"I believe they are not just martyrs but heroes. They sacrificed their lives to fight against the occupation of our land," said a young woman that preferred not to be named. "We don't have a future. What would be the difference to die today or in ten years? This is the main reason many young Palestinians join the group," she stated.

According to many Palestinians who spoke to The New Arab in Nablus, it is not a military confrontation anymore because of the disproportion of force between the two players. But it goes to a more personal level that touches something deeply personal, in a mix of religious feelings and seeking of personal freedom that goes beyond the national ambitions.

Palestinian youth have used social media to venerate their lost friends and as a means to compel allies to resist further [photo credit: Nino Orto]

At the core of the struggle is the hopelessness of the young generations, which has grown into anger. Unemployment and confinement have shifted many youngsters to seek new models not connected to the historical Palestinian political parties such as Fatah, Hamas, or the Islamic Jihad.

Social media has funnelled the anger and resentment against the occupation but has also become the new channel for the youth to identify and find common political ground.

"Social media has been useful in providing support to mobilise and organise the young generations into groups that would even join the military wings under certain conditions," said Dr Khalil Shikaki, Professor of Political Science and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey.

"What is clear is that a social transformation is underway for a change within the Palestinian society and the need for a new approach to deal with the occupation," Dr Shikaki explains.

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Compared to the first and second Intifada, where the use of media has been limited to TV and newspapers, today the large fruition of the social by the youth has made traditional media useless and the flow of information much harder to control – perhaps even impossible at times. Something that has never happened before and that makes it easy for certain groups to gain popularity and influence in such a short time.

"They live for a legacy, which makes this phenomenon extremely dangerous for the Palestinian Authority and Israel," said Dr Shikaki.

"I'm a mother of a teenage boy who is becoming increasingly furious towards the situation," said Lana, a manager in the hospitality sector. "He often says he would rather be a martyr than a spoiled kid. Many of his age want to emulate them to do the right thing. I know I cannot control him anymore. It makes me afraid of what the future will bring," she added.

A little farther on, absorbed in his thoughts, I see an old Palestinian man staring into space. His calm behaviour stuck in contrast with the prevalent emotions around him. The shop behind is half-empty, an old photo yellowed by time and oblivion that overlooks the items around. "I pray God to protect our kids and Palestine. We will need it," he whispers while I walk away.

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis of the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @OsservatMashrek