I was in my senior year at high school when the Second Intifada began in September 2000. While it wasn’t my first exposure to injustice in Palestine, it was a moment in which personal concern for the cause was cultivated. We skipped class, jumped school walls, and joined protests in the streets, while regional mainstream media broadcasted a looping video of 12-year old Muhammad Durra being shot.
Then came the Jenin Massacre, and we protested. Images and videos of Israeli tanks invading a camp proliferating on the Web for the first time.
Then came Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 – and we protested. Then came Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008 – and we protested. Then came Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014 – and we protested.
In other words, over the past 15 years, since that second intifada began, Palestinian death tolls make international headlines roughly every 2-4 years. It feels cyclical, and so does our protest. In between that time, they are largely forgotten by the world (and this includes us). If anything, Netanyahu has likely made more headlines for his attitude towards Iran in recent years than anything coming out of the Occupied Territories. The conditions and circumstances under which Palestinians live, are forgotten. The deaths continue to increase, the prisoners continue to increase, the injustice continues to increase, the illegal walls (the 12yr evolution of which can be seen in the infographic on the right), illegal settlements, checkpoints, and land grabs continue to increase, and the images we see proliferating online continue to increase in their brutality.
This downward spiral has been littered with expected events. And there are two things that dominate my thoughts these days as whispers of a third intifada ‘looming’ grow with each day, and complemented with what we now consider typical saturation of digital content hijacking our news feeds with fleeting grief – because that’s what it is really; fleeting.
Those whom were born during my senior year in high school, are now 15 years old. In terms of Palestinian demographics, 0-14 represent 33% of the population, and 15-24 represent 22%. Margin of errors aside, we can safely assume that over one-third of the Palestinian population grew up under the aforementioned circumstances. From the second intifada to Gaza to the emerging uprising, this is their reality. They grew up in a cage – walled in, physically. A time where casting a stone lands you in an Israeli jail – and that’s actually the safest outcome. This is a reality most people tend to ignore or forget – especially anyone older than 30 years old today.
Consider that Internet user growth in the region has gone up by 6,091.9% between 2000 and 2015. That's 3,284,800 users in the year 2000, and roughly 113,609,510 users today Internet World Stats.
In these 15 years, we went from an era where mainstream media dominated the narrative, to an era where social media dominates it. This isn’t a time when the mainstream sees the online as a playful mechanism of democratized media (or an opportunity to present their brands as participatory), but a time when the mainstream is chasing down leads from what circulates online. And the region’s people now have the power to shape the narrative (whether we’ve fully realized it or not).
Consider that Internet user growth in the region has gone up by 6,091.9% between 2000 and 2015 (according to Internet World Stats). That’s 3,284,800 users in the year 2000, and roughly 113,609,510 users today, roughly 48% of the Arab population. Consider that Arabic is now the fourth biggest language on the Web after English, Chinese and Spanish. I realize these figures are always contested, but regardless, we can safely assume that the population that was online back in 2000 was a mere fraction of what it is today – and that’s the point.
Now, a third, sub-thought, has been Jordan’s limited role in all this.
As politically impotent as we’ve grown, the Kingdom hasn’t really accomplished much in the past decade past conventional (now textbook) rhetoric. Putting the distractions of the Arab Spring aside, beyond political grumblings of disapproval coming from the Palace or government; beyond writing letters of protest to an even more impotent UN; beyond leveraging crises for local appeasement – beyond all that, there hasn’t been much.
For sure, from high atop the mountain, there seems to be genuine demands for peace negotiations – at least that’s the perception. But that demand comes largely at a time when there’s general awareness that no real negotiating partners exist (we can argue that one makes peace with one’s enemy, but that’s another conversation for another day). We continue to remain steeped in the shadows of a peace treaty that no one in the Kingdom – beyond the circles of the Palace – has any appreciation for, and not only because the contentious process of its emergence was never really communicated to Jordanians, but that it no longer makes sense to the overwhelming majority of the population that grew up trying to make sense of seeing death, destruction and injustice on the one hand, and a treaty of peace on the other. The stark contrasts, illuminated by social media, has created an organic resistance to the contradictory relationship.
I mention this third thought simply because of its relevancy to the first two thoughts.
Allow me to explain: as a Jordanian, I was part of what I personally believe to be the final generation that actually gave a damn what the government did or did not do. Our relationship with the state was like our relationship with a television – a one-way communication channel, where we are on the receiving end no matter how much we yell at the screen. And that was that. At best, our role was limited to the mobilization of mass protests after protest, which has grown increasingly politicized over the years – in other words, it is no longer about “us” versus “them”, but a post-Arab Spring fracturing of the “us” – at home, we eye protests with more of a suspicious eye than we did before. But beyond that, our role was limited.
This isn't just about the availability and the democratization of digital technology, but also the power in numbers - that is, the availability of more people to wield it.
Our Facebook feed isn’t becoming more saturated just because perceived injustice towards the Palestinians has increased over the past 15 years, but because people paying attention to that injustice have also increased in numbers online. Now, when they speak, a lot more people listen in, and a lot more people feel morally compelled to be part of that conversation. Everyone is dragged along for the ride. We create both the demand and the supply for content – for narratives. Where citizen journalism was the arcane title taken up by brave souls out in the street, it’s now inclusive of everyone carrying a smartphone and a data connection – that is, the overwhelming majority.
What will be more interesting to witness is the possible evolution from being mere digital bystanders (liking and sharing) to vocal proponents (commenting, writing, producing multimedia) to active netizens (mobilizing, pressuring).
Admittedly, I may be more optimistic about the transcendent nature of technology from a sociological perspective – that is, what people can do with it – but I don’t like the thought of underestimating the power of slacktivists. Why? I tend to look at this from a digital content perspective. While failures and disappointments are plenty, like humdrum waves in an ocean – successes go viral. And once they do, they are unstoppable. They come on like a tidal wave. They are everywhere; all the time.
When a conversation goes viral, it opens a vast space in which people can play a digital role unimagined only 15 years ago. I find that exciting.
At the very least, online engagement during a time of crises in the Occupied Territories, is a time where news and content sources are culled, and refined. We discover the new and lend it power in numbers, and we discard the old or irrelevant. It’s a time that empowers (and establishes) more sources to not only inform, but counter established mainstream media narratives than ever before (the work of Visualizing Palestine, and many others, is exemplary of that). A time when biases and its champions do not go unchecked, and instead suffer their deconstruction online – and more often than not, it’s in the form of ridicule. And it’s global. Even video clips from the Daily Show or these days, John Oliver, tend to circulate excessively – with someone slapping Arabic subtitles on them and pushing them out in a matter of hours after their airing.
Like everyone else, I have no idea how this conflict will end. But I know that the Web will undeniably play a leading role – and that’s not something anyone could’ve imagined back in 1948. As yet another cycle of violence is upon us, that role is worth studying, and it’s that role that I find myself paying attention to the most.