As Israeli airstrikes pummel Gaza, the reaction from Arab capitals has been muted and protests scattered. But the voices on social media have been loud and clear.
CAIRO — The video traveled at 4G speed, leapfrogging across international borders, social media platforms and social justice movements: a young Palestinian woman in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, shouting in furious English at a Jewish man, “You are stealing my house!”
“If I don’t steal it, someone else will steal it,” he retorts.
This doesn’t describe the Israeli occupier’s logic only; it also describes the rudeness of those who support the Israeli colonial policies of expropriating the Palestinian occupied lands. pic.twitter.com/OSB0QejwCT
— Ramy Abdu| رامي عبده (@RamAbdu) May 1, 2021
Within days — as Israel bombed the coastal territory of Gaza, Palestinian militants there launched rockets at Israel, and Arab and Jewish mobs faced off in Israeli cities — the video had rocketed from young Palestinians’ social media feeds into the Arab diaspora, then lit up the internet, kindling outrage around the world.
The cellphone video joined a profusion of pro-Palestinian voices, memes and videos on social media that helped accomplish what decades of Arab protest, boycotts of Israel and regular spurts of violence had not: yanking the Palestinian cause, all but left for dead a few months ago, toward the political mainstream.
“It feels different this time, it definitely does,” said Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, 29, the Palestinian-Jordanian-American founder of MuslimGirl.com, whose posts on the topic have been ubiquitous across social media over the past week. “I wasn’t expecting this to happen so quickly, and for the wave to shift this fast. You don’t see many people out on the streets in protest these days, but I would say that social media is the mass protest.”
It used to be that when Palestinians were under fire, protests would follow in the streets of Arab cities. That potential for combustion forced Middle Eastern and Western leaders to keep a wary eye on the temperature of what was called the “Arab street.”
This time, a week into an Israeli bombing campaign that has killed 212 Palestinians in Gaza, the reaction from Arab capitals has been muted and protests small and scattered, generating little pressure on Arab governments to move to resolve the crisis.
Instead, solidarity with the Palestinians has shifted online and gone global, a virtual Arab street that has the potential to have a wider impact than the ones in Middle Eastern cities. The online protesters have linked arms with popular movements for minority rights such as Black Lives Matter, seeking to reclaim the narrative from the mainstream media and picking up support in Western countries that have reflexively supported Israel.
While core support for Israel remains broad and deep in the United States, a growing number of Democrats appear comfortable applying more skepticism to one of the United States’ closest allies, and are pressuring President Biden to do the same. Even if there are signs of a shift among some Democrats, backing for Israel still has strong bipartisan support, bolstered by Jewish and evangelical groups with influence in Washington.
The most remarkable sign of the evolution came this weekend, from Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who for years has prided himself as one of Israel’s most unshakable allies in the Democratic Party.
On Saturday, he said he was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli airstrikes that had killed Palestinian civilians and targeted a tower that housed media organizations, including The Associated Press.
His comments came as a group of more progressive Democrats intensified their criticism, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress.
As images of Sheikh Jarrah, destruction in Gaza and police raids on Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem have barreled from Palestinian online platforms including PaliRoots and Eye on Palestine across Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, they have united a new generation of Arab activists with progressive allies, some of whom may not have known where Gaza was two weeks ago.
“Stand with the oppressed,” @diet_prada, an American fashion-criticism Instagram account cum social justice megaphone, wrote to its 2.7 million followers, in one of three posts over the last week highlighting Israeli actions against Palestinians.
Palestinian activists say they aim to seize control of the narrative from media outlets that they say have suppressed their point of view and falsely equated Israel’s suffering with that of its occupied territories. They refer to Israeli policies as “the colonization of Palestine,” describe its discrimination against Palestinians as an apartheid regime, and characterize the proposed eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which helped set off the current conflict, as an “expulsion” and part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.
Even the word conflict, which they say inaccurately suggests a dispute between equals, is under siege.
Social media has allowed them to change — or, in their words, correct — the story. Some posts literally take a red pencil to text from mainstream outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, crossing out headlines and substituting other words. Users also accused Instagram and Facebook of bias when they started deleting posts about Sheikh Jarrah and Al Aqsa, prompting the platforms to apologize, blaming a technical issue.
“Because we were able to escape the gatekeepers of mass media, because we were able to escape the likes of The New York Times,” said Mohammed el-Kurd, 23, the brother of the woman in the Sheikh Jarrah video, “we were able to reach the world.”
Tweeting and posting to his hundreds of thousands of followers almost exclusively in English to amplify his reach, Mr. el-Kurd said the events of the past week, starting with the Sheikh Jarrah tensions shown in the video, made the Palestinian argument instantaneously accessible for a global audience.
“The situation is quite simple, right?” he said in a phone interview from Sheikh Jarrah, where he had returned from studying poetry at Brooklyn College to help his family fight their eviction. “Somebody came and stole my home with the help of the army and police, and when you step out of that, that’s the entire story of how Israel came to be.”
Israel’s Supreme Court is weighing the claims of a Jewish organization that has legal title to the Sheikh Jarrah property and wants to evict the Palestinian tenants, who also claim ownership. Palestinians see the eviction case as part of the historical displacement of Palestinians, including current Israeli efforts to remove Palestinian residents from certain parts of Jerusalem, which they say violate international law.
But social media has little patience for nuance. The supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, have posted ceaselessly about Palestinian suffering over the last week, with Bella Hadid writing in one post: “You are on the right side or you are not. It’s that simple.”
Perhaps an even more telling measure of the online fervor was the backlash awaiting the singer Rihanna, who, under normal circumstances, can do no wrong in fans’ eyes, when she condemned “the violence I’m seeing displayed between Israel and Palestine!” drawing accusations that she was equating the two sides’ actions and the consequences. Sample reply: “You sounded like ‘all lives matter.’”
So far, the dead have been disproportionately Palestinian. Twelve people in Israel have also died, killed amid rocket fire launched by Hamas from Gaza or Jewish-Arab mob violence.
There have been some street protests. Thousands have marched in Jordan and Iraq, and small demonstrations took place in Lebanon as well as in Morocco, Sudan and Bahrain, three of the Middle Eastern countries that agreed last year to normalize relations with Israel. Protests have also broken out in Western cities including Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Berlin, London and Paris.
But Egypt, where political parties, professional associations and student unions have historically organized some of the region’s largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations, driving tens of thousands out into Cairo’s streets and squares, has been quiet.
That may have to do with fatigue with the Palestinian issue, Egyptians’ preoccupation with their own problems or the Egyptian government’s systematic suppression of organizing and protest. (Egyptian authorities arrested two Egyptian coordinators of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement two years ago, accusing them of terrorism, and they remain imprisoned.)
Online posting, however, is still an option.
“The Palestinian cause is in our hearts,” said Yasmeen Yasser, a dentistry student from Alexandria, Egypt, who has been posting about Gaza on Twitter. “This is what we were raised with. And now it’s becoming more and more an international issue.”
Sabah Khodir, an Egyptian-American who helped lead an online campaign against sexual assault and harassment in Egypt last year, said the online movements of recent years had primed people to embrace the #FreePalestine hashtag.
“Because Black Lives Matter has happened, because Stop Asian Hate has happened, because Me Too has happened,” she said, “you have a lot of minorities and a lot of oppressed groups speaking out.”
Many, from the Hadids to longtime activists, are making the linkage explicit. On a recent episode of his podcast, The Breakdown, Shaun King, a leading Black Lives Matter activist, said that Palestinians “experience a brutality from police and the military very much akin to what African-Americans experience in the United States.”
To be sure, the connections existed long before this month. Malcolm X visited Gaza in 1964, when it belonged to Egypt, and the militant wing of the civil rights movement he represented harshly criticized Israel over its Palestinian policies. The American Indian Movement threw itself behind the Palestinians in the 1970s.
After the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2015, Palestinian activists offered protesters in Ferguson, Mo., advice on tear-gas protection. The wall separating the West Bank from Israel bears a giant mural of George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis last year.
“There’s an instinctive sense of solidarity,” said Michael R. Fischbach, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia who wrote the 2018 book “Black Power and Palestine.” “People from marginalized communities are going, ‘Wow, I could be the one on the other side of the fence. I could be the one looking down the barrel of the gun.’”
The main difference between then and now, Mr. Fischbach said, is velocity. While newsletter screeds against Israel took months to spread in the 1960s, today’s reposts and retweets are piling up by the second.
“This time — call me naïvely hopeful, but — for some reason the world seems to have an appetite for change these days,” @sufra_kitchen, an Instagram account that explores Middle Eastern food, wrote. “Whatever it is, please pay attention this time, because we all have been looking the other way for far too long.”
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo, and Nick Fandos and Catie Edmondson from Washington.