The virtual world is a new arena for Palestine-Israel confrontations

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  October 4, 2022

While Israeli aggression against Palestinians is escalating, and the Palestinian response is to attack the occupation army, Israel is complaining about what it describes as biased media coverage by the world’s leading television networks and newspapers. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll has told the editors of major foreign newspapers that they are distorting reality and that he is shocked by the progress of the Palestinian narrative since Israel’s latest offensive against the people in Gaza.

The Israeli hasbara (propaganda) machine has swung into action to change the way that the world’s leading media cover guerrilla attacks in the heart of occupied Palestine. Diplomats have called on media outlets to stop using the “incorrect” words to describe Palestinian resistance. Descriptions such as “armed men” rather than “terrorists” have been used; and shootings are called “armed operations” not “terrorist attacks”, much to Israel’s annoyance. The Israelis claim that such terminology legitimizes the Palestinian attacks. In fact, armed resistance to a military occupation is already entirely legitimate and consistent with international law.

While the occupation army is facing Palestinian resistance on the ground, Israel’s security services are busy confronting Palestinian activists in the virtual world through social media, especially TikTok, which has a remarkable Palestinian presence attracting tens of millions of views and opinions, both supportive and otherwise. Israel’s assessment is that the Palestinians are winning the media battle and are popularizing their narrative, and can now influence public opinion.

Israel’s security services are monitoring the Palestinian posts on TikTok, which include full political and patriotic messages using unconventional memes, artistic challenges, video clips and cute animals, in Arabic, English and Spanish. All are generally challenging Israel.

TikTok activism has spread relatively quickly among Palestinians, not least because of its use to publicize recent events, especially in Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque, when global awareness was boosted by the revelation in real time of Israeli intentions to expel Palestinian families for the benefit of illegal settlers. The resultant online campaign achieved what the Palestinian Authority has been unable to do in years.

There are now concerns within Israel that this social media-savvy generation of multilingual Palestinians will, within a decade or so, form the core of Palestinian society and possibly even the political leadership. Israel has been used to managing its affairs in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with the same old “traditional” leaders for decades, and may be surprised by the next leadership group.

The young Palestinians on TikTok sense that they are in a race against time to counter Israel’s false counter-narrative which, for example, depicts Jenin as a hotbed of armed operations from which guerrillas launch bloody attacks in the heart of Israeli cities. Palestinian activists on TikTok demonstrate that, in fact, Jenin is a very ordinary city, with shopping malls and landmarks, and Palestinian music playing in the background including traditional songs that every citizen knows by heart. In just a few seconds, these images get thousands of views and likes, which jars Israeli nerves and challenges the veracity of the hasbara aimed at the international community.

Moreover, Israelis believe that many of the TikTok posts by Palestinian activists indicate that this new generation wants all of Palestine back, from the river to the sea, and believes that Israel has no legitimacy on Palestinian land. In the event of any political or security incident, Palestinians on TikTok respond immediately by illustrating the historic injustice of the establishment of the State of Israel on their land. Thousands of such posts clearly resonate with audiences in Islamic, Arab and Western countries.

Those Israelis who believe that the Palestinian cause is no longer a major concern around the world should take a look at TikTok, which is a world away from that of the aging officials who deal with the routine of the ongoing conflict. What Israel describes as Palestinian hegemony on TikTok confirms that a new generation in the Middle East and around the world does indeed care about the Palestinian cause, and that the pro-Palestine spirit will only grow in the absence of a solution to the conflict. It surely can’t be long before the younger generation will become more convinced that resistance is the only real solution alongside a comprehensive boycott of the occupation state.

Meanwhile, Israel is using influencers on social media to challenge the Palestinian narrative. These people seek to restore support for Israel, using their popularity on TikTok in particular. Such pro-Israel influencers are said to be the apartheid state’s strongest weapon in the online struggle for dominance, with 32 million followers, and yet they are, as Israel admits, still losing the battle. So-called digital warriors specialize in their targets, with Palestinian American model Bella Hadid, for example, having one particular follower who attacks her online whenever she blames Israel for killing Palestinian children.

Israeli activists have been spreading the hashtag #Israelunderattack, even though one of them lost 20,000 followers with the click of a button when he posted a pro-Israel tweet. It is clear, therefore, that TikTok has become an effective tool for the Palestinians in the propaganda struggle against the occupation state.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza