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Social media and the Third Intifada: The inconvenient truth

April 15, 2016 7:30 P.M. (Updated: April 18, 2016 9:41 A.M.)
Youth protesters rest during a lull in clashes on a side street in Bethlehem Oct. 13, 2015. (MaanImages/Sheren Khalel, File)
By: Albana Dwonch

Albana Dwonch is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington currently conducting research in Jerusalem.

Six months since its start, more questions have been raised than answered regarding the violent rebellion of youth in the occupied Palestinian territory.

“Is this a Third Intifada or not” was the first disputed matter brought up for debate by many media reports and analyses. The second, “Did social media fuel it?” caused an equal amount of confusion over its role in the latest youth revolt.

The confusion was first evident in the media’s difficulty to define these new leaderless actors and their unfamiliar mobilizing ways. Journalists had to alter their vocabulary and establish new terms such as “lone wolf” and “online inciter.”

Yet these terms were problematic as well. “Lone wolves” -- the users of the most archaic tools of the street -- were hard to distinguish from “online inciters”-- users of advanced social technologies, who produced, posted and shared videos of events with their social networks.

Despite the difficulty to define and explain these new actors and their decentralized methods for organizing, the overall conclusion is that social media has been a driver for the spread of violence and for the radicalization of Palestinian youth over the past six months.

However, this conclusion ignores a much deeper and persistent development. Beyond the specific role of social media in this youth revolt, the broader implications of the dramatic shift of social and media terrain are starting to alter Palestinian and Israeli political systems and their domestic and international sources of power.

The use of social media made clear that while the PA and Israel may still be able to contain the unrest, PA certainly cannot control the youth undertaking it, neither Israel can put a clear end to it.

Why angry but leaderless?

The degree to which social media fueled the dynamics of violence in this youth revolt is entangled in the broader implication of exposing the legitimacy crisis of Palestinian political structures.

The preference of youth for leaderless and decentralized mobilization reveals an acute disconnect and loss of faith in their parties and leaders.

The claim that viral dissemination of violent videos through social media diffused anger and incited further violence has now been eclipsed by another unintended social media effect of this latest cycle of violence.

The March 24 video by a citizen rights worker in Hebron exposed the fine line between “inciting” and “exposing” violence.

The sight of an Israeli soldier executing an already wounded Palestinian lying on the ground, exposed for the broader public, the less-witnessed side of the same dark story: Israel’s excessive use of state violence in the occupied Palestinian territory.

As with the fine line between “lone wolf” and “online inciter,” videos featuring “Palestinian knife-attacks” are now matched with videos featuring Israeli extrajudicial killings.

The exposure of state violence as an unintended effect in capturing “lone wolfs”, led to another problem: increased surveillance and censorship in search of “online inciters.”

Israel with its strong Internet infrastructure and Internet penetration rates amongst the highest in the world has, since October 2015, increased surveillance of the Internet, and has arrested hundreds of Palestinian youth for “online incitement” on their Facebook pages.

In addition, the Israeli government has shut down Palestinian media outlets in the West Bank and targeted Israeli rights NGOs which publicize videos and materials in defense of the human rights of Palestinians are now under state scrutiny, which paints them as suspect of being foreign agents.

Power structures strike back

Co-optation of non-state actors, increased surveillance and excessive use of military violence represent a familiar state response to such youth protests.

In fact, through its response to this unrest, the Israeli government bears a stark resemblance with the way the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza contained and then crushed the non-violent March 15 youth movement in 2011.

Inspired by the unforgettable images of the Arab Spring, the March 15 movement was initiated on Facebook in the form of an angry manifesto that triggered an emotional response by a vast plurality of youth who shared common frustrations and occupied the public squares in the West Bank and Gaza.

These protests were directed against the division between the Palestinian factions and other power structures. Shortly after, Palestinian authorities significantly increased Internet surveillance, shut down or co-opted local NGOs, dissolved online youth groups and jailed and threatened charismatic young leaders.

So, while the Israeli search for lone wolves and online inciters is far from over, something else far more important is unfolding: While state power response to youth protests are becoming relatively easy to predict, the next wave of youth protest and what it will bring is extremely unpredictable.

We have witnessed twice so far in this decade protests diffused through social media that have attempted to hit Palestinian and Israeli power structures. Both were sparked by a widely shared sentiment of anger and both surprised the power systems in place. And both were contained for the time being.

Yet, singling out social media as the reason for why these mobilization patterns fail or become violent distracts attention from understanding the evolving conditions that enable the transformation of emotional sentiment of hope or despair into the next movement for change against the de facto powers in place.

This understanding may dramatically shift the power relations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.

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