Equipped with just a laptop and smart phone as he sits in a café overlooking Ramallah’s central square, Ahmed Yousef could be mistaken for a journalism student.
But the 25-year-old is in fact a senior editor of a Palestinian news site whose coverage of a wave of unrest with Israel has made it as popular as Al Jazeera.
Using a network of about one dozen freelance correspondents and 60 volunteer field reporters, Quds News Network combines breaking coverage with the fast distribution of graphic video content to its social networks.
That has made QNN one of the go-to news sites for a generation of Palestinian teens and 20-somethings who obsessively check mobile phones for breaking news and have become inspired by the idea of a new uprising – or intifada – against Israel.
The latest round of violence, which has claimed 10 Israeli and 52 Palestinian lives, has defied fitful efforts by leaders on both sides to contain it. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a just-concluded visit to the region, secured vows of new measures to calm tensions over access to Jerusalem’s disputed holy sites, the main catalyst for the violence.
But passions have remained high on both sides, and among Palestinians, social media and Internet sites have been instrumental in motivating the mostly young protesters and attackers.
“It’s a young media outlet geared toward youth that support the resistance, in all forms that international law allows,” says Mr. Yousef of QNN. “We are faster than anyone because of the huge number of reporters.”
Just three years old, Quds News boasts a Facebook page with 3.8 million likes and a Twitter account with 269,000 followers. It’s that type of social-media footprint along with so-called “snuff” footage of attacks that has raised allegations from Israelis that Palestinian social media is helping to fuel a repeating cycle of violence.
“Citizen journalists help them report from the field. A lot of people are sending them videos and news, so they are an attractive source of information,” says Fadi Abu Sada, a Palestinian media expert and a West Bank correspondent for the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Quds al Araby. “They are number one on the social networks and are more trusted more than any other local news network.”
Appealing to emotions
Enhancing the popularity of Quds News is its image of independence from the feud between the Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It has also filled a void in coverage left by larger Arab satellite news services who remain focused on dominant regional stories like the Syrian civil war.
But Ghassan Khatib, the former director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, says Quds News and other upstart news sites have suffered from beginners’ mistakes like jumping the gun on reporting Palestinian fatalities.
“It appeals to public sentiment in an emotional way,” says Mr. Khatib, a former spokesman for the Palestinian government. “Local news didn’t attract the attention of satellite networks like Al Jazeera. They report local news, but not in as much depth. That has created huge demand for the local websites.”
Yousef came to Quds News more than a year ago after leaving the Jerusalem-based daily newspaper Al Quds, which has close links to the ruling Fatah party and is considered more conservative in its coverage. He describes his editorial mission as a mix of a journalistic public service “to cover the event and give it to my readers” and as nationalist cheerleader for a new uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
'The kids want videos'
Scrolling through the days’ top news on the Quds News homepage, Yousef points to an article highlighting an attack just minutes earlier in which a would-be stabber was shot at road junction. Another cites violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians and features a picture of an Israeli child in a settlement being shown how to use a gun. There was also a scoop: an interview with the lawyer of a 13-year old Palestinian boy from Jerusalem who was wounded and hospitalized by security forces in what Israel says was a stabbing rampage that seriously injured an Israeli boy the same age.
While Yousef speaks, café television screens broadcast the news network of Islamic Jihad, which features a logo of a masked youth hurling a stone and an unending video loop of Israeli border policemen, Palestinian demonstrators, and Palestinian casualties in the clashes.
While the Palestinian Authority tries to modulate the focus of official media on the clashes, Quds News’s Facebook page slakes popular demand with a daily feed featuring the latest news clips that frequently go viral. “The kids want videos,” says Youssef.
The same page features a two-week-old clip of Israelis cursing a wounded Palestinian teenager who had been shot and was lying in a pool of blood after an alleged stabbing attempt. Asked if Quds News should be seeking to calm rather than enflame tensions in its news coverage, Yousef becomes defensive.
“The responsibility is on the Israeli side, which must stop the violence,” he says. “In my opinion, the knife and a stone are not comparable to a gun.”
'Reclaiming the Palestinian narrative'
Youssef says Facebook shut down an affiliate page of Quds News dedicated to video sharing following Israeli complaints of incitment. A new video-sharing Facebook site has replaced it, he says.
“The youth are reclaiming the Palestinian narrative with cellphones by offering testimony of what’s going on,” says Yousef. “The mission is to expose the Israeli narrative by being there.”
The viral content provides Quds News’ one of its main revenue streams – Palestinian and Jordanian mobile carriers give Quds News a cut of proceeds from text messages with Quds content. “We are non-profit, but it pays reporters and keeps the website going,” he says.
Indeed, for Yousef, it seems the ultimate mission of Quds News is not about business or journalism but to promote the Palestinian fight against Israel. Though he doesn't say where the wave of stabbings and rock throwing is leading the Palestinians, for Yousef “resistance” seems to be a value in itself.
“I have the right to resist in any way possible. I’m on my land, and they are on raped land,” he says. “We believe the intifada has already started. I hope that it will achieve the desired results.”