As Gaza cease-fire holds, a resurgent Palestinian youth movement emerges

Mahmoud Illean/AP
Israeli border police scuffle with protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where several Palestinian families are under imminent threat of forcible eviction from their homes, May 15, 2021.
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Palestinians are making their voices heard in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and across the world, using tech platforms to both amplify their political cause and connect communities fragmented by partition and occupation. They say their struggle for rights is starting to gain momentum and that they aren’t willing to wait for the international community to act.  

In Gaza, Friday’s cease-fire between Hamas and Israel appears to be holding. But Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem continued, including violence and arrests Sunday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. These incidents, and disputes over the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, are all being documented by tech-savvy activists. They draw parallels between their struggle and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Why We Wrote This

A young generation of Palestinian activists sees social media platforms as game changers for a renewed struggle against Israel. But their frustration is also directed at their own political leaders.

“Now we have more tools to make people engaged with what is going on, on the ground. When we take the story from the street directly to the world, it encourages people to take part in this movement because it is happening live. This is huge,” says Nijmeh Ali, a Palestinian academic and activist.  

However, activists are avoiding a deeper discussion of politics, focusing instead on the shared struggle for civil rights. “It is a long march and we are in the early days,” says one millennial.

Two months ago, Majd, like many young Palestinians, was dreaming of emigrating: a “one-way ticket” out of the occupied territories to the United Kingdom.

Now he wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world.

“Today, all we want is to be here and be part of this movement,” the 26-year-old graduate student said as he marched in the streets of Ramallah last week.

Why We Wrote This

A young generation of Palestinian activists sees social media platforms as game changers for a renewed struggle against Israel. But their frustration is also directed at their own political leaders.

Samer Sharif, a Jerusalem activist protesting the displacement of 28 Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, one of the flashpoints that led up to the latest 11-day Gaza war, says “something new” is in the air.

“We are no longer afraid; the more the Israeli authorities try to suppress us, the more it backfires,” Mr. Sharif says. “Simply, for us there is nothing to lose.”

Bolder, louder, viral: Palestinians making their voices heard in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and across the world say their struggle for rights and freedoms is starting to gain momentum, fueled by a young generation unwilling to censor itself or await effective Palestinian leadership.

Leaderless, and without a common ideology or political affiliation, these young activists are also reuniting fragmented Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank, and across Israel in their push for basic rights and freedoms.

They vow their “TikTok uprising” has only just begun, as Friday’s cease-fire between Hamas and Israel appears to be holding, amid continued Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem. This includes violence and arrests on Sunday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, one of Islam’s three holiest sites, built on grounds revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

“Enough is enough”

The media, diplomats, and analysts have speculated about what lay behind the sudden resurgence of a Palestinian civil rights movement after years of near-dormancy.

In recent weeks, Palestinians across the occupied territories and Israel have joined protests, strikes, boycotts, and civil action in Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem, as violence and Israeli police raids at Al-Aqsa intensified in the final days of Ramadan. Hamas, which rules Gaza, then fired rockets at Israel in retaliation, triggering an onslaught of Israeli airstrikes.

Fatima Abdulkarim
Activist Muna Al-Kurd stands by a mural drawn at the wall of her family home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 20, 2021. The mural reads "here to stay."

So why now? The answer for Muna Al-Kurd, a Sheikh Jarrah resident, is simple.

“I’m no longer willing to take this,” Ms. Al-Kurd says of Israeli rights violations. “The true power of our generation and this uprising is bringing all Palestinians together to say ‘enough is enough.’”

Dubbed the “TikTok generation,” Palestinians born after the 1990s Oslo Accord are tech-savvy and harbor pent-up frustrations over a life of Israeli-imposed restrictions, checkpoints, and closed borders, along with what they see as a failed Palestinian leadership and a toothless international community.

This defiance has taken different forms: Young Palestinians pose and smile as they are arrested by Israeli police; impromptu concerts are held near Israeli security patrols and checkpoints.

Palestinians agree that the resurgence couldn’t have been possible without the sharing of easily digestible video clips via TikTok and livestreams, technologies they call a “game changer.”

Take the video of the 23-year-old Ms. Al-Kurd pleading in English with an Israeli settler that had taken over her family home in Sheikh Jarrah. It went viral in April, the first of hundreds of such videos highlighting Palestinians’ struggle for equal rights that have been shared on social media platforms in several languages.

These videos are allowing Palestinians to counter narratives by the Israeli government, its supporters, and even Western media that they claim have mischaracterized their struggle and sidelined their voices.  

“When I use my phone to document what is happening in my life, in my home, on the street where I live, I’m showing people around the world news that they don’t see on TV networks,” says Ms. Al-Kurd. She has continued to document Israeli restrictions, Palestinian protests, and showdowns with Israeli police in her East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Nijmeh Ali, a Palestinian academic and activist, points out that similar protests in Sheikh Jarrah in 2009, when few had smartphones or ways to share media, failed to gain traction.

“Now we have more tools to make people engaged with what is going on, on the ground. When we take the story from the street directly to the world, it encourages people to take part in this movement because it is happening live. This is huge,” Dr. Ali says.

Virtual connections, physical barriers

Observers say the social media-fueled uprising is also reuniting Palestinians fragmented for the past 20 years by a separation barrier, checkpoints, a blockade, movement restrictions, and Israeli settlements.

Their virtual connections are linking their separate causes and framing their challenges as one shared struggle. Their message: There cannot be calm in one area, until there is justice and equal rights for all.

At the beginning of the uprising, Amany Akasha, a 25-year-old translator in Gaza, worked with activists in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem to produce social media content, and now streams videos in English to raise awareness of “Palestine from a Palestinian perspective.”

“Thanks to social media, we now know exactly what the people in Jerusalem and the West Bank are going through, and they are aware of what we face in Gaza,” Ms. Akasha says.

Hind Al-Wahidi, a 16-year-old Gazan who is translating videos for Ms. Akasha into English and French, says interaction with other activists helped her learn about parts of the occupied territories she has never been allowed to enter.

“It makes me feel useful to tweet and share videos and factual content on the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, which I have never been to in my life,” Ms. Al-Wahidi says.

Palestinians from towns across Israel have flooded into Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem in support of families facing displacement, many for the first time.

When Palestinian Israelis held a general strike last week to protest against discrimination and the failure of Israeli police to protect them from far-right mobs, Palestinians in the West Bank joined them, the first comprehensive Palestinian strike held in decades.

Fatima Abdulkarim
Protesters put up posters on the streets of Ramallah, West Bank, during a general strike on May 18, 2021.

From Jerusalem to Ferguson

With the change in guard has come a change in language for Palestinians.

While previous generations referred to the Israeli “occupation,” young Palestinians are using terms such as “apartheid,” “Palestinian Lives Matter,” and “ethnic cleansing” to draw parallels to other international social justice causes that resonate with people outside the Middle East.

Palestinian activists say the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired them to share videos and photos of Israeli police placing Palestinians in knee-to-neck holds, echoing the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. They are also linking with progressives in the U.S. Democratic Party to build momentum to pressure Israel’s biggest security and political ally.

“They are using words that link to social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, and issues such as racial discrimination and dispossession that resonate for communities in Western states to maximum effect,” says Tahani Mustafa, West Bank analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Still, Palestinians are grappling with one core question: What is the way forward for this young, leaderless movement that has no overarching political agenda?

Activists say they are focused on holding protests and documenting incidents on the streets; Israeli forces continued Monday to make arrests after a weekend when 2,000 mostly Israeli Palestinian protesters were detained.

But activists say they are deliberately avoiding a deeper discussion of a political program or taking stances on proposals for one-state vs. two-state solution, or Palestinian political representation. These thorny issues, they say, have divided and distracted Palestinians from the larger, shared struggle for civil rights.

“We don’t want to say ‘tomorrow we will liberate Palestine.’ No one is even saying the words ‘political program,” says LN, a millennial activist, who preferred not to use her full name due to security concerns.

“It is a long march and we are in the early days. We want to unite the street, not focus on the political speed bumps our parties failed to overcome.”

Changes on the ground

Dr. Mustafa warns that unless activists develop an internal structure and specific political demands, the movement may eventually “implode from within, give up, or face repression” from Israeli and Palestinian security services.

“In terms of a moral and PR exercise, it has been a success for Palestinians and a complete disaster for Israel and its Western supporters,” Dr. Mustafa says of the movement, “but those moral victories will not count for much if nothing really changes on the ground.”

But young, newly empowered Palestinians say change has already arrived.

“We know we cannot stop tying our national struggle to the struggle for social justice,” says Ahed Tamimi, who came to prominence as a teenage activist and was jailed in 2017 for slapping an Israeli soldier.

“Because the day after our liberation, we want to live in a Palestine that respects diversity, civil rights for all and where justice prevails.”

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