Pro-Palestinian activism has captured the popular imagination in the wake of hostilities between Israel and Palestine in May. Although the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories extends back decades, in the era of social justice movements and social media, the issue has recently received growing international attention, this time increasingly among the general public.
Following the May clashes between Palestinian protesters and members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in East Jerusalem and subsequent rocket-fire exchanges between Israel and Hamas – the de facto governing authority in Gaza – social media platforms were dominated by posts calling attention to the Palestinian cause. These posts brought global awareness to the conflict and sparked a significant uptick in pro-Palestinian activism around the world. Numerous pro-Palestinian protests took place in many countries, including across the US and Europe and there was increased, albeit limited, pressure on Israeli military and commercial interests globally, partly influenced by activists’ call for a boycott of Israeli goods.
Activists in Leicester, UK, for example, temporarily shut down an Israeli drone factory, while workers in Italy’s Livorno port refused to load a shipment of arms destined for Israel. Similarly, in South Africa, port workers in Durban refused to offload cargo from an Israeli ship. While this is not necessarily indicative of a shift in the global standing towards Israel and Palestine among international and government players, it does suggest the world will be increasingly watching how this, and other human rights related conflicts, are handled.
ADDING FUEL TO THE FIRE
For more than seven decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has affected the Middle East landscape. Despite persistent international efforts, stakeholders have failed to secure a comprehensive peace agreement and sporadic violence has continued. Most recently, tensions between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents had increased since early-April, resulting in protests and scuffles between rival demonstrators in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Between 7 and 10 May, members of the IDF raided the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem to disperse Palestinians engaged in sit-in protests over the potential eviction of residents from Al Shaykh Jarah. This led to intensified demonstrations and clashes between security personnel and protesters in the compound and other areas of East Jerusalem and soon prompted reprisal military action by both Israel and Hamas: on 10 May, Hamas launched several rockets into Southern Israel with Israel soon retaliating, carrying out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. At least 250 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis were killed in 11 days of conflict until – following international pressure and efforts by regional players including Egypt – Israel and Hamas entered a ceasefire agreement. Although fighting has subsided, the incident catapulted the Israel / Palestinian dispute to the global stage. This time the debate was not confined to global leaders, diplomats and foreign policy advisors but instead civil society movements, celebrities and the public more broadly.
The increased public attention on the Palestinian cause can in part be explained by the increase in numbers of and support for social justice campaigns seen in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests witnessed in 2020 and that have continued into 2021. Videos and imagery of the destruction of Gaza, and the suffering of the Palestinians were widely shared by intersectional activist and progressive groups, many of whom had seen growing follower numbers due to their BLM online activity. Not only did this amplify the issue on social media but it also attracted audiences outside traditional Palestinian activist groups to the campaign. This was particularly acute in the US, where some 140 activist groups across a wide spectrum of social causes signed a joint statement calling on the Biden administration to condemn the Israeli government actions in Gaza. Infographics and quick explainers further (over)simplified an inherently complex geopolitical issue for the everyday ‘Tweeter’, ‘Instagramer’ or ‘Facebooker.’
Although fighting has subsided, the incident catapulted the Israel / Palestinian dispute to the global stage.
The social media narrative of the latest flare up in tensions also contributed to a growing generational divide on the conflict. A May 2021 POLITICO-Morning Consult Poll in the US, for example, showed that 23 percent of ‘Generation Z’ participants were sympathetic to Palestine, while only 8 percent of the ‘Baby Boomers’ displayed similar sympathies. With the GenZ’s increasingly rallying around social justice causes, such as #MeToo and BLM, both online and on the streets, it is unsurprising that solidarity protests have popped up around the globe. The GenZ group too is growing as conscious consumers, demanding greater accountability from companies from which they are buying products. This means companies associated with the latest ‘persona non grata’ – in this case Israel – or seen as failing to take an appropriate stand on a specific social justice matter could suffer the consequences at the checkout till.
ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
(Young) people appear more ready to rally around social justice movements, including Palestine. Not only have solidarity protests occurred globally, but more direct actions to boycott Israel and Israeli products have gained traction. While dockworkers have disrupted Israeli-linked shipments, Israeli companies and consumer brands have also faced calls for boycotts from consumers, causing firms to reassess their previous silence on politically-charged issues. Meanwhile, citizens are demanding more from their governments vis-à-vis their position on Israel, ranging from calls for Israeli sanctions to the Maldives reportedly suspending ‘all relations’ with Israel.
THE WORLD IS WATCHING
The solution to this intricate and protracted diplomatic issue is unlikely to be found on a social media feed, or even at a protest site. However, the prominence of the Palestinian cause on the international stage could add new impetus to finding a resolution, one that pushes the importance of developing and advancing the role of the people in a solution. Yet, while it is evident that there will be criticism against Israel’s policies and actions in Palestine going forward, the issue has also given rise to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents highlighting the importance of non-partisan and objective rhetoric regarding the complex conflict. However, in the very least, with the world now increasingly watching, those involved in paving a way for peace between Israel and Palestine will be held to greater account going forward, potentially giving rise to greater prospects for peace.