War of the words: The social media battleground of Israel-Gaza clashes
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War of the words: The social media battleground of Israel-Gaza clashes

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Social media became another battleground during Operation Guardian of the Walls and in the weeks leading up to the operation, as tensions climbed during Ramadan over Jewish-Arab violence and pending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

While it may not be known as the best place for constructive and respectful dialogue, social media is one of the few arenas in which people are exposed to the opinions of those whom they may never meet in person.

On Twitter or Instagram, Palestinians, Jews, and Arab-Israelis are exposed to each other’s opinions in ways they would not be without social media. This means that there is a unique opportunity for dialogue and education on these platforms, but only if positive, non-polarized dialogue can occur.

Many social media posts made use of phrases that have years of history and baggage attached to them, often serving to infuriate readers who read their own knowledge of the phrases onto them. Anger at the use of terms, triggered by reactions to specific key words, can serve as a challenge to dialogue in any circumstance, and this is especially true for social media, where posts are often short and depend on the common knowledge of readers exposed to the content.

Below is a collection of sensitive phrases used extensively on social media during the recent escalation, and some of the background as to why they can be so triggering to some Jews and Israelis.

Although the list is by no means complete or representative of all sides involved, by beginning to understand some of the sensitivities surrounding certain phrases, more productive conversations can be had.

While articles explaining sensitivities for other populations have been valuable in bettering dialogue, as Jewish Israeli writers we have addressed issues triggering to many Jewish Israelis, because they are most accessible to us and best understood by us.

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TWITTER BATTLEGROUND: The #FreePalestine movement’s page. (Credit: Twitter)

“Free Palestine”

There are 2.9 million posts on Instagram under the #freepalestine tag. There are another 10,000 under the same tag on Facebook, and the phrase was liked on Twitter over 10,500 times in a recent seven-day span.

Today it is seen as a standalone phrase, not connected to any one movement or institution; it is assumed to just be a cry for action from online activists.

However, those familiar with two prominent organizations that work under the name “Free Palestine Movement,” one based in Syria and one in California, may associate the hashtag and calls to “free Palestine” with these organizations.

The original Free Palestine Movement was founded in 2003 by Syrian-born Palestinian Yasser Qashlaq. It is an armed resistance movement opposed to the existence of the State of Israel, and since 2012 it has been involved in the Syrian civil war, fighting for the Syrian government and President Bashar Assad.

In 2011, the movement’s founder, Qashlaq, interviewed on the Hezbollah television network, was recorded calling Jews “human pieces of filth,” and advocated for sending Israelis back to Poland and Europe.

Because of this connection to an armed movement that openly opposes the existence of Israel and that was founded by someone who has been so openly antisemitic, when “free Palestine” is used, many hear a call to violent resistance against the State of Israel as a Jewish state.

The newer and less-well-known Free Palestine Movement says that it is unconnected to Qashlaq’s movement despite the shared name, and describes itself as a human rights organization, with several working groups inside and outside the US.

It claims to “challenge Israeli policies and actions that deny Palestinians their human rights, and in particular the right of unfettered access to all of Palestine.”

While its website is largely inactive, it continues to share news articles sporadically, the most recent of which was posted in December 2020.

That article was written by Asa Winstanley, a British investigative journalist who works for Electronic Intifada. Winstanley was suspended from the British Labour Party in 2019 for spreading antisemitic rhetoric after saying that the Jewish Labour Movement was an “Israeli Embassy proxy,” and said that Jewish members of the Labour Party had “fabricated antisemitism.”

While use of the #Freepalestine tag may not be connected to either of these two movements, people will always associate it with them, given the origins of the phrase, and it will never really be separated from those movements and the related subtext in the minds of many.

“From the river to the sea”

The call for Palestine to be free “from the river to the sea,” like the phrase “free Palestine,” did not start as the popular chant that is shouted at pro-Palestinian protests today.

The slogan refers to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – a region comprising the West Bank and Gaza and Israel.

Advocates of the slogan say it calls for freedom for all inhabitants of the area, and that rather than being a call for ethnically cleansing the land of Jews, it is a call for a one-state solution.

Critics say the slogan references the widespread sentiment among Palestinians that all the land is occupied and should be liberated by dismantling the Jewish state, according to Cnaan Liphshiz.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip, first issued its charter known as the “Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement,” in 1988.

Hamas and its supporters believe that “from the river to the sea” is a call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the land. Because of this, many feel that this call is not compatible with a solution that grants Jews and Palestinians self-determination in the region but is a one-sided and violent call.

In the 1988 edition of its charter, Hamas says that it “[strives] to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine” and says that “Israel will exist and continue to exist until Islam invalidates it.”

Furthermore, its charter continued to advocate for the killing of Jews, regardless of whether or not they were Israeli, until 2017, when a revised edition was released.

Former national director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman has compared the Hamas Charter to a “modern-day Mein Kampf.”

In contrast, however, the Palestinian Authority has rejected “Palestine from the river to the sea” ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1995 and the decision to work toward a two-state solution with the goal of self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians simultaneously.

“Occupied Gaza”

The phrase “occupied Gaza’’ was used extensively on social media during Operation Guardian of the Walls. The UN, multiple NGOs and human rights organizations, as well as many governments still refer to Gaza as occupied by Israel.

Israel and Egypt control Gaza’s borders, and Israel maintains control of Gazan airspace and territorial waters, leading many to say that Israel has effective control of the enclave, and so it is still under Israeli “occupation” despite Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Strip.

Opponents of this classification say that other similar blockades, such as the US’s blockade of Cuba, were not labeled occupations.

Referring to the Strip as occupied Gaza can evoke the sense that Israel is being unfairly singled out when Egypt also shares a border with Gaza that it strictly controls.

Opponents of this terminology also say that it creates a situation in which Israel will always be seen as occupying Gaza, regardless of its actions, and that this removes responsibility from Hamas. This creates a “catch-22” according to The Jerusalem Post’s Seth J. Frantzman. Calling Gaza occupied gives Hamas the right to resist occupation through terrorism, which causes Israel to blockade the Strip, enforcing the perception that Gaza is occupied.

Another factor that makes this term so sensitive for many Israelis is the trauma and division caused by the 2005 Disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The Disengagement was a traumatic event for the 9,000 Jews forcibly evicted from the Strip and for the Jews and Israelis opposed to the Disengagement. The continued referral to the Strip as occupied can evoke the feeling that their loss was trivial or meaningless.

“Colonialism”/“settler colonialism”

The terms “colonialism” and “settler colonialism” have been used to describe Israel for years, and these terms were used extensively on social media during Guardian of the Walls.

Proponents of these classifications say that they are accurate depictions and useful terms to understand the structure of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and opponents say they are inaccurate and revisionist and serve to erase Jewish history and identity.

Use of the term “colonialism” can be upsetting because it seems to imply that Jews are not native to the Land of Israel and have no historical connection to the region, which many Jews find to be a deeply offensive and historically inaccurate claim.

Describing Jews as a colonial power in Israel implies that Jews represent an alien population implanted in Israel, or that Zionism was an imperial tool of Britain, according to a Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies perspective paper published by Dr. Alex Joffre.

Jews are indigenous in the Southern Levant, and there is historical and genetic evidence that Jews were in the region over 2,000 years ago, says Joffre, who adds that there is “indisputable evidence of continuous residence of Jews in the region.”

That the region was not unpopulated when the Zionist movement began is also clear, said Joffre, but the populations in the area had immigrated over previous centuries, and immigration accelerated because of the British Mandate and Zionist movements.

Concern over the implication that Jews are not native to the Land of Israel can be better understood in the context of other examples, such as a 2020 UN resolution that reaffirmed the connection between Judaism and Jerusalem, but referred to al-Haram al-Sharif as an exclusively Muslim site, disregarding its importance to Judaism as the Temple Mount. This was seen by many Jews as a painful revision that disregarded centuries of history, prayer and tradition.

As Jews face what they may feel is a revision of history, claims that are seen as rewriting the past or contradicting the Jewish connection to the region can be particularly contentious and triggering.

PALESTINIAN LOSS of Land infographic. (Wikimedia Commons)PALESTINIAN LOSS of Land infographic. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Palestinian loss of land” maps

Tying in to a narrative of Jewish takeover and conquering of territory in the region is the “Palestinian loss of land” infographic that has been in use for years and was also shared during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

The infographic, which depicts four maps with the areas under Israeli control marked in gray, and those under Palestinian control in green, is supposed to represent the takeover of Palestinian land by Jewish populations, showing a rapidly shrinking area of Palestinian control.

It has also been shared by news organizations such as MSNBC, which used the infographic in 2015 and then apologized for the use of what it called “not factually accurate” maps.

The maps do not show that the region was under the British Mandate before the founding of the State of Israel, and subject to the Ottoman Empire before that. The maps have been widely criticized as inaccurate and promoting the false idea of Jewish conquering of a Palestinian sovereign state.

This infographic further promotes a narrative of Jewish takeover as a foreign power which many Jews feel disregards Jewish indigeneity and the continual Jewish presence in the region.


During Guardian of the Walls, social media was awash with posts and comments indicating that Israel was committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people. The question of whether or not this is true has been hotly debated since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.

The crime of genocide was first recognized in 1946, and it was codified in direct response to the Holocaust, when over six million Jews were systematically and intentionally murdered. There are relatively few events throughout world history that have been officially recognized by the UN as genocide.

Due to this, many feel that the informal and casual use of the word when applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially when it is thrown around on social media so frequently, is disrespectful to the survivors of genocide and to their descendants.

Using the official UN definition as a guide, scholars and educators have argued that Israel is guilty of committing genocide against the Palestinian people, but this has been contested by numerous professionals in the same field of study.

Israel’s policy “doesn’t even begin to meet the threshold of what genocide is, and I think it cheapens the very important and grave concept of genocide,” said Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney active in the fight for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, in an interview with Ben Sales for JTA.

“First and foremost, in order to commit the crime of genocide, one needs to have an intention to exterminate, in whole or in part, a group,” Sfard continued. “And in the 30 years of my activism and more than 20 years of litigation, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Israeli officials and decision-makers hold such an intention.”

Furthermore, Amnesty International, a self-described “global community of human rights defenders,” does not describe Israeli actions as genocide, despite being highly critical and saying that Israel is responsible for “unlawful killings and excessive use of force.”

Amnesty International’s seemingly intentional decision to avoid use of the word “genocide” is backed up by Palestinian rights activist Sari Bashi, who said: “There’s a tendency for people to take words that are strong and to use them to describe actions they find objectionable, whether or not they fit,” while explaining why she does not describe Israel as having committed genocide. “I think people often throw around strong terms. I don’t think you hear international lawyers or human rights groups issuing reports analyzing why it’s genocide, because it’s not.

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