How social media is unmasking Israeli exceptionalism
The uninitiated "newsfeed scroller" might be forgiven for experiencing a bewildering sense of confusion during Israel's most recent onslaught in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as infographic after hashtag wrecked a previously benign depiction of the Israeli state.
However, those more attuned to the violent tendencies of the Israeli occupation quickly recognised the bombings of Gaza, the forced displacement of families in Sheikh Jarrah, and the ultra-nationalist incursions into the al-Aqsa mosque compound, as further proof of the glaring oxymoron at the heart of Israel's national identity.
Sterile discussions over Israel's constitutional status as both a secular state - protecting the rights of all its citizens - and as the historic homeland of the Jewish people all too often skate over essential realities: the uprooting of Palestinians from their homes during the Nakba of 1948, the annexation and illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the apartheid policies that callously target Palestinians living in Israel today.
However cordial these discussions, they are, at best, a marker of the tragic and forced circumstances of western guilt or, at worst, a continued endorsement of successive Israeli governments whose sense of superiority over the indigenous Palestinian population overflows into every facet of society.
On the ground, this sense of Israeli superiority is palpable. Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has archived 66 pieces of legislation discriminating against Palestinians that vary in theme from citizenship, civil and political rights, culture and language, to freedom of association and national identity.
"For Israelis, these national laws solidify the myth that they are especially special, and that the 'others' living among them are, for whatever reason, in need of discipline and damnation"
In 2018, the Netanyahu administration's triumphant addition of the "Nation-State Law" into Israel's 13 basic tenets essentially enshrined Palestinian citizens of Israel as second-class citizens.
For Israelis, these national laws solidify the myth that they are especially special and that the "others" living among them are, for whatever reason, in need of discipline and damnation.
Yet, as the onslaught raged - and the scale of Palestinian repression appeared on screens across the world - Palestinians and their allies were able to rejoice in an unusual, if tangible victory: the victory of social networks over broadcast networks, of info-speed over media bureaucratic bias. Within the realm of social media, they had found new possibilities and global allies on an unprecedented scale.
As the old guard stationed themselves wearily behind webcams and regurgitated long-forgotten resolutions, it was abundantly clear that the battle over optics and perception had formally migrated. It was now being waged in the sprawling universe of social media.
But why such a victory?
For allies of both sides, this battleground is fundamental in shaping the outsider lens of the Israel-Palestinian conflict but also, more importantly, it's the most accurate window we have into what motivates its participants.
Pre-empting its rise, Israel has long considered social media a key pillar of its public diplomacy campaign, or Hasbara, with the Israeli army a key proponent.
According to Army Colonel Thomas D. Mayfield, author of a "A Commander's Strategy for Social Media", Israeli forces have "developed a proactive information strategy, incorporating social media tools, along with enlisting the support of the Israeli online communities, to set the agenda in the media and control perceptions of the fighting."
More nuanced strategies used by Israel include "trolling groups" such as Act.IL that aims to counter pro-Palestinian tweets and Facebook posts, and the offering of social media internships or Hasbara fellowships to canvas for pro-Israeli groups. Ironically, these groups appreciate more than most the continual need to maintain a benevolent façade for their benefactors and patrons.
Yet online efforts to counter international criticism risk being exposed by incendiary anti-Palestinian sentiment on Twitter. With ultra-nationalist movements within Israel gaining unprecedented support, this environment has been an enabler for them to vent these xenophobic and racist remarks.
A recently released report published by 7amlah's Center for the Advancement of Social Media documented an "Index of Racism, Hatred and Incitement against Arabs and Palestinians" over the duration of the 11-day conflict.
The findings were stark. Out of the million social media conversations relating to Arabs, 20 percent of them included racism, insults, or incitement. Twenty-nine percent of that figure incited violence, 31 percent included insults, and 40 percent included racist tropes or stereotypes against Palestinians or Arabs.
But can we really be surprised? Even if we take one of the more gormless antagonists of the most recent flare-up, Jakob Fauci - the Brooklynite settler whose infamous "catch-phrase" - "if I don't take it, someone else will" - gained him international notoriety, we still find repeated examples of Israelis expressing disdain for Palestinians.
Mix Jakob's MAGA-hat-donning obtuseness with the racist slogans at the recent Flag Day ceremony, and you have a recipe for state-sponsored vitriol.
However, Palestinians and their allies must remember that while these extremist sentiments and events exist, Palestinians possess the tools of social persuasion. Even the most ardent supporters of Israel cannot sugarcoat the viral footage of pre-pubescent children shouting "Death to Arabs", and their fathers boasting of the coming of the second Nakba.
The need to document, archive, and remember is a skill at which Palestinians are tragically adept, and with social media, the thoughts and actions of their occupiers are now immortalised in unparalleled clarity, to be shared in an instant.
Benjamin Ashraf is a non-visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Department of International Studies and a researcher at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team.
His interests encompass Critical Theory, Post-Colonialism, Aesthetics, and Sound Studies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.