Media plays a major role in how we view and assess conflicts. Through the images we see and the reports we read, we identify and classify the parties of a conflict. This colors our assumptions as to who is a victim, who is an aggressor, and who holds a legitimate claim.
In the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traditional media has often failed to consider the complexities of the situation, and has frequently downplayed the harsh reality of everyday Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation.
Palestinians have faced many challenges in finding ways to supply accurate information about the realities of Israeli occupation and human rights abuses. Another challenge is conveying this information to a global audience with preconceived notions of the Palestinian situation.
New Media in Palestine
New media in Palestine need to create an atmosphere open to internal dialogue and debate within Palestinian society, while projecting accurate accounts of the Israeli occupation and of everyday Palestinian life.
As of now, new media does not have a strong hold in Palestine. This is particularly striking given the rise of new media in the Arab region. In Egypt, bloggers have been at the forefront of using new media to influence Western coverage of human rights abuses in their country. Egyptian human rights activists have also used social networking tools, such as Facebook, to disseminate information and organize protests and strikes.
The use of new media in Palestine has been more limited, though it is unclear exactly why this should be. There are several new media projects in Palestine, but they have had a limited effect on Western audiences. Domestically, the new media movement has also failed to create a sustained movement for change. About 355,000 people had Internet access in Palestine in 2007, and this number has continued to increase rapidly. However, Palestinians are not using the internet to access news or create content in large numbers. According to a recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center 74.9% said they do not use the internet as a source of news. The same poll concluded that the most popular site among those who do receive their news online is the Ma'an News Website.
One of the main hindrances to online access in Palestine is the fact that Palestinian providers depend on Israeli servers. In fact, in 2002, while instituting a curfew, Israel blocked Internet access from the West Bank. Thus, Internet access for all of the West Bank and Gaza are at the discretion of the Israeli state, and web-based projects focused on social networking and information-sharing could be censored and shut down at any time, creating a unique challenge for any truly independent media coming out of the occupied territories.
Iain Guest, Founder and Director of the Advocacy Project, a human rights organization focusing on ICT and new media training for local human rights advocates, explains that in the Palestinian context, new media and ICT are particularly important because "communications in a situation like the occupation become almost as important as food... it is a basic need...that is what makes this such an interesting case study."
Video has become an effective way to document human rights abuses. The Israeli human rights organization B'tselem has implemented a human rights documentation program which furnishes rural Palestinians with video cameras in order to document abuses committed by Israeli settlers. B'tselem has been the driving force behind the media release of several videos documenting human rights abuses of Palestinians.
In July of 2008, seventeen-year-old Salam Kanaan captured footage of a bound and blindfolded Palestinian man, Ashraf Abu Rahma, being shot at close range by an Israeli soldier during a four-day curfew on her village of Ni’lin. Salam released the tape to B'tselem, and the video was consequently viewed worldwide. But it is unclear whether the video has had a lasting impact on its global audience. Just one month after Salam documented the shooting of Ashraf Abu Rahma, two Palestinian children were shot in the head and killed by Israeli troops in Ni'lin. Additionally, Salam and her family suffered reprisals from the Israeli military after she released the tape. Salam has no regrets about releasing the tape, but her case raises specific questions about the consequences of being a witness, and how quickly those who are not immediately affected by the conflict can forget the abuse they see.
Watch this interview with Salam:
Major news outlets including the BBC and CNN rebroadcast a separate video after it appeared on Israeli TV, in which a group of Israeli soldiers force a blindfolded and bound Palestinian to repeat phrases in Hebrew. The video was allegedly uploaded onto Youtube by Israeli soldiers before being picked up by local TV stations.
Watch the story on CNN:
Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp has a media program that trains young Palestinian refugees in radio, broadcast and print media skills. Projects include Village Documentation, where youths created sound, video and photographic documentaries after visiting their destroyed villages inside the 1948 green line, and Ibdaa Radio 194, named after UN Resolution 194 guaranteeing the right of return to all Palestinian refugees. Ibdaa does not have a broadcast license, but its website links to radio programs and other online media projects. Another project is Digital Storytelling, in which Palestinian youths create short narratives using video and audio technology.
As of November 17, 2008, there were 42,720 people in the Palestine network on Facebook, and 543 groups on Facebook with the word “Palestine” in their titles. There have been several Facebook campaigns related to Palestine, including one very active campaign to reinstate Palestine as a network mounted after Facebook removed Palestine as a network choice in 2006. Numerous petitions and Facebook groups were established in reaction to the delisting of Palestine. They included "If Palestine is removed from Facebook ... I'm closing my account," and "Against delisting Palestine from Facebook," which had more that 16,000 member in October 2007, according to the Jerusalem Post. Facebook promptly reinstated the Palestine network. Despite the success of the Palestine network campaign, Facebook groups focusing on Palestinian causes have appeared to have little effect in organizing the forms of social action that have arisen in Egypt (such as boycotts, strikes, and international responses). While Facebook groups related to Palestine are very effective in disseminating information among their members, it is unclear what impact they will have, if any, on perceptions of Palestine outside of the proportionally small niche of Facebook users who are already involved in Palestine related groups.
This raises the question of the ultimate goal of social networking: if it is intended to inspire real-world change, then the use of Facebook in Palestine has thus far proved ineffective.
Blogging has become an important part of society's value judgments regarding current events. While blogging should not replace reporting, it does play an important role in creating debate and social commentary. Blogging, when incorporated with traditional print media, can also help diversify news content. In remote areas and conflict zones, blogging has become an integral part of information exchange. Blogging has also proved an effective way to release information in areas that are under-reported by traditional media outlets or that lack press freedoms.
Blogging has an important part to play in the Palestinian conflict, in part because media reports have not focused on humanizing the conflict. Due to its personal nature, blogging could bring us closer to understanding the everyday trials and tribulations of Palestinian life. Palestinian bloggers could also play a crucial role in recording Palestinian history at a time of tremendous social, political, and economic strife.
While still underutilized, Palestinian blogging is on the rise. Israeli journalist Seth Freedman has become internationally known for his blog, which appears on the UK Guardian website. Freedman, who served in the Israeli army, writes about the impact of occupation on Palestinians and has become an important Israeli voice of dissent.
Although blogging from Palestine is dominated by international voices, Palestinian bloggers have started to emerge. Most importantly, Palestinian bloggers have incorporated the use of video and audio. One Palestinian blogger from Nablus, Qossay Abu-Zaitoun incorporates video, photography, and poetry into his blog. He expresses his emotions about living under Israeli occupation using a human rights perspective.
Another Palestinian blogger, Laila El-Haddad, focuses her blog on the effects Israeli occupation has on her family. Laila, a Palestinian journalist and mother of two small children, divides her time between Gaza and the United States. She is from Gaza, but her husband, a Palestinian refugee living in the United States, has been denied the right to return to Palestine. As such, her family endures a life in limbo, and her blog is dedicated to showing the personal ramifications of the political situation that controls her family's life.
Prospects for the Future
New media can advance the human rights agenda in Palestine, but this is unlikely to happen on its own. Human rights organizations operating in the Palestinian territories should be focusing on ICT training and diversifying existing media skills. While training should include international aid workers, media centers, and journalists, training should not overlook the Palestinian people, particularly their voices also need to be heard.
Enhancing the new media environment will not come without challenges, and it may not have an immediate effect on Western opinion, but it can provide Palestinians with an outlet that they currently do not have. It can also provide Palestinian society with the tools necessary to engage in a wider, more democratic debate about domestic issues unrelated to the occupation, thus providing a strong foundation for a future democratic state.
Listen to interview with Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab