Demonstrators including Israeli and Palestinian activists take part in a demonstration in support of peace near Jericho last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The past three weeks have seen a dramatic increase in violence throughout Israel and Palestine, including a heinous terrorist attack that claimed the lives of three Israelis, stabbed to death during their Shabbat meal. Over the weekend, violent altercations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces also claimed the life of a Palestinian youth.
The current cycle of violence, which has been linked to the Israeli government’s decision to post metal detectors outside the Temple Mount’s entrance, has sparked concerns that a third Palestinian intifada may begin at any moment. Offline, the Palestinian leadership has taken a harsh tone toward Israel with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to suspend security ties with Israel until it removed all security measures from the Temple Mount. Other Palestinian leaders have called on youths to confront Israeli security forces following Friday prayers.
However, online, the Palestinian leadership seems to be taking a different tone, one that emphasizes the need for dialogue, understanding and reconciliation. This is primarily achieved through the “Palestine in Hebrew” Facebook profile.
Launched in December of 2015, “Palestine in Hebrew” is operated by the PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society. The launching of the profile represents an important shift in Palestinian policy, one that adamantly opposed normalizing ties with Israel so long as Israel continues to occupy Palestinian lands. Moreover, the profile represents an innovative approach to Palestinian diplomacy given that Palestinian leaders are seldom able to interact with Israeli citizens as both entities only partially recognize one another and do not operate bilateral embassies.
Over the past two years “Palestine in Hebrew” has published dozens of posts dealing with a host of issues. Chief among these is an attempt to demonstrate Palestinian commitment toward building a better future with Israel. One notable example was a post wishing Israelis Happy Passover and hoping that by next year both Israelis and Palestinians would be a free people living in free countries. Additionally, Facebook posts exhibit Palestine’s desire to engage with Israeli society. Such is the case with posts depicting meetings between Palestinian leaders and Israeli university students or civil society organizations. Finally, the profile also published posts that acquaint Israelis with Palestinian culture and Palestinian cultural achievements.
Notably, “Palestine in Hebrew” rarely publishes posts denouncing Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation or the Israeli security forces. Therefore, it is possible that the Palestinian leadership is attempting to utilize this profile to engage with Israelis, rather than alienating them. This decision may also signal a desire to create a positive and empathetic image of Palestine among Israelis, and to signal a sincere desire for dialogue which will be required if any future peace negotiations are to take place.
And, indeed, such dialogue takes place as numerous Israeli Facebook users interact with “Palestine in Hebrew.” Between January and April of 2017 alone, 75 conversations took place between Israelis and the profile’s operators.
As of writing, “Palestine in Hebrew” has yet to comment on the Temple Mount crisis or denounce Israel’s policies. In fact, the profile published a video on Wednesday depicting a nonviolent protest in which a Palestinian father pleads for freedom opposite calm and collected Israeli soldiers. Thus, at a time in which both sides seem to be heading towards another cycle of violence and death, the Palestinian leadership is using Facebook to engage with Israelis and laying the foundations for a future relationship between both sides.
While Israel’s Foreign Ministry is a leader in digital diplomacy, it does not operate any social media accounts targeted at Palestinians and therefore has no equivalent to “Palestine in Hebrew.” The ministry does, however, operate an Arabic Facebook channel, aimed at fostering dialogue with citizens of Arab countries in general, though the tone of the posts is often less positive than the Palestinian channel.
It remains to be seen whether or not the current cycle of violence with spiral into a third intifada. What is certain is that Palestine is extending a digital arm to Israel. The Israeli government should follow suite, for it is only through dialogue and understanding that future violence can be avoided and the conditions for peace be obtained.Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com Marcus Holmes is assistant professor of government at The College of William & Mary. He is co-editor of Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice.