RAMALLAH – The person behind the “People Want to End the Division” Facebook page must have been celebrating two months ago ahead of planned rallies across the West Bank and Gaza Strip calling for Palestinian national unity. Almost 41,000 people promised to turnout and close to another 6,700 said they would try.
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But on March 15, the day of the event, only 4,000 turned out in Ramallah, which was the largest gathering. Another 1,500 assembled in Nablus. In the Gaza Strip, 3,000 rallied but their demonstration was quickly dispersed by Hamas operatives.
Hamas and its arch-rival, Fatah, did sign a unity agreement in early May, just as the Facebook campaigners were demanding, but most analysts say the two movements acted in response to regional politics. Compared to the size and persistence of the social-media-inspired protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, Palestinian social media was barely a blip.
Social media experts and activists are bemoaning the failure of Palestinians to join the Arab Spring and bring about bottom-up change through viral campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Indeed, the disappointment was palpable at a one-day conference in Ramallah last week that brought together academics, politicians and social activists.
Palestinians’ ability to mobilize social media could emerge as a key obstacle as activists try to build on what many perceive as the start of a new era of resistance against Israel with massive, non-violent protests. Many are pointing to the breach of Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria this week by thousands of people as a model, although it’s not clear who or how they were organized.
Awed by the ability of their fellow Arabs over the last several months to use social networking to mobilize masses and topple dictators, many participants admitted they still had much to learn, even from Israeli activists, who they admitted often blog and Tweet their cause better than Palestinians do. The conference was aptly titled "Palestine in the World of New Social Media – a Culture in the Making.”
Salah Dawabsheh, a Palestinian blogger and social media expert, pointed
to Bilin, a West Bank village whose farm fields have been cut off by the
Israeli security barrier and has become the site of weekly protests.
But Dawabsheh said activists failed to use all the on-line tools at
their disposal to document their cause and get the word out.
"The village of Bilin, for instance, is doing a great job, but no one
knows about it," he said. "A website is for old times. Today the real
question is: do you have a Facebook page?"
Another activist, Atallah Al-Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh,
northwest of Ramallah, said his village hosted a number of Facebook
pages, but admitted that recruitment for demonstrations relied largely
on international and Israeli volunteers. He blamed official Palestinian
television for inadequately covering popular activity.
By regional standards, the Palestinians are well connected and enjoy
greater freedom of expression. Some 32 out of every 100 Palestinians
used the Internet in 2009, compared with approximately 24 per 100
Egyptians and 34 out of 100 Tunisians, two countries where mass rallies
brought down dictators.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) says that nearly
half of Palestinian households have a computer and almost a third is
connected to the Internet. Use of the internet among Palestinian youth
is particularly high, with some 88% of those between the ages of 15 and
29 reporting they use it.
"After the Arab revolutions, all my friends opened Facebook accounts,"
said Ali Taqatqa, 19, a student at Al-Quds Open University. "Today it is
rare to find someone who doesn't use Facebook."
Dawabsheh added that Palestinians had the highest rate of smart phones
in the Arab world, and could use them to video demonstrations and upload
them to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where they would have a
viral effect. According to Dawabsheh, 3,000 Palestinian bloggers could
also help spread the message.
The Palestinian media, unlike its counterpart in Egypt and Tunisia on the eve of the Arab Spring, enjoy relative freedom.
Khaled Abu-Aker, a conference participant and journalist, recalled that
he established Amin.org in 1996 to provide a platform for Palestinian
journalists to publish articles that were censored in mainstream media.
Over the years, his site has been hacked but it hasn’t been shut down.
He gradually came to realize that traditional journalism, including the
on-line variety, wasn’t enough.
"Today news is not conveyed by a journalist, but by a regular citizen in
a remote village with a camera in his hand," Abu-Aker said.
In 2007, Amin.org began hosting Palestinian blogs, he said, and today
some 1,500 bloggers from Gaza and the West Bank use Amin to make their
voice heard. Amin also provides training to Palestinians in creating
blogs, use of social media networks, uploading videos and what he called
In fact, some conference participants contended that the Palestinian
failure to make use of social media was due to the fact the Palestinians
enjoy comparative freedom.
"We don't need Facebook like the Egyptians did," said Dawabsheh. "We
have freedom of speech, which they didn't. Even in this conference, we
are free to criticize whoever we want."
Indeed, the biggest obstacle to Palestinians exploiting social media
comes from the providers, rather than the government. A Facebook page
calling for a Third Palestinian Intifada, or popular uprising, against
Israel was shut down in March by the company after Israeli Public
Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein complained it was
inciting violence against Jews and Israelis.The page had garnered some
500,000 supporters, and was eventually closed. Facebook started by
taking down comments and ripped out the whole page when the company
found its administrators were echoing the violent statements of
But Pro-Palestinian activists haven’t given up and have set up a new
Facebook group with the same name calling for mass marches on Israel's
borders this Friday. The page currently has 100,000 "likes." The group
urges Arab activists in neighboring countries to storm Israel's borders
as they did last Sunday, Nakba Day on the Palestinian calendar that
commemorates the “catastrophe” of the State of Israel’s founding.
Jihad Shajaeha is suspicious of Facebook. A 20-something project
coordinator for a West Bank youth forum, Shajaeha said he used to
regularly upload photos and videos of Israeli attacks on Palestinians
and write political status updates. One day the site's administrator
suddenly closed his account.
"Social media are not free, it's monitored," he told The Media Line on
the sidelines of the conference. "If you want to organize a revolution,
you can't sit in front of the computer. You need one hour in front of
the computer and 10 hours on the street – that's where the real power
The Palestinians’ other problem may also be an overload of national
politics. Unlike Egyptians and other, whose right to organize and
express themselves politically was severely constrained, Palestinians
have been fighting an open and upfront battle against the Israeli
occupation for decades.
No one at last week’s conference, which numbered about 50 people, would
admit top political exhaustion. But a group of teenagers sitting on the
sidelines admitted that even though they were heavy users of Facebook,
they employed it for fun and social purposes, like campaigning against
the high cost of weddings.