Yara M. Asi is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida and a 2020-2021 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to the West Bank. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC.
The median age for a Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza is just around 21 years old. From the time of their birth until today, this median-aged Palestinian has lived through the Clinton Parameters, the second Intifada, the construction of Israel's separation barrier, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Quartet's Roadmap for Peace, the death of Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' takeover of Gaza and the subsequent blockade by Israel and Egypt, Ehud Olmert's peace plan, multiple talks between Israelis and Palestinians that went nowhere in the 2010s, three—and now four—Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip, Donald Trump's "deal of the century" and, most recently, more rumbling from the Quartet. At the same time, they've seen their homes continuously demolished, taken or bombed by Israeli authorities. They've seen access to their land diminish as they see Israeli settlements flourish and the further entrenchment of Israel's occupation. They've seen unchecked violence from the Israeli military, as well as from Israeli settlers.
Their entire lives, as these young Palestinians witness and experience both physical and structural violence compounded with the generational trauma endured by their parents and grandparents, they've been told to wait: Behave yourselves, and the international community will reward you, maybe, someday, with something resembling a state. Eventually.
Last week, Palestinians in this new generation, many in their early 20s, grew tired of waiting, precipitated by yet another forced eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed following the 1967 war. Long before the news cameras arrived, these young Palestinians and their families were peacefully gathering in Sheikh Jarrah during the month of Ramadan, occasionally harassed or attacked by Israeli settlers or soldiers while they broke their fast. This, of course, is nothing new. Settler violence has been consistently rising in the West Bank for years. Evictions are part and parcel of Israel's not-so-subtle expansionist aims.
But there does seem to be something new in this most recent bout of what has again been euphemistically called "clashes" between Israeli forces and Palestinians. In 2012 and 2014, Palestinians living in Gaza were able to change the media narrative and public perception of their plight by taking to social media, under the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack. They did not fit the stereotype of the militant Palestinian often sold to justify the blockade and occupation. These were parents, clutching the bodies of their dead children; panicked teenagers, posting videos of what they thought might be their last moments with the sounds of airstrikes in the background; medics, collapsing with exhaustion and trauma after hours of searching for survivors. Their pictures were not just on nightly news, but on digital devices around the world, shocking the conscience of many young people who had little knowledge about the reality between Israel and the Palestinians.
Since 2014, the influence of social media has only increased. And so, when Israeli forces began responding violently to Palestinians gathered in Jerusalem earlier this month, going so far as to raid the al-Aqsa compound in the Old City, firing stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets, the hashtag came quickly: #SaveSheikhJarrah. Despite the attempts by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to frame the forced evictions as "a real-estate dispute between private parties," the videos and accounts from Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah immediately disputed that narrative. As siblings Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd, whose family was directly facing eviction, and others made clear, these weren't "clashes"; this was a heavily armed military against worshippers in a holy site and families living in their own homes. These weren't "tensions"; this was an overt military presence, on occupied land, acting with impunity against international law. The framing of a "real estate dispute," which may have easily taken hold just a decade ago, was completely deconstructed by the tweets and videos of young Palestinians who know exactly how to use social media, despite suspected efforts by platforms like Twitter and Instagram to stifle or censor certain Palestinian users and sentiments.
The Palestinian Authority, ostensibly the government representatives of the West Bank, were almost entirely irrelevant to this entire episode. Of course, Israel does not permit the Palestinian Authority any activity in East Jerusalem, in its effort to implicitly or explicitly pressure Palestinians to leave the city. But the Palestinian Authority—a calcified, corrupt and largely ineffective entity, mostly confined to Ramallah—has been among the least present actors in the current crisis. Rather than rally against the evictions to promote Palestinian unity and a just cause against an occupying power, the Palestinian Authority disappeared into the background, as Palestinians throughout Israel and the West Bank organized their own demonstrations to show support for Sheikh Jarrah.
In the process, Palestinians seemed to reject their inherent separation, codified by colored ID cards and license plates that signify different levels of freedom and access between the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel inside the Green Line. This was a wholly Palestinian movement, whether from Nablus or Jaffa, Hebron or Haifa, Bethlehem or Lydda. Protests broke out in Arab or "mixed" cities in Israel in ways that hadn't been seen in decades. This protest movement recognized that Israel's settler colonial project was not limited to the West Bank, and the violence not limited to the Gaza Strip, despite the subsequent onset of an Israeli bombing campaign in another war with Hamas that has so far killed nearly 200 Palestinians. Every Palestinian, even those with Israeli citizenship, is subject to the discrimination inherent in simply being Palestinian—an inconvenience in a state that just three years ago passed its so-called nation-state law, which claims that "the right to exercise national self-determination" in Israel is "unique to the Jewish people," despite the 20 percent Palestinian Arab minority in Israel.
Although international media attention has now shifted from Jerusalem to Gaza, with Hamas still launching rockets at Israel and Israel still responding with overwhelming force, the solidarity among Palestinians has continued. On Tuesday, Palestinians called for a general strike across all territories—Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel—just three days after they commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba. Perhaps sensing their growing irrelevance amid an expanding grassroots movement, Hamas and Fatah quickly backed the call for a strike, indicating that they would permit public workers to participate.
In so much of the media, the story of this current crisis has been the violence in Gaza, of course, along with hints of a slowly shifting global narrative on Israel and the justification (or lack thereof) of its actions. However, in Palestine, the real story is the one where decades and generations of dispossession and separation have dissipated in a matter of weeks. Most Palestinians have never been to Gaza, and many Palestinians have never been to Israel. Palestinians from Gaza have rarely left the territory at all. Yet, here they were, uniting under one flag and under one cause: equality and rights, now.
Israel's normalization agreements with four Arab states during the final months of the Trump administration, led by the United Arab Emirates, were widely seen as a turning point in the region. Maybe the Palestinian issue wasn't as important to Arabs as they'd let on for so long. Sooner or later, according to the conventional wisdom of political pundits, the Palestinians would realize they have to join in or be left behind. But in the past few weeks, Palestinians have abruptly showed that they don't need the Arab states. Their cause is not solely an Arab or Muslim cause. In fact, the authoritarian nature of many of the states that normalized relations with Israel is exactly the opposite of the Palestinian cause of liberation. Palestinians have sought solidarity with each other, and with other marginalized and indigenous populations around the world, because they recognize that their struggle is with oppression and oppressors, not any specific ethnicity, state or political party.
This newfound unity is unlikely to lead to a just resolution for Palestinians soon, as external actors, most of all the United States, still exercise significant power in the region and have shown, including under the Biden administration, a steadfast commitment to defending Israeli actions and shielding them from any accountability, while continuing to supply Israel with more military aid. Yet if Palestinians can continue to coalesce around the shared goal of liberation, regardless of their geographic location or citizenship status, this new generation of activism can potentially lead to changes in local dynamics across Palestine and Israel, as well as bring in more global support for their cause. In the meantime, Palestinians can keep shifting the broader narrative around their struggle, which has been cynically maligned for decades, by using their own words, stories—and their phones.
Photo credit: Two Palestinians wave national flags in front of the Dome of the Rock at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, during the morning Eid al-Fitr prayer, which marked the end of Ramadan, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)