Fanning the Flames

The Intifada Will Be Instagrammed: How Social Media Has Already Enflamed the Latest Israel-Palestine Conflict

Thanks to mobile recording technology, Palestinian and Israeli leaders have lost control of the narrative—and of their own extremists.

10.15.15 12:30 AM ET

The news from Israel and Palestine feels tragically familiar: horrifying Palestinian acts of terrorism, followed by horrifying Israeli acts of state violence and reprisal. But if the current violence indeed spirals into a Third Intifada, one thing will be different: This intifada will be Instagrammed.

Or, more precisely, mobile-recorded, Go-Pro’d, Periscoped, taped by surveillance cameras, livestreamed—and Instagrammed, too.

Imagery has always been central to Intifada. The term (which literally means “shuddering”) was first applied to the groundswell of resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that began in 1987. From the beginning, images of soldiers beating children, of tanks against rock-throwing protesters, were tools, wielded effectively by the outgunned Palestinians. Arguably, outrage at those images helped bring about the Oslo accords, which ended the First Intifada when they were signed in 1993.

When the Second Intifada began in 2000, it was sparked by the provocative imagery of Ariel Sharon, regarded by most Palestinians as a war criminal, visiting the Temple Mount. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that Sharon deliberately provoked the protests in the wake of the failed Camp David summit. If so, he was successful; riots broke out, and a panicked Israeli public elected Sharon prime minister in February 2001.

But today is different. While social media played a role in the Second Intifada, which lasted until 2005—the website Electronic Intifada is now a mainstay of the pro-Palestinian cause—the proliferation of recording technology has already made its mark on the current wave of violence, which so far has claimed the lives of seven Israeli Jews and at least 30 Palestinians.

First, each side has its shocking videos.

Yesterday, for example, a surveillance camera recorded a Palestinian man ramming an Ultra-Orthodox Jew with a car, and then finishing the job by brutally attacking him with a meat cleaver. The video (warning: extremely graphic) quickly made the rounds on Israeli and pro-Israel social media.

At the same time, the same video was also posted by the Gaza-based Shebab News Agency, with the attacker described as a “hero” and “martyr.”

Graphic images such as these used to be unprecedented on the Israeli side of the conflict; many Jews believe them to be disrespectful to the victims. When the Israeli Defense Forces first released images of a terrorist attack several years ago, the action was seen as controversial.

But the IDF no longer has a monopoly on such images anymore. Everyone’s recording them, posting them, and sharing them. 

On the Palestinian side, however, gruesome images and videos have long been broadcast. Muslims generally do not share the Jewish religious objection to showing dead bodies; on the contrary, if the dead are considered to be martyrs, the gory details are evidence of their heroism and holiness. 

They are also powerful tools in the propaganda war. Many Palestinians still remember the video of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura, who died in a 2000 shootout between Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza. Naturally, each side has a different account of what exactly took place and who was at fault (some Israelis say the whole thing was staged; some Palestinians contend that the incident was cold-blooded murder). But the raw images of a 12-year-old boy screaming in terror and dying in the arms of his father are undeniable, and immensely powerful.

Now, such images are everywhere.

Often, the videos are similar to that of al-Dura: tragic accounts of young children killed by Israelis. One that recently went viral is of a 3-year-old girl, Rahaf Hassan, dying in the arms of her father after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Another shows children in the burnt home of the Dawabsheh family, torched in a “Price Tag” attack by Jewish extremists.

But there are other kinds of images as well. One common theme is to show a “before and after” photo collage of a shahid (martyr), one image showing them happy and healthy, the other showing them dead.

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Another is to show videos that contradict official government accounts, such as one showing the pursuit and shooting of Fadi Alloun this month. Israeli reports said that Alloun had a knife; the video revealed he did not. The video also includes a mob shouting “Shoot the son of a bitch!” and mocking the police for not shooting him sooner.

And then there are the videos whose content is undisputed but whose context is. Yesterday, for example, the pro-Palestine group Middle East Rising circulated a horrifying video of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy writhing on the ground, blood coming out of his head. One Israeli is heard shouting at him (in Hebrew and Arabic), “Die, motherfucker, die!”

What Middle East Rising does not include in the video is that the 13-year-old, Ahmed Mansara, had just stabbed a 13-year-old Israeli boy, and was running away when he was hit by a car (or shot, according to Palestinian media).

That certainly doesn’t justify the taunting, or the lack of assistance, but it does provide a different context to the video, one missing from the raw footage itself. (For good measure, Middle East Rising also circulated despicable, racist comments on the video by Israelis and Jews on social media, and another video of Mansara's mother arriving at the hospital. Palestinian media, and President Abbas, claimed that Mansara—also identified as Ahmed Elhamania—had been killed. Today, Israel released images of him recovering in the hospital.

The effects of such videos have been profound.

First, they have already incited violence on both sides. Several Palestinian attackers arrested by Israeli authorities have said that viral videos inspired them. 

And Israeli extremists’ “price tag” attacks against Palestinians are likewise incited by images which now routinely circulate on the Israeli Right. The Israeli mainstream has lost control of the narrative, and its extremist fringe is as out of control as Palestine’s. We all know how Facebook and Twitter encourage trolling, gut reactions, and harsh speech. In the context of both sides having given up on a peace process leading to a two-state solution, as well as the grinding daily injustices of occupation, they’re the ultimate expressions of desperation: pointless acts of terrorism (often suicidal) that will only make matters worse for Palestinians and Israelis alike, especially those who work with, live near, and deal with one another. Israelis now mistrust their Arab neighbors. 

In fact, the whole spark of the current violence is, in fact, a social media conspiracy theory: that Israel is threatening to take over the Al-Aksa Mosque. Unlike Sharon’s 2000 walk, this is simply not true. But in the context of years of inaction, settlement expansion, and violence, it has been enough to provoke frustrated young people to murder.

True, these terrorists are incited not just by viral videos but also by incendiary comments from Palestinian leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, recently said, “We bless every drop of blood spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah.”

But the young men carrying out these stabbing attacks are not agents of Hamas, or Fatah, or any other centralized organization. Which makes sense: The attacks have already provoked harsh Israeli responses, and undermine the Palestinian effort to secure international legitimacy for a UN-declared (rather than bilaterally negotiated) Palestinian state. (Indeed, that effort is a main reason that the Palestinian Authority has generally maintained order in the West Bank; the attacks are mostly emanating from Israeli-controlled areas.) As a strategy, they are a bad idea. 

But of course, they’re not a strategy. They’re the ultimate expressions of desperation after years of promises of peace talks—and the reality of an ever-tightening Israeli grip on Palestinian lives. These pointless acts of terrorism (often suicidal) will only make matters worse for Palestinians and Israelis alike, especially those who work with, live near, and deal with one another. Israelis now mistrust their Arab neighbors. And entire Arab neighborhoods are under curfew and closure.

Social media, we were told, would make tyranny impossible, because it would reveal the truth for all to see. And indeed, sometimes it fulfills exactly that function. But the omnipresence of recording technology, coupled with the opportunistic use of the records by Palestinians and Israelis alike, has opened a Pandora’s Box of incitement and extremism.

No one with a heart can fail to be shocked by these videos. But precisely that capacity to inflame passions is, itself, terrifying to consider.

Correction, 10/15/15 1:02 PM: A previous version of this article said Mansara had been shot and killed, when in fact he is alive and the circumstances surrounding his injury are contested.