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Palestinian citizen journalists use social media to tell harsh realities of life under Israeli military occupation

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YOUSEF ALHELOU, TRNN CORRESPONDENT, GAZA: Through the use of new technology, especially social media, Palestinian citizen-journalists say that they have been able to challenge the Israeli narrative told by the mainstream media in the West.

A wave of young social media activists and citizen journalists have recently emerged in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially in the Gaza Strip, after Israel’s 22-day war on the besieged coastal territory during winter 2008-2009.

According to Laila El-Haddad, Gaza’s first blogger, Gaza City has more social media activists than any other Palestinian city. Online activism has taken on a whole new significance given Gaza’s closure and separation. That goes prior to the imposition of the Israeli blockade in 2007. The tiny coastal sliver of Gaza has been isolated not only from most of the outside world, but also from the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the West Bank, including the capital of East Jerusalem.

Palestinian activists post messages in English via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and live stream news to reach supporters abroad and to amplify their messages as a means to break their isolation and influence international audiences, especially during times of escalation.

Rana Baker, 22 years old, is one of Gaza’s most prominent Palestinian citizen-journalists. She says that citizen journalists like her find solace in cyberspace where followers eagerly rely on their live updates and posts from the ground.

RANA BAKER, PALESTINIAN CITIZEN JOURNALIST, BLOGGER: I think that we were really successful in conveying our message to everybody who was following our updates on social media, as well as around the world, because I think that what was successful is the collective effort of Palestinian citizen-journalists in Gaza, as well as the West Bank. So it was really collaborative in nature. And I think that this is what helped it succeed. So, for example, we had our links, the links of our Tweets imbedded into The Guardian, into Al Jazeera, and into many mainstream websites. So this really gave the opportunity for people who do not have, for example, Twitter accounts or Facebook account to really see the updates coming directly from Gaza through Palestinians living there on mainstream media. And I want to say that, for example, this was not really visible during the so-called Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. So I think that, yes, we were really successful, and I think, I mean, judging from many reports, judging from the re-Tweets and the number of followers that we had gained during the war was really, really huge.

ALHELOU: In a place like Gaza that is frequently attacked by Israel’s military, many Palestinian activists and students dream of becoming journalists, usually with the explicit aim of wanting to address the Western media’s misrepresentation of the Palestinians and their cause.

YOUSEF ALJAMAL, PALESTINIAN CITIZEN JOURNALIST, BLOGGER: I think citizen journalists, ordinarily people on the ground who are active on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, contributed in the last few years to changing the stereotyped image about Palestinians that people in the West always hear about in mainstream media. Thus mainstream media started to lose some of its popularity, because some people in the West no longer trust mainstream media.

ALHELOU: Palestinian Gazan citizen-journalists played an important role during the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. During the military assault, a parallel war was taking place on the social media. It was a battle for narratives, almost equal in importance to the actual war. News coming out of Gaza was mainly channeled out into the world via organic social media platforms, as Israel chose to ban foreign journalists from entering into Gaza at the start of the war.

More recently, Israel’s eight-day war on Gaza in November 2012, known as Operation Pillar of Cloud, was the first war to ever be declared on Twitter. However, in Gaza the broad consensus says that Israel lost the media war, as social media activists in Gaza played a significant and dominating role in disseminating real and insightful information in real time, successfully challenging Israel’s narrative. Many of the news disseminators were invited to provide commentary appearances on international mainstream media outlets as the events unfolded.

Gaza citizen-journalists posted photos, videos, and most importantly blow-by-blow breaking news accounts as the eight-day war progressed. It was an online battle between a heavily funded Israeli state propaganda machine with decades of experience in public relations and media manipulation, versus Palestinian citizen journalists with little more than their laptops and cameras.

SAMEEHA ELWAN, PALESTINIAN CITIZEN JOURNALIST, BLOGGER: I think a lot has changed since the rise of the internet and social media in particular in regard of the Palestinian narrative, because all of a sudden you’ve started seeing and reading and listening to Palestinian voices talking to the world about Palestine, about their situation, about what is going on, about their Palestinian experience, because the Palestine issue has mostly been hijacked by other voices, like internationals and Israelis sometime. With the rise of the internet, there’s a total deconstruction of the fragmentation of Palestine. It is one way for Palestinians to reconnect.

ALHELOU: Analysis on the role of new media in the Middle East has largely centered on how citizen journalists can now set the agenda for news outlets and how social media users repackage, comment on, and distribute content in innovative ways.

International activists say that the effect of the social media boom amongst young Palestinian activists has succeeded in significantly changing public perceptions of the Palestinians in the West.

JOE CATRON, U.S. PRO-PALESTINE ACTIVIST: Everyone has a spin, every news outlet if not every individual journalist has an agenda, and because of that, many of us are interested in hearing directly from people on the ground, which is why citizen journalism from Palestine is so valuable for those of us who are looking for information that hasn’t been filtered through a Western agenda. Social media has certainly weakened the Israeli narrative. Dominant corporate media outlets that have historically been very favorable to Israel and the West no longer exercise absolute dominance over the narrative. Palestinians are able to connect directly with overseas audiences and tell the stories that they feel are important in the way that they think is the most effective.

ALHELOU: Ali Abunimah, an American citizen of Palestinian descent and co-founder of the Palestinian news website the Electronic Intifada, believes that the rise of the internet has reduced the influence of the corporate media.

ALI ABUNIMAH, ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: People have so much to say. I mean, that’s my experience traveling anywhere, but coming here in Gaza, people have so much to say, have views of about what’s going on here in Gaza and around the world. And I think they don’t feel their voices are heard. And the technology that exists today gives people a chance to speak out. So I think it’s a natural human need to be heard. And especially when you look in the mainstream media and you see a total misrepresentation of who you are and what’s happening to you, people feel a stronger urge to speak out. I mean, I know that’s what motivates me. You know, the reason I do the work I do is that I often feel a certain anger at what I see represented in the media, and I want to turn that anger into something productive and positive by creating media that actually responds to those challenges.

ALHELOU: Some academic observers say that Gaza’s Palestinian citizen-journalists are challenging stereotypes of Palestinians, who have been often dehumanized as a result of the pro-Israel influences in the Western corporate media.

HAIDAR EID, AL-AQSA UNIVERSITY, GAZA: I think the Palestinian activists under the siege have succeeded in conveying the message of the suffering of the Palestinians under the siege. But we also have to take into consideration that we have multi Palestinian narratives: the narrative of those who live under Israeli apartheid in 1948 and those who live in the Diaspora in miserable refugee camps and the Palestinians of Gaza. And therefore it is important to bring all these narratives together in order to constitute one comprehensive Palestinian narrative.

ALHELOU: Citizen journalists, also known as cyber storytellers, doing social-media-based reporting, can publish their own breaking news reports and views in a free, uncensored and unfiltered way, whereas professional reporters employed by media companies follow their corporations’ editorial policies, ideologies, and guidelines.

ATEF ABU SAIF, EDITOR, SEYASAT MAGAZINE: I believe the Palestinian social media activists managed partially to present the Palestinian issue or cause or events to the European audience. Social media presented a new venue, because it’s not controlled or dominated by the hyper power of media owners like on televisions, satellite channels, cable news. So social media presented to those boys in the camps in Gaza or in their little houses in Gaza City, it represented for them a venue, new windows through which they can sneak and present their narrative, their story.

ALHELOU: British filmmaker Harry Fear was in Gaza during the eight-day war in November and live-streamed breaking news online to a very large audience.

HARRY FEAR, FILMMAKER: I’ve always said that if there was a smartphone for every Palestinian in Gaza, for example, and there was mobile internet, there would never be a another military operation like there was in winter 2008-09 or last year with the second war, because the world would be able to see what these operations, these bloody wars are actually like. They would be able to feel, hear, and see the reality. And this is why the citizen journalism in Gaza or in Palestine in general is so important, because what this does is it has the power to cause a real wound to Israel in terms of its media and public relations reputation and I think that’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on the citizen journalism in Palestine.

ALHELOU: A whole generation of Palestinians are being forced into politics because of Israel’s ongoing 65-year military occupation of Palestinian land, the armed struggle by Palestinian resistance movements, and the repercussions of the conflict on Palestinians’ daily lives.

The internet is a medium through which Palestinian citizen journalists can express themselves, convey their narratives, and establish themselves as agents of change.

Yousef Alhelou in Gaza for the Real News Network.


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Yousef Al-Helou is a Palestinian journalist and correspondent for The Real News Network based in Gaza-Palestine & London. His work has been featured in a variety of media outlets including BBC, GRN, CBC Radio Canada, TV New Zealand, UN Observer, Reuters Institute, Middle East Monitor, Press TV, Al-Etejah TV, Maan News Network, Electronic Intifada, Palestine Chronicle, PNN among many others. Yousef is a Reuters journalist fellow and a UN fellow as well and took part in many speaking tours in the UK/Ireland about his work experience, reporting in a war zone. Yousef covered the infighting between Fatah and Hamas as well as the two Israeli wars on Gaza in late 2008/early 2009 and late 2012, arrival of siege-breaking boats and many other major events since 2006. Yousef runs Gaza TV News page on Facebook that has more than 49,000 followers. Currently he is working on his research about the rise of citizen journalists in Gaza and their impact of public perception of Palestine in the West.