On the last day of class, we’re unplugging the media revolution. The last session of my social media training program at An Najah University, in the city of Nablus in the West Bank, has been sabotaged by a campus-wide Internet outage, a scheduling mishap that left the students locked out of the computer lab, and a general lethargy afflicting summer-session students in the oppressive summer heat.
So I sit down with the four students who showed up, all primly dressed Palestinian young women, and ask them about what they’ve gleaned from the past few days of tweeting and blogging bootcamp. Some express hope that Facebook and Twitter can help raise social awareness among their classmates; others want to use social networking to reach out to people and news sources outside the barriers imposed by Israel’s apartheid regime. Like most of my students, they may not identify as political activists, but for them, the very act of trying to be normal in the face of occupation is a form of defiance.
Still, I’m here to teach this course because these young people are privileged compared to many others in the West Bank. They’re fortunate to be coming of age amid a dramatic media and Internet explosion in the Middle East and North Africa, which has been credited for Egypt’s youth-led, technology-lubricated revolution and subsequent protest campaigns throughout the region.
The girls in class have been admiring the Arab Spring from afar, but when I ask if something similar could happen in the occupied territories, their imaginations are clouded by cynicism.
One girl speaks about the difficulty she had rallying fellow students to launch a boycott of Israeli products and about constantly battling the apathy that has sunk in since the Second Intifada. "People are used to Israeli occupation, so whatever [happens], Israelis will stay with us."
It’s not that they don’t enjoy using social media: many follow the news through Facebook, my training session produced a couple of "Free Palestine" blogs and introduced some to activist Twitter feeds. But the digital universe is far removed from the hardship and trauma with which students wrestle every day.
Education Under Occupation
The campus of An Najah encapsulates this gulf between aspirations and bleak realities. Next door to the towering sand-colored modern architecture is an enclosed fortress, which I am told is a Palestinian Authority prison. The students prattle in the halls and study computer science and English literature, but their academic aspirations are overshadowed by a military presence. A study of An Najah students published by the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University showed that the majority of students must cross a checkpoint to get to and from school, which typically led to delays that forced them to miss class or blocked them from traveling altogether. According to interviews with students who regularly encountered this ordeal, the vast majority had been "physically abused at a checkpoint; and virtually all reported feelings of anger and nervousness at checkpoints."
"Education" here takes on a different meaning. There is the world of academics into which students escape each day, hoping to land an engineering job outside Nablus or get a scholarship to study overseas. At the same time, a self-education project is underway, as young people grasp for knowledge of the roots of the occupation and freedom struggles that followed. Not all students are political, but they all seek some kind of deliverance. Perhaps that’s why students say the university is the only place where they feel they’re free, because the campus is a rare intellectual refuge in a society besieged by concrete walls and bulldozers.
For Beesan Ramadan, a student activist at An Najah who helps coordinate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in Palestine, the movement begins with a reclaiming of history. Since the education she received under the Palestinian Authority was devoid of critical political analysis, she said, "I had to go back and re-educate myself through my parents, through other stories, through books, et cetera." As part of the so-called Oslo generation, which came of age in the wake of a betrayal of the peace process, she said, "Education is a very important part in putting everything in [context] and connecting the Palestinians, and especially the Palestinian youth, with their political history."
A grassroots political education may be the one thing that can keep Palestinian youth from retreating into bitterness over the deteriorating prospects for peace and democratic change.
In Ramadan’s view, everyday resistance, even if confined to the individual conscience, helps youth transcend structural oppression and broaden their focus beyond the tragedies that have come to define their sense of self.
"It’s like the butterfly effect," Ramadan said. "If I want to live in peace in Nablus, I need the people to live in Japan to live in peace as well. So for me it’s part of an international struggle towards peace and justice, not just in here and then forget about everywhere else."
Consciousness-raising may have been a simpler matter in the more polarized political landscape of the previous generation. Saed Jamal Abu-hijleh, a professor of geography at An Najah who has assisted student-led campaigns, recalled the inspiration he drew from the experiences of Vietnam and South Africa. During his student days in the 1980s, when he was shot and jailed for protesting, it was easier to see Third World peoples entwined in a single struggle. "When I was growing up," he said, "the world was divided into the imperialist Western camp and the supposedly socialist bloc."
But despite the evolution of international communication and global commerce, political solidarity is scarcer for the current generation, he said. In part because of consumer culture and "silly media," he said, the information age has been a double-edged sword for youth activism. Even during the Second Intifada, which launched a second wave of youth militancy and protest:
their struggle against the occupation was without global awareness and connecting issues. They thought, "We are abused, we are fighting the Israelis." But they did not connect the issues as we did before, to see that there are imperialist, capitalist countries that are supporting colonialism and dictatorships in the Arab world.
"We need to draw the connections between what’s happening here and what’s happening in Afghanistan, what’s happening in Yemen, and other places around the globe," he added.
A Culture of Resistance
But ultimately, action flows from consciousness, and young people like Ramadan know they can’t expect radical change under the grip of one of the most sophisticated and extensive military occupations on the planet. In her organizing work, even when actual direct action isn’t feasible, her job is to make sure her peers are always working to broaden the realm of possibility:
It’s hard to explain, but this is how to get it to my friends: For example, I have grown up thinking that passing through a checkpoint and having a soldier who is 18 years old searching me is normal. But when I started thinking about it, this is when I got to this sort of resolution of not accepting it. Even in my idea, I still pass through a checkpoint, I still get checked, but in my mind I don’t accept it as I used to do before. Now I think about it in a different way, and I think this is crucial because it prepares for [larger actions in] the future.
Could the Arab Spring help Palestinians think past the walls that have hemmed them in for generations? Abu-Hijleh views the momentum spurred by Egypt and Tunisia as a potential catalyst for the embattled Palestinian activist scene, but only if informed by progressive ideology and national consciousness–what he calls the intersection between "cyberspace" and "terra firma."
The success of a movement is measured in concrete actions, not bandwidth. So on my last day teaching at An Najah, after we’d learned about hash tags and blog rolls and photo-sharing, what mattered most was that we could sit in a circle and speak face to face with unmediated voices.
As we discussed the ramifications of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, I asked them to identify what they saw as the primary source of social change: the political system, or individual people. One young woman said, "If the people are good, the leaders will be good…. If the people are good, they won’t accept dictators to be their leaders."
There are promising signs that social media is helping to unify Palestinian activists across the occupied territories and in the diaspora. Many protesters coordinated online, for instance, to launch simultaneous demonstrations on Nakba Day (the anniversary of the forced expulsion of Palestinians in 1948). Yet the new organizing strategies merely amplified a decades-old call for the right to return. A grainy video of protesters rushing military barriers could have been from 2011 or 1981; the difference this time was that the news ricocheted around the globe instantly, searing defiant images into public memory.
So the new technology of protest can’t replace old-fashioned direct action, but it does ramp up the logistics and the aesthetic power of nonviolent resistance. Following the coordinated Nakba Day demonstrations, youth organizer Fadi Quran said on Democracy Now!, "The refugees who came to the border yesterday didn’t come carrying weapons. They came with their flesh. They came with their bodies."
The emerging generation of activism in Palestine embodies continuity and change. The kids who threw stones a decade ago may be live-blogging demonstrations today, but whatever the medium, the real change happens in real time, on the ground.
This dispatch is based on reporting the author did during a recent visit to Nablus in the West Bank, where she taught social media workshops with the Zajel Youth Exchange Program.