Israel-Gaza: Young Americans on the conflict - and online activism

·11 min read
Composite image of three Ask America sources
Leen, Leila and Eliana share their views with the BBC

As violence escalates between Israelis and Palestinians, scenes of destruction and calls to action are ricocheting across phone screens in the US. Are these social media messages shifting attitudes in the country often viewed as Israel's strongest ally or simply removing nuance from what is a complex and long-running conflict?

Those of Palestinian descent say the ongoing social media activism is a watershed moment similar to last summer's global demonstrations against racial injustice.

Those who hold ties to Israel say online narratives are misleading and simplify the issues in favour of an 'oppressed versus oppressor' narrative.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 75% of Americans still hold favourable views of Israel, but a growing number are sympathetic towards the Palestinians.

These are the testimonials of young people deeply invested in the struggle.

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'I'm glad that people get it now'

Leila, 30, lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, but her first memories come from the two years she lived in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the 1990s, attending kindergarten in Ramallah, its administrative capital.

She reminisces of how fluently she spoke Arabic back then. But she also remembers the checkpoints on the way to school every day and the warnings from her parents to steer clear of Israeli soldiers.

"When I played with the kids in our neighbourhood, all the girls were Palestinians and the boys would play Israeli soldiers. A kind of war games," Leila recalls.

She adds: "I was always afraid of Israeli soldiers. I didn't need anyone to tell me, as a little girl, that they didn't think kindly of us."

The family intended to build their lives in the West Bank, until the crumbling Israel-Palestinian peace accords forced them to fly back to the United States. Leila has never been able to return since.

As she grew increasingly distant from family members trapped in Gaza, as well as from the Arabic language and the Islamic faith, Leila retained her identity by tapping into the rich history of her family: of ancestors from seven centuries ago; of her grandparents' expulsion during the 1948-49 Middle East war following Israel's creation; and of her father's role as a student leader in the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, from 1987-1993.

In college, however, her Palestinian American pride hit a roadblock.

Leila claims she was singled out for her family ties, harassed when she spoke out and even spat on during an on-campus protest. In her senior year, she says the school put her dorm under surveillance for a week after a conservative student publicly vilified her as an anti-Semite.

But the continued attacks on Palestinians lives and homes in recent years have prompted many progressive Americans - such as Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, young anti-Zionist liberals and organisations like the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace - to speak out against what they see as injustices, particularly through social media.

"The support of that demographic has really opened the door for people like myself to be able to speak our truths without facing as much vitriol," says Leila. "It feels a lot less scary."

Accompanying the cresting wave of progressive energy, she says, is that Palestinians on the ground have phones and social media, and can "take control of the narrative" in order to more accurately portray their plight to the rest of the world.

"Much like with the Black Lives Matter movement, where it was a lot more horrifying to witness George Floyd dying than to read about it, being able to witness the atrocities means that it runs counter to the mainstream narratives that we're seeing on TV," she explains.

Leila says her community feels "a bittersweet sense of hope, seeing the unification of Palestinians, seeing that the world is watching, and feeling like a change might be coming".

What change looks like remains unclear amid the escalating violence of the past two weeks, but she is cautiously optimistic that creating greater awareness online keeps alive "any hope for a free future, a liberated Palestine".

"In a way, it's frustrating too because I wonder: where the [expletive] have you been for the last 20 years?" she remarks.

"I'm glad that people get it now."

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The fierce debate over Israeli-Palestinian clashes has become more pronounced within the Democratic Party.

For the first time since Gallup began conducting its annual poll in 2000, a majority of Democratic voters now express support for the US pressuring Israel to make necessary compromises between the two sides.

But this young liberal says it isn't quite so easy.

'You can't apply an American context here'

When Adam moved to Tel Aviv a couple of months ago, he did not anticipate needing to run for cover at any given moment.

The Chicago native, 28, has no immediate family in Israel, but he grew up in a proudly Jewish family and had an acute desire "to experience life in the only Jewish country in the world".

His work week is now based around the Jewish calendar and he's learning Hebrew like he always wanted to. But he is also aware that, at any time, a blaring siren could go off and he will have 90 seconds to find shelter.

On Thursday, he had to duck into a little pizza shop when he heard the sound.

"A rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome [anti-missile system] directly overhead. We came out and saw the smoke trails in the air," he recounts.

"Simultaneously, I'm logging on to Instagram and seeing my American friends posting memes and slides without understanding the nuances of the situation."

He goes on: "It's deeply depressing to watch it happen in real time - a complex conflict boiled down into a few Instagram slides, terms like settler colonialism, genocide and ethnic cleansing thrown around, with total ignorance of the reality and the history here."

The 28-year-old is a registered Democrat in the US. He says Israel's "ugly right-wing" government has unjustly persecuted Palestinians and he is firmly pro-Palestinian statehood. But he fears "there isn't much space left to say you support Israel in the liberal camp".

People aren't willing to condemn the Hamas militants firing rockets into Israeli civilian population centres, he says, even as the terror group "welcomes the bloodshed and feeds off the terror" between the two sides.

"Accusing Israel multiple times of war crimes without, in the same breath, accusing Hamas of war crimes is baffling," says Adam. "Placing all the blame squarely on the shoulders of Israel is just wrong and I can't think of a place it would come from other than anti-Jewish bias."

He says Palestinian leaders repeatedly rejected credible two-state solutions on several occasions. He adds that current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office indefinitely since his election to a four-year term 16 years ago.

And, irked by social media posts he has seen comparing Jews to European settlers, he points out that more than half of Israel's population has roots in North Africa and the Middle East, while some who came from Europe can trace their lineage back to the area that is now modern-day Israel.

Adam considers himself to be pro-Black Lives Matter and marched in demonstrations in Chicago and Washington DC last year, but he warns that a binary narrative of oppression cannot neatly be applied outside of an American context.

"You're taking two parts of the world with infinitely different histories and contexts, and applying the same standards to them. It just doesn't work," he says.

"Innocent civilians are dying in Israel and in Gaza, and boiling it down to one side is an oppressor and the other is a victim is never the answer."

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'There's no power stronger than the people'

For some, the online conversations over the territorial dispute are significant not simply because they create awareness.

Leen credits the social media movement with "exposing" decades-long narratives about Palestinians perpetuated in the mainstream media and by foreign governments.

The 24-year-old activist says that when people post and share content from Gaza it dismantles the damaging "myth" that Israeli-Palestinian fighting is a "conflict".

"Gaza has been massacred time and time again," she tells the BBC. "This isn't a conflict; that implies an equation and it is not equal."

According to Leen, the most appropriate ways to describe the issue is as settler colonialism, apartheid and genocide, all terms that have been heavily featured in social media posts over the past two weeks, but vehemently rejected by Israel.

"There's no other way to frame trapping a population of two million people in an open-air prison and, every few years, bombing them for weeks and months at a time," she contends.

"When you're that densely populated in such a small area, there's no way to escape a full-scale bombing. That's absolutely nothing short of genocide."

Born in Jordan to parents with roots in the West Bank and Syria, Leen educated herself on the struggle for Palestinian liberation by reading dense historical texts from Palestinian and Jewish scholars before she started speaking out and organising in high school and college.

"We're expected to know every detail in order for our own calls for justice to be taken seriously and seen as not biased," she says.

But she adds: "I don't expect people to know the details the way I do because, when it comes down to it, the issue is very clear. You don't need a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to know that what Israel is doing is wrong."

Leen with her grandparents
Leen's Palestinian grandparents, seen here on a US trip in 2000, have no right of return to their home country and are citizens of Jordan.

She says people are no longer afraid to weigh in on the topic, a phenomenon she - like Leila - largely attributes to the potency of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"If black organisers and activists hadn't set that stage in the past year, I don't think we would be witnessing this moment for Palestinian activism online and through social media," she observes.

"You can't really separate struggles for justice," she goes on. "All struggles for justice are interconnected. One of us can't be free until all of us are."

That's why, despite what Leen describes as "extreme anger and frustration" over alleged pro-Israel bias, she also feels "the joy of solidarity".

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'Do they know what apartheid even means?'

An Ashkenazi Jew whose ancestors immigrated to the region in the 1930s, Eliana had no immediate ties to Israel until she lived there for all of 2017.

It was an experience that left her "emotionally and culturally connected" to the place, as she studied Judaism and grew to admire Israel's cuisine and its family-based culture.

She also explored as much of the region as she could - from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Gaza to the West Bank. In her view, "unless people live there and know the nuances, or really know the history and where we came from, you don't know how this situation developed".

Describing herself as "absolutely pro-Israeli", Eliana says: "Everyone deserves a home and Jews have no place to call home except Israel."

She believes that Palestinians also have a legitimate right to live in the region, but a minority of Arabs are "volatile, radical and want to bomb us".

She points to the many Arabs who live in Israel, who she says are culturally Muslim but live harmoniously alongside Jews. Most of her friends there are Arabs too, she adds.

Recounting her travels through Gaza, she recalls the "heart-breaking" poverty of its residents and adds that they are the innocent victims of larger forces at play.

"They are manipulated," she opines. "Hamas and other terror organisations use the public as pawns on the frontlines, and by saying Israelis are responsible for their poor quality of life while taking money for their own agendas."

She says that, despite coverage that shows many more Palestinians have died than Israelis in the recent escalations, it is only because Israel has built up the military strength to defend itself from neighbours "like Syria and Iran that very much do not like us".

On a trip to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, for example, Eliana witnessed firsthand the might of Israel's Iron Dome during a missile attack.

It is absurd to her that terms like apartheid are being used in social media posts to describe the situation. "I don't know if people even know what that word means," she says.

"We're coming in like the British and trying to invade their territory?" she asks. "We are just trying to protect ourselves."