On June 6, I woke up to a notification on WhatsApp: Muna el-Kurd had been detained by Israeli police in Jerusalem. I watched the video of Muna being taken from her family’s home as Israeli police told her parents that they would return “every hour, every minute” until her twin brother, Mohammad, was detained too. For months, the 23-year-old el-Kurd twins had become the faces of Palestinian resistance in Sheikh Jarrah, broadcasting on Twitter and Instagram how they and seven other families refused to be forcibly expelled from their homes by Israeli settlers.
These detentions were just the latest example of digital violence against Palestinians, a practice that both amplifies and reinforces the violence we face in the physical world. These current events are not flashes of mistreatment, but emblematic of an entrenched state of apartheid and systemic persecution by Israel. In the digital world, this violence takes on a new resonance.
I was terrified for Muna and Mohammad, my fear amplified by knowledge of how sinister, unafraid, and brazen the Israeli legal system can be in fabricating charges and turning Palestinian voices, posts, and words into criminal acts of incitement. One of the charges brought against them was that “their nationalistic sentiment” posed a threat to “state security.” In other words, expressing their identity as Palestinians online was seen as a crime.
This practice is by no means new. In 2015, I recall receiving updates from Palestinians on Twitter when Israel detained Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour over a poem she posted on Facebook and YouTube. The poem had a line that repeated: “Resist, my people, resist them.”
The word “resist” terrifies Israel. But for Palestinians, resistance is survival. Resistance is our people’s refusal to be silenced in the face of physical, psychological, economic, social, and political violence.
Israel has become increasingly adept and unforgiving in inflicting digital violence against Palestinians, whether by using our social media profiles to incriminate us for crimes of expression or erasing us from virtual spaces with the acquiescence of tech companies. It’s the same practice we witness in real life.
During the settler-violence at Sheikh Jarrah earlier this month, for the first time in recent memory, Palestinians were able to use social media — namely Twitter and Instagram — to freely show the images, sounds, videos, and words that are largely censored, diluted, or decontextualized under the media’s illusion of objective reporting. Yet, as in previous instances, this freedom proved fleeting. Either by admitted pressures or unfortunate “glitches,” Palestinian voices were once again diminished online — their reach limited, their presence erased. Even when I was simply reporting updates about Israeli violence towards Palestinian protestors near the illegal Israeli settlement and military base of Beit El, Twitter temporarily suspended my tweets.
Social media, our last remaining avenue for exposing the violence, was aiding and abetting Israeli crimes against us. Our documentation and testimonies of the violence we faced from Israeli settlers were shut down by tech companies far from Palestine. This included videos of mobs chasing Palestinians while screaming “Death to Arabs;” Israeli police firing live ammunition at unarmed Palestinians; the carpet bombing of Gaza; and Palestinians and supporters of Palestine abroad expressing condemnation and calls for ending this systemic violence. Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, among others, have more control over our voices than we did.
In these moments, I felt we were being attacked from all sides, and denied the permission to even testify to our own reality. So much of our strength, as Palestinians, comes from our ability to be heard. The case of Sheikh Jarrah gained more international attention when a video filmed by Muna confronting the Israeli settler trying to take over her home went viral.
This attention does not come without risk. Palestinians know that exposing Israeli violence also means we expose our own lives at the same time. We persist because our safety and lives are already at risk. Social media is so crucial because it allows us to provide the testimonies and evidence that can bring accountability for the abuses we face daily.
The Israeli regime has not been hesitant or coy in its attempts to alter legal frameworks and redefine justice as it pertains to the online sphere. In 2015, Israel arrested 27-year-old Nader Halahleh and imprisoned him for seven months over seven posts on Facebook. That same year, 17-year-old Kathem Sbeih was also arrested over a Facebook post and placed in administrative detention — a policy from the British Mandate in which Israel imprisons Palestinians without charge or trial — for three months, despite being a child. By 2017, more than 300 Palestinians were detained under the pretext of incitement. For some Palestinians, just being able to post on social media under their real names is a risk too dangerous to take.
Videos posted online which also show Palestinian confrontation to armed Israeli forces or settlers can be used by settler organizations to incite the Israeli military court to detain and imprison Palestinians. In 2017, after a video of Ahed Tamimi slapping an Israeli soldier went viral, Israeli local media and settler movements began to call for her punishment. Israeli journalist Ben Caspit wrote of the Tamimi case: “In the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.” When Palestinians post of the violence inflicted against us, any pushback we illustrate is used by Israeli courts to imprison us.
Although Tamimi was only 16 years old, she was sentenced to eight months in prison. I still meet with her, and I know she has not healed from that abusive experience or from the impunity of the soldiers. She’s mostly off social media these days.
In addition to using social media to incriminate Palestinians, Israel has also used it to muzzle us. In 2016, Israel’s then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked boasted that, in the previous four-month period, Facebook had complied with 95% of Israel’s requests to remove Palestinian content on the vague basis of “incitement.” A year later, Israel tried to push the “Facebook Bill” through the Knesset, legislation which would force Facebook to remove any content designated as “incitement.” That the bill — criticized even by figures in Israel as unwieldly and chilling to free expression — never passed is immaterial, because everything we have been saying, from “free Palestine” to documenting apartheid to calling for an end to settler-colonialism, is already considered incitement.
I see the incitement of Israeli officials on social media calling to “flatten the strip” and it doesn’t scare me anymore. It doesn’t scare me, because on the ground, there are the actual soldiers flattening the strip. There are the settlers not only chanting “Death to Arabs,” but actually killing Palestinians in cold blood. This is the sick imbalance in the scales of justice that every Palestinian must live and resist under.
The blackout Palestinians are facing — ranging from misconstrued narratives of reporters saying this is a “conflict” to shutting down access to internet services and media accounts — is not about suppressing our voices as individuals. It is about erasing us in toto, scrubbing and obscuring the criminal acts by which Israel replaces us with its settlements and settlers, burying us in the abyss of history as a population of ghosts.
Palestinians are summoned to answer for imagined crimes, while Israelis enjoy impunity for crimes they actually commit. Palestinians who call for freedom “from the river to the sea” are branded as genocidal and antisemitic; meanwhile Israel has established an apartheid regime across this territory. It has not done so single-handedly, but with the complicity and protection of social media platforms, who have the choice to do otherwise.