After 11 days of violence that left at least 232 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, the Israeli government and Hamas declared a ceasefire late last week, the culmination of weeks of heightened conflict in Jerusalem. As the situation worsened, many Palestinians and members of the diaspora took to social media to document forced evictions, protests, and deadly airstrikes, calling attention to what some experts in the international community say are human rights violations.
Online, some Palestinians say their speech was being censored by technology platforms. Social media accounts were disabled, posts on Instagram and Twitter disappeared, and misinformation spread widely. Digital rights groups accused Facebook and Twitter of “systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes.” Researchers are now examining the ways social platforms clamped down on speech about Palestine, and are collecting examples of content that was removed. (The tech companies said the issues were the result of technical mistakes.)
For many people in Palestine, the conflict was made worse by an internet ecosystem that they say is frequently hostile to Palestinian voices. There were, though, some moments of hope: On Clubhouse, for example, moderators from Israel, Palestine, and diaspora communities hosted a room called “Balance: Meet Palestinians and Israelis” for several days straight, which they estimated over 100,000 people participated in.
To understand how the conflict was felt on the ground, Rest of World spoke with three Palestinians about experiencing it firsthand — online and offline. The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Najla, an aid worker in Gaza
I’ve mostly been using Twitter to inform the world. I’ve been using Instagram to a lesser extent, but it’s not my usual thing. I previously used it only for very personal photos, but then I was encouraged to use it for these events. I’ve seen reports about people’s accounts and posts that have disappeared, and I’ve seen some disappear myself. I don’t know when my account might disappear, too.
I am active on Twitter, but I don’t go deep into the politics of the situation, and instead focus on the human aspect. Maybe sometimes I talk a little about the main roots of the Palestinian cause, but I’m also self-censoring, because I live in a very controlled situation where I know I’m being monitored by different people and parties. I’m not a coward — I don’t say things that are against my beliefs, but I try to be a little bit mild in some areas. When I translate tweets from Arabic to English, I’m just helping with the practicality of translating what’s going on into English, and also trying to reach Western audiences. My goal has always been reaching the West.
Every few minutes, I check my group chats on Facebook Messenger. I try to assign breaks for myself, so that I can switch off, but I usually fail to do a full break. I try to take an hour, for example, before I put the kids to bed. We are only sleeping one or two hours at a time. Last night, it was four hours. I keep my phone next to me. When I hear a bomb, I immediately turn on the phone and check Twitter. I also check Messenger and WhatsApp. I just want to check if there’s anything that I need to know in my area. For example, if somebody heard a rumor that they need to leave or evacuate, or if there are any direct airstrikes where my friends or relatives live. We check locations and stuff to make sure that everyone is OK. Sometimes, if I have the energy, I’ll tweet. If not, I’ll go back to sleep.
Najla asked to use only her first name for privacy reasons.
Imam Hithnawi, the co-founder of a startup accelerator in Ramallah
It was a very stressful time seeing Palestine under continuous attack by the Israeli forces. It was heartbreaking to see the amount of death, to see people losing kids and other family members. It was also very difficult to see Gaza going through another wave of destruction and displacement. Every hour, I was seeing more pictures, more videos, more content. It was very stressful for everyone, no one was living normally.
We rarely got any sleep at all. Of course, mobile phones are the last thing I check before I sleep and the first thing I check in the morning. You call your friends from Gaza asking if they’re okay and they say, “The shooting is not close, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in an hour.”
I found myself using Twitter and Clubhouse more than before. There were a lot of people online who made music, designs, content, translations. People were thinking, “I need to do anything I can.” I was very proud of the Palestinians who could translate information about the conflict in a very good and transparent way, so people all around the world could see what’s happening here.
My international colleagues were very supportive, and understood what I was going through psychologically. They realized I had to do things not only for myself, but for the community. When you see that a whole family has just died — I couldn’t just go do my work the next day.
As someone with a Palestinian ID [living in the West Bank], I feel like I can post what I want on social media, but some of my posts were taken down. Palestinians in Israel have to worry about Israeli soldiers, police, and even Israeli people having their social media — they can know who you are.
Gaza already had minimal infrastructure, and now they’ve destroyed the minimum, so the people there have nothing. Previously, there wasn’t access to 3G connections. There is limited access to electricity, and people in Gaza even have trouble accessing the cloud. I believe Gaza has some of the most talented people — coders, designers, content creators. A lot of people and organizations were working with this minimal infrastructure and doing a great job, and now they have to build all over again. I believe they will find the solutions, but it’s very bad.
The startup accelerator I co-founded has partnered with another one called Gaza Sky Geeks. Their building was damaged by the bombs from Israeli forces. I know about some of the companies in their portfolio that lost their offices. The only assets they have are the desks and the computers they had in this office. Even those minimal resources are gone. That’s why I’m saying what’s happening to the startup community is a disaster.
Adam Haj Yahia, a Palestinian researcher and activist in Haifa
On May 9, I was detained because I was at a peaceful protest. There was no evidence and no legal grounds to take me, and I was released the day after. But the court ruled that I couldn’t go to any protests for a month. After, there was a protest on May 11 that I could not join, and a lot of my friends and family were at another peaceful protest that happened in the city of Haifa. So, I used live videos that were online to see what was happening, to stay updated, to be very much with the people, but not on the street.
On my phone, I witnessed how Israeli settlers who were fully armed with guns, knives, and sticks were surrounding Palestinian protesters. I watched the live footage and was on the phone with my friends, telling them that they should wait — that they should hide because people are coming. It was really crazy to suddenly find myself in that kind of situation — I didn’t expect it. I could do that only because Instagram Live was available.
We stayed updated because we were able to share information through WhatsApp and Instagram. We could only keep track of the people getting attacked and knew where to send medical help because of these videos; we could only know who had been detained because of these videos, because we’ve been sharing them and circulating them.
I’ve been engaged in activism and intersectional movements since I was very young. But I’ve never really relied on social media for what I do. I always believed that power is within community connections — with grassroots activism on the streets. And suddenly, just overnight, people are seeing my Instagram account as a serious source for what’s happening in Palestine. So, it’s a sense of responsibility I know I’m going to have.
It’s been quite a mess to keep track of everything, because so much is happening all the time. We took it upon ourselves to document, archive, and classify videos according to their dates and time, the names of people in them, and the neighborhood and locations where they were shot. Since the attacks began in Palestine, my community and I have been working for a week now to collect footage, videos, photographs, and voice recordings. People would sit for hours and try to classify each video: Where did it happen? What happened?
On Instagram, we’ve been seeing how a lot of posts have been getting deleted for sensitive content or because they violated the community standards. I’m not talking about posts that are about bombings or people who got injured. I’m talking about ones that are, for instance, texts that very objectively describe what is going on in a particular place or that report the number of people who have died.
We’ve been facing a lot of restrictions and censorship on social media platforms, while the Israelis posting about what has been happening have not been banned. We tried an experiment on Instagram where we shared a few posts in Arabic and then translated them phonetically into Hebrew, to see if they got censored or not. The post in Hebrew wasn’t taken down, but the one in Arabic was.
It’s still just really interesting to watch how different structures of power — economic, political, and colonial ones — very much intersect. We couldn’t have really imagined how hard it would be to just share what has been happening to us.