Recent history shows that social media can play a powerful role in social movement; Iran in 2009, Egypt in 2013, and, most recently, incidents in Hong Kong all galvanized and solidified this reality. Social media and its role have not been absent in the array of means used by the Palestinian movement, and this summer served as a rather brutal reminder. Live updates and pictures of the siege of Gaza were available to western twitter or instagram users at will, and there was no escaping a constant reminder that Palestinians are human beings. Fifty years ago, deaths in Palestine were simple statistics, numbers to be shrugged off or sighed over at most. Today, the faces of children like 2-year-old Saher Abu Namoos and 10-year-old Ibrahim Zuheir al-Dawawseh stare back at you from your computer screen, daring to be shrugged off. The images have been visceral and damning, constant reminders of the destruction and terror that accompanies the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In addition to the images, live-time updates about when, where, who, and what have proved to be just as critical in relaying information to the globe. A twitter user knew more about the conflict in two minutes worth of tweets than another person could’ve learned in an entire day watching CNN. The same is true today as Israel occupies and closes Masjid Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in the Muslim world. Abbas Sarsour, a Palestinian man from the village of Al-Beireh, operates the twitter handle @iFalasteen. As of the hour I’m writing this piece, the account has 54,935 followers, and those followers receive live updates as to the clashes surrounding Al-Aqsa and events throughout Jerusalem and neighboring areas. I sat down with Abbas for an interview while in Boston.
JD: So, Al-Aqsa is under attack, you’ve been tweeting live pictures from the ground. You tweeted a few weeks ago, “Al-Aqsa is under attack. Go, go defend Al Aqsa.” And there are people defending Al Aqsa. What’s the response that you’ve seen from people who follow you, people in the region?
Abbas Sarsour: You know, Al Aqsa is a very Islamic thing. Muslims care about Al Aqsa. To Muslims and Palestinians themselves, Al Aqsa is sort of a “don’t-touch” zone, like if you mess with Al Aqsa, you’re playing with fire. But, right now, there is nothing to stop what is going on in Aqsa. There is nothing to stop Zionists from splitting Al Aqsa. They have certain times for Muslims, certain times for Jews. They only let a certain number of worshippers in at a time. Israel is doing this because it is the perfect time to do it. Egypt is in their back pocket, Jordan is in their back pocket, Lebanon is busy in Syria, and Syria is… messed up. Even Saudi Arabia is in their back pocket! There is no one to stop them. The Muslim Ummah, you could say, is sleeping. I always stress that in my social media.
JD: That’s another interesting thing. What you do on social media is not limited to Palestine; it’s a wide call.
AS: I always try to stress on that. It’s a wide call. There are two billion muslims, if all of them know what ‘s happening to Masjid Al-Aqsa, someone has to move. Even though most, not all, but most leaders of the Arab world don’t care about their people. We saw that in Gaza. When Gaza was getting attacked this summer, all the muslim countries were quiet. Except who? Turkey? Qatar? Other than that, they were all in Israel’s pocket. They stay quiet, they still buy Israeli products, they fund $39 billion a year to Israel just buying their products that are built on settlements and companies that operate on Palestinian land. Stuff like that, it makes you wonder what’s going on.
JD: A constant in Islamic politics, whether it’s Rouhani or Nasrullah, they say “we stand with Palestine, we are with Palestine,” but then when it comes down to it…
AS: They’re not. They use Palestine as a political gain. To win elections, you say “I love Palestine.” To be president of the US, you may say “I love muslims,” but then do you do anything for them? No. It’s a political thing. Politicians are way different than people on the ground. Politicians can say one thing but the people on the ground are getting killed, they’re defending it, they’re acting, and a politician just sits in a chair and gets paid millions of dollars to say “we care.” That’s the main issue we have.
JD: What’re your feelings on the Palestinian leadership today? With the unity government having come together?
AS: My personal perspective? What was taken by force will not come back for free. It will come back by force. When the people unite, then it will work. When people stop saying “Oh, I’m from Ramallah, Oh, I’m from Nablus” or even “Oh, I’m from Egypt” or “I’m from Jordan,” we’ll be better off.
JD: You have to think that if there was a sense of Pan-Arab unity, this wouldn’t be happening to Palestine, or it wouldn’t be tolerated the way it is.
AS: Yes. I have a thing, I don’t know but I know this: Israel will not last as it is. The last Gaza war, you could tell. The Arab leaders were silent, the Ummah was silent, the world was silent. They killed innocent women and children. They had the whole world backing them up. And they still couldn’t go into Gaza, which is what, 350 sq. km? They couldn’t go in. Everyone was backing them up, “yeah, kill them, make Gaza a parking lot.” They literally did. You saw in my tweets, people were in schools, in shelters, and they were still being bombed. you could say they did because Israel had nothing to prove what gaza did. They went in, they killed people, and they left. They killed innocent lives. That’s the only thing they did. What happened after Gaza, the main media focus switched right away. They moved from Palestine to ISIS, because they wanted to show that anyone in a mask is a terrorist. Anyone who has a flag that says “God is one” is a terrorist. That’s the effect of media. This gaza war, the media was focused on corrupting the Islamic image. This is their goal. To have people in the world always scared of Muslims. Even though Islam is the fastest growing religion. But back to my point, I think that Israel, I give them ten to fifteen years left as occupiers of Palestine.
JD: What do you think is the alternative? In 10 to 15 years, what happens?
AS: In 10 to 15 years, Zionists will leave Palestine. The Zionists, they care about their lives more than anything. They don’t care about Palestine or Israel. That’s the Zionist mentality. They think they are the rock. We tell them that a rock can be worn down over years by water, they disagree. Something major will happen. Let’s go back to 2004, you and I are sitting, chilling, playing soccer or whatever, and I tell you “You know, Syria is gonna have a revolution. And Tunisia. And Egypt.” You’d say, “You stupid one. Get out of here! Mubarak has been there for forty years! You’re telling me he’s leaving?” Something sparked that. Out of nowhere, something will happen. No one expected the intifada to happen It did. The West Bank is stronger than Gaza, but the thing about the West Bank is that they have another occupier: they call themselves the PA, the Palestinian government. They literally work for Israel. The PA will come to your house and take you. The last week, 50 people were released from Israeli occupation prisons, and the PA takes them right into PA prisons! That’s why the third intifada didn’t happen. The PA stopped it. They were in the streets stopping Palestinians from throwing rocks, throwing them in jail if they did! When the Gaza war finished, they were released, all so that they didn’t make noise during the conflict. The West Bank was shut off by the PA so that Israel had time to focus on Gaza. The West Bank was silent. And still they lost.
And remember, it is only Zionists that cause the problems. Jews were living in Palestine together with Muslims before, they are not the problem, we were all fine. I am talking about Zionists that kill innocent people, who say that I do not exist. That is important to say.
JD: I agree with you about the dual occupation. I come from the outside, but from what I have seen in Palestinian media many Palestinians also agree with you about the PA. We demonize Hamas, but people do not like the PA. I agree with you that a change will occur and that one day the political tides will not be so strongly sided with Israel. Where do you think the spark for change comes from?
AS: I think one of the biggest reasons will be America. America is in debt. When a president comes and says “I’m gonna fix Detroit, I’m gonna fix New York, I’m gonna fix crime, I’m gonna get jobs to the Americans” he will realize that Israel is causing nothing but debt. Israel is taking the ship down. When America worries about itself, they will fix the problem. Their only other option is to go into another war. That’s the only solution they have. The US will begin to listen to the UN, to the rest of the world. I mean, Israelis poured gasoline down a child’s throat and lit it, but we’re the bad guys? Do you see all the UN violations? The US will see the truth.
On the impact of social media:
In the last Gaza war, people knew what happened in Gaza every second, every minute. Gaza is blockaded, it’s quarantined, everything is down. People still know that at this moment at this time a bomb fell at this family’s house. How many families? Whole families! They are no more. The family tree burned down. One bomb from Israel and the tree grows no more. Everyone knows this is happening in Gaza. Two days ago, a kid got shot. You know of it because of social media. In the intifadas, there was no twitter, no facebook. Everyone who has an account on twitter is an activist, because they are telling the world what’s going on in Gaza! They say “My cousin, his name is this or that, he got shot at this time, at this place, and he’s dead.” And you know of it. “We’re going here, to the school, this place got bombed,” and you see pictures. And let me tell you something about Palestine. It is a holy land. Anything that happens there, people will know. Countless people die in Syria, do we know? I don’t know their names. Neither do you. But Palestine? You know of it. You know names. Israel doesn’t see this, they want to say “look at the other people, look at the muslims!” But everyone’s eyes are on Palestine. It is, what’s the word? Sacred. It holds the three Book religions.
I have a What’sApp group with about 200 people from Gaza, all over Gaza. They just post what’s going on, we all stay updated. They text it because they have no internet, so I put it out there so the people can know what’s happening in Gaza. The whole world now, how many are protesting for Gaza? The leaders like Israel, they want Israel in power, they believe that Israel is the strongest army in the middle east. Because of social media, you know that’s not true. You now know that fighters with weapons made of spoons and blenders kept Israel out of Gaza. The picture that Zionists present to the world is breaking down.
What happened in Gaza was the biggest mistake Israel could make. They know it. They’ll make another one, trust me. But this was the biggest.