Why Israel is no longer able to control the narrative on Palestine
The following sentence tells the whole story of what pro-Palestinian communities around the world are fighting against, and what pro-Israelis are fighting for: “We are delighted to report that Chelsea and Westminster Hospital has removed a display of artwork designed by children from Gaza.”
That was the summary of a news report published on the homepage of the pro-Israel group UK Lawyers for Israel. The group is credited with being the party that managed to successfully persuade the administration of a hospital in West London to take down a few pieces of artwork created by refugee children from Gaza.
Explaining the logic behind their campaign to remove the children’s art, it said that “Jewish patients” in the hospital “felt vulnerable and victimized by the display.” Among the few pieces of artwork were representations of the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian flag and other symbols that should hardly victimize anyone. The group’s article was later edited, with the offensive summary removed, although it is still accessible via social media.
As ridiculous as this story sounds, it is in fact the very essence of the anti-Palestinian campaign launched by Israel and its allies worldwide. While Palestinians are fighting for basic human rights, freedom and sovereignty as enshrined in international law, the pro-Israel camp is fighting for the complete erasure of everything Palestinian.
Some call this cultural genocide or ethnocide. While Palestinians have been familiar with this Israeli practice in Palestine since the very inception of the state of Israel, the boundaries of the war have been expanded to reach anywhere in the world, especially in the Western hemisphere.
The inhumanity of UK Lawyers for Israel and its allies is quite palpable, but the group cannot be the only party deserving of blame. Those lawyers are but a continuation of an Israeli colonial culture that sees the very existence of a Palestinian people with a political discourse, including children refugees’ art, as an “existential threat” to Israel.
The relationship between the very existence of a country and children’s art may seem absurd — and it is — but it has its own, albeit strange, logic. As long as these refugee children have the self-awareness to recognize themselves as Palestinian, as long as they continue to count as part of a larger whole and are recognized by others — for example, the patients and staff at a London hospital — this collective Palestinian identity makes it difficult, impossible in fact, for Israel to win.
For Palestinians and Israelis, victory means two entirely different things, which cannot be consolidated. For Palestinians, victory means freedom for the Palestinian people and equality for all. For Israel, victory can only be achieved through the erasure of Palestinians — geographically, historically, culturally and in every other way that could be part of a people’s identity.
Sadly, the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is now an active participant in this tragic erasure of the Palestinians; the same way that Virgin Airlines bowed to pressure in 2018 when it agreed to remove “Palestinian-inspired couscous” off its menu. At the time, this story appeared as if it was a strange episode in the so-called Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though, in reality, the story represented the very core of this “conflict.”
Thanks to the growing popularity of the Palestinian cause and the impact of social media, initial Israeli victories now almost always backfire.
For Israel, the war in Palestine revolves around three basic tasks: Acquiring land, erasing the people and rewriting history.
The first task has been largely achieved through a process of ethnic cleansing and unhinged colonization of Palestine since 1947-48. The current right-wing extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu is only hoping to finalize this process.
The second task involves more than ethnic cleansing because even the mere awareness of Palestinians, wherever they are, and their collective identity constitutes a problem. Thus, the active process of cultural genocide.
Finally, though Israel has succeeded in rewriting history for many years, that task is now being challenged thanks to the tenacity of Palestinians and their allies, and the power of social and digital media.
Palestinians are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the rise of digital media, which has contributed to the decentralization of political and even historical narratives. For decades, the popular understanding of what constitutes “Israel” and “Palestine” in the mainstream imagination was largely controlled through a specific Israeli-sanctioned narrative. Those who deviated from this narrative were attacked and marginalized, and almost always accused of antisemitism. While these tactics are still unleashed at critics of Israel, the outcome is no longer guaranteed.
For example, a single tweet exposing the “delight” of UK Lawyers for Israel has received more than 2 million views on Twitter. Millions of outraged Brits and social media users around the world have turned what was meant to be a local story into one of the most discussed topics worldwide on Palestine and Israel. Expectedly, not many social media users took part in the lawyers’ “delight,” thus forcing the group to reword its article. More importantly, millions of people were, in a single day, introduced to a whole new topic on Palestine and Israel: That of cultural erasure. The group’s “victory” has turned into a complete embarrassment, never mind a defeat.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the Palestinian cause and the impact of social media, initial Israeli victories now almost always backfire. Another recent example was the Harvard Kennedy School’s decision to retract, before quickly reinstating, its offer of a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch. In January, Roth’s fellowship was revoked due to his past criticism of Israel. A major campaign, which was started by small alternative media organizations, resulted in the reinstatement of Roth within days. This and other cases demonstrate that criticizing Israel is no longer a career-ender, as was often the case in the past.
Israel continues to employ old tactics to control the conversation on its occupation of Palestine. It is failing because those traditional tactics do not work in today’s world, where access to information is decentralized and where no amount of censorship can control the conversation.
For Palestinians, this new reality is an opportunity to widen their circle of support around the world. For Israel, the mission is a precarious one, especially when initial victories could, within hours, become humiliating defeats.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.