The Digital Ecology and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

shrinking-map-of-palestine

Research question: How has the digital ecology impacted the Palestinian – Israeli conflict?

The Palestinian – Israeli conflict has been ongoing since the late 19th century. The world has entered a new era in which digital technology is constantly developing, so it is important to look at the transition of the conflict into the digital world. Software has been deployed in every aspect of our lives and this transformation has had an impact on the political conflict. However, “the importance of the internet in Palestine is clearest when the historical background of the Diaspora is addressed.” (Aouragh 2011: 13). Consequently, I am going to address some milestones in the history of the region before explaining how new digital Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have changed the conflict.

Being a Holy Land for the Abrahamic religions, Palestine is a strategic and historic place where many want to live. Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism, in the late 19th century famously described Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land,” disregarding the Palestinians living there. At that time, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Middle East until 1917 when the British Mandate in Palestine began after the defeat of the Turks in World War I. The Balfour Declaration, announced in the same year, promised the land of Palestine to the Jewish people. Although the immigration of Jews started in the late 19th century, it intensified after this declaration. In 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the partition plan resolution which aimed to establish two states in Palestine. A few months later, Israel announced its independence, ending the British Mandate in Palestine. However, the state of Palestine has taken over 60 years to get just partial recognition.

Thousands of Palestinians have been forced to leave their country because of wars and massacres committed against them. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in a period which later became known as the “Nakba”, Arabic for “catastrophe”. Most of the displaced refugees went to the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon but they kept their hopes to return. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was founded in 1964 with the aim of establishing a Palestinian state, returned to Palestine in 1994 after the end of the first Intifada, or uprising. A year earlier, the Palestinian Authority was established in the Oslo Accords, an interim agreement with Israel that was supposed to lead to a final peace treaty within five years. Six years later — and still far from a final agreement or Palestinian state — the Second Intifada erupted. In 2002, Israel began building the Separation Wall, which it said kept terrorists out of Israel. The wall is not built along the Green Line, but instead cuts deep inside the West Bank, annexing large amounts of Palestinian land and, along with hundreds of military checkpoints, restricting the movement of Palestinians.

This brief history leads to the facts on the ground today. In this digital age, Palestinian refugees are still deprived of their right to return to their homeland, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffer from movement restrictions. It is in this context that Palestinians have taken their struggle to the virtual world, as I will explain in this paper. I will begin by setting the theoretical background, focussing on Manuel Castells’ theory of the “Network Society”. I will then look at how the early stages of the internet began to change people’s perspective of the conflict. Finally, I will discuss how the Palestinians use the internet in the post-digital ecology era by looking at the deployment of new technologies in the conflict.

The “network society”, introduced by Castells in his trilogy, allowed Palestinians to globalize their cause and gain more international support. Castells (2005: 7) defines the network society as “a social structure based on networks operated by information and communication technologies based in microelectronics and digital computer networks that generate, process, and distribute information on the basis of the knowledge accumulated in the nodes of the networks”. His main argument is that culture, economics and politics have changed due to the new digital information and communication technologies (Castells 2010). Despite the occupation of the Palestinian territories, digital technologies were eventually available to Palestinians. Israel may be identified as one of the reasons for the early introduction of ICTs to Palestine. However, the social structure of Palestine is based on offline networks and is not yet operated by the ICTs. The fast rate at which Palestine is adopting the new technologies may eventually lead it into the “network society”.

Castells also argues that technology alone does not identify the transition to the new society. As the globe has become connected by networks, Castells says that “we are not living in a global village, but in customized cottages globally produced and locally distributed” (Castells 2010: 370). Individuals in Palestine have become more and more connected to the internet transferring their national struggle against the occupation to the online sphere. According to a study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (2012), the percentage of Palestinian households who own computers has reached 50.9 percent. Meanwhile, those who have access to the internet reached around 30.4 percent in 2011 compared to only 9 percent in 2004.

The social organization and practices are important to identify the “network society” (Castells 2005: 7). Although Palestine was not recognized as a state, Palestinians were keen to be integrated into the world’s newest era. Before 2000, Palestine managed to own its international dialling code (970) which helped later in reducing the prices of internet access. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has also managed to obtain a domain (.ps) especially designated for the use of Palestinians from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) (Luxner 2000: 1; Aouragh 2011: xx). This has helped to emphasise the network-state in Palestine as political institutions have started to operate online. It also provided a sphere for Palestinians to start building their state. Palestine may be considered as part of the third world, but the PNA has tried to engage in the global governance which Castells (2005: 15) has identified as the main characteristic of network-states. In 2005, the PNA released a document which set up a strategic plan to increase its e-Government capabilities and help the Palestinian people move forward in the 21st century.

Palestine’s economy is largely dependent on foreign aid. The network economy, according to Castells (2005: 8), is based on new forms of production, distribution and management. Despite the immature economy of Palestine and its limits due to the occupation, some Palestinian businesses have successfully transitioned into the network economy. A lot of businesses have encouraged individuals’ skills to be implemented in their work. This “self-programmable labour” (Castells 2005: 10) may be considered the best way to overcome the restrictions imposed on the daily lives of Palestinians such as limits to their freedom of movement. This flexibility is not yet available in all the institutions and businesses in Palestine, but it has given individuals the opportunity to be creative and active by working autonomously in their networks. Moreover, a significant number of Palestinian businesses have started using social networking sites such as Facebook to market and distribute their products. This is a clear indication that the Palestinian economy is transitioning and will soon become entirely represented in a network economy. The transformation helps the economy to be more independent especially as Palestine was partially recognized as a state in November 2012.

Palestinian individuals have also managed to be part of the network society. What Castells has called “networked individualism” may not be applied to the whole population, but at least to a significant proportion of it. Technology in society is shaped according to the needs and interests of those who use it (Castells 2005: 3). Palestinians’ most urgent need in their recent history is freedom of movement, which is limited by hundreds of checkpoints, a blockade on Gaza and the separation wall in the West Bank. Therefore, many Palestinian individuals have found a refuge and “virtual freedom” in digital technologies and the internet. This may be the reason behind the rise in internet use among individuals, which reached 57.7 percent in 2012 (IWS 2013). This lack or deprivation of freedom of movement has created a networked generation that is able to communicate with the world through social networking sites, forums, chat, and other forms of online communications. Moreover, the Palestinian society has moved from being a somewhat isolated society to a “hypersocial society” (Castells 2005: 11). Palestinians became more able to connect with those in the Diaspora and to make friends with internationals to garner support for their cause. Castells also argues that the “transformation of sociability” increases face-to-face interactions. Palestinians have been successful in inviting international friends to come and see the real situation, challenging the mainstream media which is dominated by the stronger side of the conflict.

Castells (2011) describes internet-based social networks and wireless networks as political, instant, multimodal, viral, horizontal, selective and self-reflective, as well as being local and global at the same time. He argues that they are highly political in a fundamental sense and “propose and practice direct, deliberative democracy based on networked democracy… [and] based on local communities and virtual communities in interaction” (Castells 2011). The “network society” not only provides a framework for modern protest movements such as the Occupy Wall Street or the Palestinian popular resistance but also acts as a model for creating new forms of social, political and economic structures.

After discussing the network society and applying its theory on the Palestinian context, I will discuss in the following parts the internet penetration in the lives of Palestinians and how it became part of their everyday lives amid the political conflict.

As the mainstream media is a one-way transmitter of news, it offers little opportunity for ordinary Palestinians to be heard. Israel is able to control what is — and what is not — presented in the media by the broadcast media. Palestinian voices have seldom been heard. The famous Palestinian scholar and author Edward Said expressed this by indicating that the media refused Palestinians “permission to narrate”. Therefore, people outside Palestine used to get a distorted view of what was really going on inside (Hanieh 1999: 41). This biased narrative started to change with the emergence of the internet when people started to communicate with the world and raise their voices through the communication tool. Palestinians in the Diaspora had played a huge role in this regard especially those who immigrated to first-world countries like the United States. Therefore, I am going to discuss how the internet gave voice to the Palestinian narration of events by focussing on both Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine. I will also tackle the use of the internet in the first years of the second intifada which will lead to the transformation into the era of Web 2.0.

1996 was a remarkable year for the internet in Palestine. The Palestinian telecom investors received their licence which helped Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as PalTel, to start offering internet connection. Moreover, internet cafes started to open that year, offering internet services for £2-3 per hour (Aouragh 2011: xx). The first Palestinian website, which was for Birzeit University, was launched “mobilising society to embrace the internet” (Aouragh 2011: 28). The website was used as a tool to communicate the conflict to the world and it witnessed a continuous increase in visits, reaching 24,000 per month in its first year (Parry 2010). The multimedia formats on the website helped in breaking the mainstream media’s domination and gave the Palestinians the opportunity to choose which images they wanted to present and how (Hanieh 1999: 41). As internet penetration in Palestine was still very low, the focus of the website was outreach to the international community. According to a survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, only 6.9 percent of Palestinian households owned computers at that time. One of the restrictions to accessing the internet in Palestine was that the ISPs had to go through the Israeli providers which reduced the speed of the internet (Hanieh 1999: 43). Israel’s occupation of Palestine affected free access to the internet in its early stages.

The first online radio station (OutLoud) was launched by Birzeit University in 1998. The radio became a powerful tool to connect Palestinians in the Diaspora with their homeland and allowed people to hear from Palestine about issues that would never be reported in mainstream media (Hanieh 1999: 41). The online radio reached thousands of people around the world. It was “an example of how the Internet lets Palestinians speak for themselves in their own voice without mediation or distortion from outside bodies or interests” (Hanieh 1999: 42). As a result of the radio station, students started email correspondence with people who contacted them from around the world. This is only one example of how the many-to-many communication over the internet had great political potential compared to the traditional media (Hanieh 1999: 42). As radio is considered part of the broadcast era, it has successfully been adopted in the new era by merging it into the online sphere.

The political process is affected by the media and vice versa. Palestinians in the Diaspora have played an enormous role in changing the political discourse and raising international awareness, especially since the outbreak of the second intifada. For example, The Electronic Intifada website, which was founded in 2001, is considered “a pioneering online resource for media analysis, criticism, and activism” that focuses on Palestine (EI 2013). The website has provided “a commentary on Palestinian life and politics in a way that is accessible to international audiences” (Aouragh 2011: 163).  The September 11 attacks shifted the attention of the mainstream media to Afghanistan and Iraq, ignoring the collective punishment that the Palestinians still suffered (Aouragh 2011: 3). However, the focus of Palestinians in the Diaspora did not shift from their homeland and they have continued to bring to light the voices of Palestine. Furthermore, flags or links to official or political sites were featured on many websites. This indicates that “the internet does not weaken national identity but rather strengthens it” (Aouragh 2011: 31). It also indicates the transformation of the political conflict from the offline sphere to cyberspace.

During the second intifada, the internet became a bridge between Palestinians. It “is a special product of the development of the ‘electronic revolution’, and reconstitutes the meaning of place, space, time and the public sphere” (Aouragh 2011: 24). As curfews were imposed and military attacks took place, it was impossible for Palestinians to move. Phone calls were also sometimes not possible; therefore the internet was a means to know the latest news or contact friends via email (Aouragh 2011: 4). The internet, as a communication tool, offered an alternative meeting space for Palestinian communities (Aouragh 2011: 31). It was also a means to connect with the world and narrate what was going on in reality, away from the mainstream media. Every Palestinian who has witnessed a military attack has a story to tell. As a result, connecting to the internet became an important factor in the everyday life of Palestinians in order to be up-to-date with latest developments that took place especially during military operations. The use of the internet has also affected “Palestinian self-identity” as it became a space where the “Palestinian nation is globally ‘imagined’ and shaped” (Aouragh 2011: 4). Palestinians gathered from local and diasporic places on the global platform to interact, overcoming the boundaries and checkpoints created by the occupation which generated a feeling of mobility and political autonomy (Aouragh 2011: 1). Palestinian refugees, who are not able to go back to their country, have found the internet to be a space where they can virtually be present in a place they are forbidden to enter.

Moreover, the virtual Palestinian communities and the use of chat rooms have strengthened the internal communications and (re)constructed the relations with the global audience (Aouragh 2011: 4). Anyone outside Palestine who depended only on the mainstream media would form distorted images about Palestinians as the media is dominated by the more powerful antagonists of the conflict. For Palestinians, cyberspace became a space of freedom. “Technology is more powerful than governments or political strife” (Cook 2011: 64). Even though it does not solve the problems of injustice and special confinement, cyberspace has offered Palestinians a different way of living (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2011: 69).

Despite the above facts, the penetration of the internet in Palestine was still at an early stage in the first years of the intifada. According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (2012), 9 percent of households had internet access in 2004. However, PalTel has introduced the “4-digit internet connection services” (Aouragh 2011: xx), which enabled Palestinians to get internet connection by bypassing ISPs that went through the Israeli services. This development raised the percentage of households connected to the internet to reach 20 percent the following year. The eagerness and frustration of Palestinians to get the message about the occupation practices out of Palestine has very much encouraged people to get internet access despite the high prices.

As web technologies have evolved and Web 2.0 has surfaced, interaction over the internet intensified. The simple interface of Web 1.0 had limited options for interactivity and it was more of a one-way communication tool. People could not contribute to the content and were only able to connect through chat rooms, emails and other simple interactions. However, the new interfaces created by Web 2.0 technologies included two-way communications. This development of user-generated possibilities (Web 2.0) decreased the gap between a state’s monopoly of the media and the new ways of acquiring information (Aouragh 2011: 25). Web 2.0 allowed people to contribute to the content and interact more even if they did not understand how the new technologies worked. “Palestine [is] one of the region’s fastest Social Media adopters” with internet penetration that reached more than 35 percent in Palestinian households excluding internet cafes and the internet available at universities and high schools (Aouragh 2011: xx). The reason may be attributed to the restrictions on their everyday lives.

As a result, social networking websites, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies allowed more political activism. The Palestinian popular resistance to occupation has moved into cyberspace adopting the new methods of communication. Through social networking sites like Facebook, Palestinians and their supporters worldwide created groups and pages where people interacted and were connected. These “new forms of communication led to a kind of long distance nationalism” (Aouragh 2011: 26). This has also allowed the mobilization of e-resistance which was transformed to offline resistance in some cases. A recent example is the construction of a Palestinian tent village in an area where Israel is planning to build more illegal settlements. The activists drew attention to the plight of Palestinians and their right to return. They also used new platforms like Ustream that allowed them to stream images and videos of events as they took place. This change has an enormous effect on the political conflict as it is a new way of communicating events as they happen, allowing people to form their own opinions.

Social networking sites are integrated into the Palestinian peaceful resistance. The calls for such resistance are distributed through events organized by platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which also allow activists to share photos and videos. For example, activists created an event on Facebook inviting people to attend a church service on Palestinian land threatened with confiscation by Israel. Palestinians and internationals attended the service to support and be in solidarity with those whose lands are threatened. The service is now held on a regular basis.

Political campaigns have also used these new platforms to generate more support. For example, Palestinians gather on the micro blogging site Twitter, to raise awareness about their cause. One of the recent campaigns was to support a Palestinian prisoner in Israel who went on hunger strike for over 260 days. Activists set a time and then flooded Twitter with tweets that contained a particular hashtag in order to make it trend worldwide. In doing so, Palestinians believe they are able to raise the awareness of the international community.

Twitter has also played a role in revolutions. Beginning with the revolution in Iran in 2009, Twitter has revealed that the West longed for a world “where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor” and “where technology could be harvested to spread democracy” (Morozov 2011: 6). However, there is no space for democracy when the powerful sides use the platform to announce a war. The first war declared via Twitter was the Israeli war on Gaza in November 2012. The eight-day war was announced on the official account of the Israeli military spokesperson and the military brigades of Hamas responded to it. Both tweets were retweeted thousands of times. This is an example of how the social network website has taken over from the mainstream media. Instead of going to the media or sending a statement, a tweet with 140 characters has more effect.

Mobile phone use in Palestine has reached 95 percent according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (2012). Not all Palestinians have smart-phones, but the compatible mode offered by both Facebook and Twitter allows users to update their status or tweet via a text message. Both Palestinian cellular communication companies — Jawwal and Wataniya — have offered this service for the price of a normal text message allowing more Palestinians to stay connected to social media. Some Palestinians have used the service to tweet about a demonstration they are attending or any event instantly. As Israel refuses to grant Palestinian companies the ability to use third generation (3G) technologies, text messaging provides an alternative.

Israel does not only restrict the physical movement of Palestinians, but also their virtual existence. For years, Israel has controlled the space over Palestine despite granting the Palestinian Authority limited self-rule in areas of the West Bank and Gaza. One of the technologies that does not function as a result of this control is the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS devices and applications that are on smartphones show both the West Bank and Gaza as gray or white areas as if they do not exist. If used, the device will direct its user to the “internationally illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which were built on confiscated Palestinian lands and are off limits for Palestinians, or segregated roads which only Israelis are allowed to use” (the Technologist 2012). In addition, the Israeli military disturbs GPS signals on purpose as a measure of ‘security’ (the Technologist 2012) which is the pretext for every other form of control.

Surveillance technologies also play a role in the conflict. In addition to all the physical surveillance imposed by Israel such as guards, checkpoints and the separation wall, Palestinians are monitored by technological surveillance via CCTV cameras, recording devices and even censorship of their social networking websites. Despite Israel’s efforts to give the Palestinians the “sense of being trapped and suffocating” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2011: 62), the Palestinian e-resistance surfaced in an attempt to overcome the Israeli restrictions. Information technologies are part of revolution and resistance but at the same time “a major source of insecurity and violation of human rights”. These technologies of resistance have “turned cyberspace into a new space of control, crime, coping, survival and political activism” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2011: 69).

The Palestinian use of new digital technologies is more obvious than Israel’s. The Israeli government has taken advantage of new opportunities to influence public opinion through the use of proxies. This embedded method of communication has allowed Israel to gain support through its propaganda. One of the examples is the Megaphone which is

“a technology developed by a private Israeli firm. It keeps track of various online polls and surveys, usually run by international newspapers and magazines, that ask their readers questions about the future of the Middle East, Palestine, the legitimacy of Israeli policies, etc. Whenever a new poll is found, the tool pings its users, urging them to head to a given URL and cast a pro-Israel vote. Similarly, the tool also offers to help mass-email articles favourable to Israel, with the objective of pushing such articles to the most emailed lists that are available on many newspaper websites” (Morozov 2011: 268)

The use of the new technologies is subject to cyber attacks. Governments do not need to be involved as supporters and individuals who believe in a cause form networks to censor opponents. For example, a pro-Israel advocacy group, calling itself the “Jewish Internet Defence Force” (JIDF), has compiled lists of all Facebook groups that are anti-Israel and infiltrated them. Its members then become administrators of the groups before disabling them. “It is important to understand that increasingly it is communities – not just individual bloggers – that produce value on today’s Internet.” (Morozov 2011: 105)

Moreover, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli hackers have been engaged in a cyber war taking the political conflict to the digital world. The cyber attacks, which are created through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, aim to disrupt government or other official websites. In April 2013, a ‘cyberwar’ was announced on Israel by a “hacktivist” group called Anonymous. The attack came “in solidarity with the Palestinian people against Israel” and promised to “disrupt and erase Israel from cyberspace” (Anonymous 2013). The group set a hashtag (#OpIsrael) to keep its audience connected and informed with what it was doing. It was able to take down 60,000 websites while hacking more than “40,000 Facebook pages, 5,000 twitter accounts and 30,000 Israeli bank accounts”. Anonymous announced that the estimated damage tol caused to Israel by the attack was over $3 billion (Lennard 2013). Israeli government officials quickly issued statements and commented on the issue through mainstream media and social media networks, denying the claimed damages. This attack demonstrated again that the conflict has become global as a result of the new digital technologies.

To conclude, the Palestinian – Israeli conflict’s transition into cyberspace has gone through two stages. The first stage was the introduction of internet to the region. Palestinians faced many technical obstacles to connect to the internet before obtaining their domain that granted them partial freedom on cyberspace. The simple interface of the early websites allowed Palestinians to reach out the global community and gain more support for their cause. They have also successfully changed perceptions of Palestinians away from the mainstream media’s portrayal of them as ‘terrorists’. Palestinians in the Diaspora have found the internet to be a tool allowing them to return to their country virtually, overcoming their political status. The second stage of the transition was the result of the new technologies, specifically the introduction of Web 2.0. The interactions among Palestinians and internationals in the virtual world have changed the global discourse and the perception of the conflict. Palestinians have also taken their national identity and struggle to the cyberspace through political campaigns and resistance over social networking websites and other ICTs.

The aim of this paper was to highlight how the digital ecology has impacted the course of the political conflict between Palestine and Israel. Despite the technological developments, the conflict has taken another form by its discussed transition. The effect of this development has also been obvious in the offline world in Palestine as a street in one of the refugee camps was named “@arjanelfassed tweetstreet” after a Twitter account in 2009 (Morozov 2011: 19). The Palestinians’ everyday use of the new technologies to develop new forms of resistance, and Israel’s responses to these activities, had made it clear that the conflict has been significantly affected. The new space has given a stateless and scattered people around the world an opportunity to gather and mobilize when the real world has failed to bring them together.

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NOTE: This research paper was submitted as a fulfillment of MSDM03 module at  Swansea University. 

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