War of narratives: Why we must all speak up for Gaza

What has emerged is an unspoken rivalry between independent voices on the ground and global media giants — the judges of whom are the people.
Published November 17, 2023

In 2007, Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “The Palestinians are the only nation in the world that feels with certainty that today is better than what the days ahead will hold.” Today, 75 years after the Nakba, the poignancy of his words cut deeper; echoing the unceasing suffering of the Palestinians.

Following the Hamas attack on Israel last month, the region witnessed yet another violent chapter, with thousands of innocent civilians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

“We are fighting human animals,” said an unapologetic Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on October 9, after Israel imposed a total blockade of the Gaza strip, cutting off electricity, and blocking the entry of food, fuel, and water. Subsequently, Israeli airstrikes bombed the besieged land, reducing entire neighbourhoods to rubble. These tides of brutality disregarded the difference between militants and civilians, exposing the invasion for what it really is — a blatant breach of international and humanitarian law, and a mockery of Israeli claims that their operation is against Hamas.

Today, the death toll in Gaza has risen over 11,500, nearly a third of whom are children, while an estimated 2,700 people remain missing.

The Palestinian counter-narrative

Even as Israel launched its offensive, another front opened up against the Palestinians — the mainstream Western media. Media outlets such as BBC, CNN, and Fox News acted as unofficial spokespersons for Israel.

Every Palestinian guest appearing on these channels was prompted to “condemn Hamas”, while pro-Israeli guests were rarely asked to condemn the brutality of Israel’s response. Claims of Israeli war crimes from Palestinian sources were consistently met with scepticism and demands for evidence, while Israeli claims were taken as the gospel truth and given extensive coverage.

This muffling of pro-Palestinian voices stirred a huge reaction from social media. What emerged was an unsaid rivalry between independent voices on the ground and global media giants — the judges of whom are the people. Public opinion on social media challenged the Israeli narrative as loud as the mainstream media carried it.

Social media became a vital source of information that showed the unfiltered ground reality. Merely hours into the conflict, social media platforms were flooded with content from both Palestine and Israel.

Over time, this became all the more important as journalists reporting from the Gaza strip were killed in numbers never seen before. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), between October 7 and November 16, at least 42 journalists have been killed in the violence. Among the victims are 37 Palestinian journalists, four Israeli, and one Lebanese. Another nine journalists have been reportedly injured, three are missing and 13 have been arrested.

In spite of this, the world saw images that mainstream media downplayed or simply ignored — gut-wrenching videos of injured children in crowded hospitals, vacant gazes and uncontrollable trembles from trauma; pictures of infants with fragile bodies, bombed, drenched in blood, lying limp in the arms of wailing parents, cradling them as if they were alive; rows upon rows of lifeless bodies, once vibrant and breathing, now reduced to mere statistics.

These devastating visuals, combined with the rejection of a ceasefire by Western powers, added to the social media uprising for Palestine.

“It is heartless to not speak up. While some may understandably feel reluctant or overwhelmed by the distressing content, this is an issue that transcends individual discomfort,” says Irum Amir, 50, from Lahore.

Censorship and consequences

And so, with the rise of the ‘conflict’ rose the global conversation about Western media bias, complicity and double standards.

On one hand, there was an inflow of provocative content from pro-Israeli accounts, marked by a celebratory, mocking tone directed at the Palestinian plight, while on the other, pro-Palestinian accounts encountered perplexing and excessive content moderation — also known as ‘shadow banning’.

Posts and comments containing words like “genocide”, “Free Palestine”, and “Gaza” were subject to flagging and removal. Even factual records of the violence were met with bans.

One of the most prominent voices, Motaz Azaiza, a Palestinian journalist who shares extensive live coverage and content from Gaza has garnered 14.5 million followers on Instagram and 494,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter). Amidst the vicious assaults, his account on X was temporarily suspended.

Eye on Palestine, an Instagram account with over 8m followers, delivered first-hand reports of the attacks and the aftermath on civilians. This page also faced a temporary ban, and these acts of censorship were met with strong backlash from online users.

Rasha Abdul-Rahim, Director of Amnesty International Tech stated on October 27, “As Israel intensifies its unprecedented bombardment of Gaza that has killed over 7,000 people, most of whom are civilians, we are extremely concerned by reports of partial blocking and removal, known as ‘shadowbanning’, of content from advocates of Palestinian rights.”

Nonetheless, this act of censorship served as a catalyst for social media users. Those in support of Palestine posted even more fervently, with a fierce conviction as the plight of Palestinians that was already disturbingly unaccounted for was now also being deliberately suppressed.

“Their statements alone stir our emotions, as they refer to Palestinians as ‘children of darkness’ and accuse everyone in Palestine of being a terrorist. They’re blatantly killing journalists, silencing voices on social media,” says Maryam Goheir, 33. “They’ve silenced the Western media but our silence cannot be bought.”

Palestinian dehumanisation and the price of speaking up

For people, especially in Western countries, showing solidarity with Gaza or taking a pro-Palestine stance comes with numerous obstacles, including the risk of losing their jobs.

Over the past weeks, Palestine Legal, an organisation that specifically works to protect the civil and constitutional rights of those based in the US, documented 260 instances of individuals losing their jobs, students and professors facing disciplinary measures, and even award-winning novelists having their events cancelled as a result of expressing their support for Palestine.

The restriction on freedom of speech fuelled a fresh surge of anger and disappointment among people who now find themselves unable to voice their opinions.

A*, who works for a social media platform in the UK and asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, described how he had to hold back even if he felt strongly about the issue. “This constitutes a humanitarian crisis, a genocide. While I’ve been vocal on social media and have participated in protests, the question remains: can I discuss it openly in my professional environment? Probably not.”

He also stressed the dehumanisation of Palestinians. “There seems to be a diminished level of sympathy for Palestinians. There is a prevailing narrative that categorises Arabs and Muslims as inferior. There is a lack of empathy and a general perception that Palestinian lives do not have equal worth.”

The Arab Centre Washington DC reported an unprecedented scale of disinformation and hate speech against Palestinians since October 7, including calls to “flatten Gaza” and to “kill all Palestinians”. As the conflict has intensified, so has hate speech.

Two days into the conflict, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy became the target of a hate crime and was stabbed 26 times by his American landlord. It is this anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab prejudice that justifies the genocide of Palestinians. The Western psyche, tainted by racism, poses a grave threat to Muslim communities at large. When media and political figures cast Muslims as a “security threat”, these sentiments reverberate through the broader populace, fuelling a hostile breeding ground for Islamophobia.

Moreover, any critique of Israel is often quick to be characterised as an act of anti-Semitism. This tactic effectively mutes many individuals, discouraging them from adopting a clear stance on the genocide.

The internet blackout and a glimmer of hope ahead

Since the start of the invasion, Israel has imposed several communication and internet blackouts in Gaza in attempts to silence key voices in the region while bombing civilian sites including refugee camps, and hospitals.

These internet blackouts also mark a crucial juncture in the ongoing conflict, where it falls upon us, the spectators, to find our voices and vehemently speak for justice.

Then there are the outright lies and attempts at deception, perpetuated by accounts linked to the Israeli government ranging from the fake news about the beheading of babies to a staged video of a Palestinian nurse condemning Hamas and claims of finding evidence of Hamas command and control centres established in tunnels beneath medical facilities. While these stories have been propagated by many Western media outlets as hard facts, they have been subsequently debunked by individuals on social media, who have painstakingly gone through the evidence and ripped apart Israel’s claims, exposing its blatant lies.

“Not speaking up is like siding with the oppressor. Some people who like to talk about moral and social issues, choose to not advocate for the Palestinian cause, perceiving it as an exclusively Muslim issue. It is our responsibility to take a stand in this regard.” says Irtiza Hassan.

Simultaneously, there is a prevailing sentiment among some individuals that the situation is unlikely to improve, given the actions of the policymakers. “Everything is being done by the governments involved, and I don’t think people speaking up will change their policies,” says Dr Amir Manzur.

Yet, a beacon of hope emerged from the amplification of our collective voices. Social media activists initiated the #ESIMSForGaza movement, facilitating the distribution of thousands of ESIMs and mobile data plans to Gaza through a network of individuals. This movement highlighted a notable shift in public opinion, showing how people worldwide united in collective action to oppose state tyranny.

In the past weeks, millions of people of all religions, races, and countries have come out on the streets, marching in solidarity, expressing their anger, and demnding that Israel and the US be held accountable for the attack on Palestine. In the largest pro-Palestine march in US history, protestors chanted: “Netanyahu, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide! Biden, Biden, you can’t hide; we charge you with genocide,” outside the White House.

As the global uproar intensifies, US officials fear that it won’t be long “before support erodes” and uproar against civilian casualties reaches a tipping point.

Through our will and determination, we must continue to speak up and compel the world to address the pain and trauma that defines Gaza at this very moment. If your voice can serve as a vessel of acknowledgement for Palestinian suffering, let the words come out loud and clear. It is time to say “enough”.

Header illustration: Areesha Rehan