Palestine's Facebook Generation
Sarah Salibi calls herself a “Facebookaholic.” The 19-year resident of the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip can’t leave her narrow Palestinian homeland, as it has been blockaded by the Israeli military for the past four years. Yet she says social media can overcome the barriers between her and the rest of the world. She has Facebook friends in the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries.
“They are always eager to know what’s really going on in Palestine,” Ms. Salibi told response. “And they’re often surprised. They think we’re a hopeless people without Internet access, that we just stay in our homes and are attacked every day. They think that we’re from another world. Through Facebook and my blog I can say we are people with life, a people with a future.”
Ms. Salibi did leave Gaza in 2005 on a student exchange to Belgium for two weeks. Yet since 2007 the Israeli government has severely limited the ability of Gazans to travel, and so Ms. Salibi has never been able to see Jerusalem or the West Bank, although they are just an hour’s drive away. On a blog she started last year, she described her simple wish:
“Walking on the moon is not my wish. My wish is far more simple than that. I wish I could go outside my home, stand on the street waiting for a taxi, and then ask the driver to drive me to Jerusalem. And he simply replies, ‘Get in,’ and then drives without anyone ordering him to stop — no checkpoints, no soldiers asking for a permit or any official papers allowing me to get into my country’s capital. And I sit very calmly in the backseat without feeling threatened or scared.”
Ms. Salibi wanted to study at Birzeit University, about 12 miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, and was accepted, but couldn’t get permission from Israeli authorities to travel there. So she studies English literature — her favorite writer is the English poet John Donne — at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. In her spare time she volunteers to teach English to older women and is involved in a variety of community activities.
“I was disappointed I couldn’t go to Birzeit. Many students experience the same thing. We want to study outside but we can’t go,” she said. “Yet we keep on hoping. That’s the most important thing to keep. It’s why we live. We think our future will be better, especially if we work to make it so.”
About 65 percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million people are under 25, and the Israeli blockade has particularly affected younger adults, limiting access to higher education and opportunities for professional development. That bodes poorly for the political future of the region.
“Higher education in all its forms is absolutely critical to a functioning society and the creation of a future Palestinian state,” said Max Gaylard, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the territory. “A rapidly growing society, becoming poorer, that is subject to restrictions on education will encourage extremism in its worst forms.”
Even if youth could go to school, it’s unclear where they could work. About 95 percent of Gaza’s industrial sector has closed under the blockade, according to a December report from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Internationally embarrassed by its violent response last year to an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, Israel recently allowed a limited number of cut flowers and strawberries to be exported from Gaza to Europe, helping some farmers earn income. But unemployment in Gaza for those aged 20-24 remains about 66 percent. By comparison, unemployment in the West Bank is 34 percent for that age group.
Not surprisingly, a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) study showed that 71 percent of university students in Gaza said they were not hopeful about the future.
“Many students in my university are sick of what’s going on here. They just want to leave, and an increasing number of them are emigrating to Norway and Sweden,” Ms. Salibi said. “They feel there’s no future here. But the problem is in their hearts and mind. If they want to, they can build their happiness here.”
Another Gazan youth leader, Adham Khalil, says young people in Gaza, despite all the hardships, need to focus on the positive aspects of their life.
“We have to change the stereotype that Israeli propaganda has produced, this notion that Palestinians are terrorists,” he told response. “By blogging or making films about how beautiful life can be in Gaza, about the peaceful people and beautiful faces here, we can help convince the world to let us have back the land we had before 1967,” when Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began.
Mr. Khalil, whose mother was killed by Israeli soldiers, says this means resisting the pressure to respond to violence with more violence.
“The siege creates a mentality that encourages retaliation,” Mr. Khalil said. “It’s easy to die. Just go to the settlements and shoot something, and they’ll kill you. The Israelis have their drones and technology and can see everything. But instead of doing what the Israelis want us to do, we need to think about how to live. And if they kill me anyway, then hopefully people will respect me more than if I’d gone and died fighting the occupation with violence.”
Mr. Khalil, 25, says the main hardships caused by the blockade lead people to focus too much on what they don’t have.
“The Israelis want us to think about the small problems, like whether the blockade will let cigarettes through or not. Yet that’s a distraction,” Mr. Khalil said. “We should think only of liberating our land from the occupation and educating our people about enjoying life.”
Ms. Salibi, whose father was imprisoned for 17 years by the Israelis for supporting the Palestinian freedom struggle, sheepishly admits there is one commodity affected by the blockade she misses: electricity. “They force us to go to sleep at 8 p.m., because there’s no power and nothing to do. If there were more power, I could read more and use the Internet more,” she said.
One of the things Ms. Salibi does on the Internet is network with other youth in Gaza who are interested in Palestinian unity. The Palestinian movement has always been troubled by factionalism, and ever since President George W. Bush pushed Israel to allow Palestinian elections in 2006, elections in which the Islamist movement Hamas won a plurality, that factionalism has eroded the Palestinians’ ability to present a united front in negotiations with Israel.
Hamas leveraged its electoral victory into full power in Gaza, marginalizing the Fatah faction, which still controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah. Israel responded to the Hamas takeover with a full land, air and sea blockade, which former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak supported, leaving Gaza stranded between two hostile giants.
Many Palestinians bemoan the internal division. When popular uprisings overthrew nearby governments, including that of Mr. Mubarak in neighboring Egypt, many Palestinian youth, tired of the bickering between Hamas and Fatah, renewed their call for Palestinian unity. Ms. Salibi was among them.
“We all watched the Arab world rising up and calling for their rights,” she wrote in her blog. “Arabs decided not to be silent any more. They made up their minds to stand united against dictators who have been controlling them for years. The light of change was sparked in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and the power of people is still alight, blinding whoever tries to stop their future and dreams. The spark reached Palestine. Palestinians, who are sick and tired of the devastating eternal division, started calling for unity.”
After organizing on Facebook for days, on March 15 Ms. Salibi woke up early. She and her six sisters took their Palestinian flag to gather at her university. She wore her traditional Palestinian clothing. “A wide smile appeared on my face when I saw my friends gathering with their Palestinian flags up high in the sky, and small Palestinian flags drawn on their faces and hands,” she wrote.
Organizers had urged people only to bring the multicolor Palestinian flag and leave party banners at home, yet when the youth marched to a public square for their rally, they discovered it had been taken over by Hamas militants with their green flags. Ms. Salibi’s group marched elsewhere, held their own rally, and then, while some youth stayed, Ms. Salibi headed home. Later that evening, Hamas agents attacked the rally, beating people and driving off the crowd, according to several reports.
Ms. Salibi lamented the action but refuses to lose hope. She blogged:
“Palestine! We still have a faith deep in our hearts that you will be joined together someday... from the river to the sea, under one flag. People just need to put parties far away, and most importantly, they need to love each other.”
Editor’s note: On April 27 Fatah and Hamas announced a political reconciliation, a development that strengthens the Palestinians’ hopes that the United Nations will recognize them as a nation later this year.
The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response.