Facebook in Gaza
Karma Nabulsi 10 January 2011
Last weekend the Observer carried a dramatic account of ‘The Gaza Youth Manifesto’, written in English by a handful of young people in Gaza and posted on Facebook. Given the thousands of people in the West who have said they ‘like’ it on Facebook or posted positive comments, the manifesto is said to herald a new movement for change in occupied Palestine.
Because of Palestinians’ lengthy predicament of expulsion, dispossession and military occupation, there is a rich tradition of Palestinian manifestos and declarations: hundreds of them have been written since 1948. ‘Bayan Harakatina’ (‘Our Movement’s Statement’, 1959) played an important role in recruiting the first wave of young people to the Palestinian National Liberation Movement-Fateh, and in unifying their political consciousness. It was distributed clandestinely, ‘entrusting’ its readers with the key ideas of the new movement. Later documents, such as the founding manifesto of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (1967), were distributed more openly. These manifestos were written by organised Palestinian youth as mobilising documents, exclusively for young Palestinians.
Manifestos have been written by everyone: ‘Workers of Palestine Unite’ was issued by the General Provisional Committee of the Workers of Palestine in 1962; the Unified National Command of the Intifada released 46 communiqués between 1988 and 1990; ‘The Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel’ was published on 9 July 2005; ‘The Palestine Manifesto’ was published last year by the National Committee for the Defence of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; dozens of statements have been issued by right of return committees in the refugee camps since 1998; Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, from all parties, released the now famous ‘National Reconciliation Document’ in 2006.
Palestinian manifestos and declarations tend to do four things: 1. engage critically with the current situation and its historical context; 2. outline a response, clearly stating the principles that should underpin it; 3. announce the emergence of an organised group to carry out that response; and 4. call on Palestinian youth to join the movement. The wording is careful and has usually been negotiated at length between a variety of people and organisations. In short, the manifestos are purposive and geared towards some form of collective action.
The ‘Gaza Youth Breaks Out’ manifesto does not belong to this tradition: it does not put forth any clear analysis of the current historical situation, or outline a response to it. It does not declare the existence of an organised group, or invite anyone to join anything. Its tone is denunciatory rather than analytical. Its language is apolitical: the terminology of resistance common to Palestinian manifestos is replaced here by use of the f-word. And it lacks any mobilisational dimension. It’s unsurprising, then, that it has received little attention in the Arab world. The most extensive report on it appeared in Al Akhbar in Lebanon, which more or less reprinted the piece from the Observer.
If this manifesto does not belong to the Palestinian tradition of declarations, then what tradition does it belong to? Clearly it captures the despair and horror of life in Gaza today, and the young people behind it have every right to post their appeals and complaints on Facebook or wherever they like. But without being rooted in any particular or collective vision of change, the three demands articulated in the manifesto – ‘We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace’ – are meaningless. Perhaps this is why it is so attractive to those who have read it on Facebook, and the European and American media who have taken it up. It caters to western tastes and desires, especially to the fantasy of a digitally connected youth emerging from cyberspace as agents of transformative change in the real world. In the case of Palestine, this fantasy does a number of things besides soothing guilty consciences. It reframes the issue of justice for Palestine in vacuous and unthreatening terms, casts the method by which change may occur into virtual space, and empties the Palestinian body politic of the thoughtfully articulated demands of its millions of citizens.