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The Intifada, Viral Death, and the Facebook Fallacy: An interview with Rebecca Stein

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The following interview originally appeared in ISLAMiCommentary.

“What we are seeing here is a combination of the radical Islam and the Internet. Osama Bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg. The incitement in the social networks is moving the murders.” – Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to his Likud faction on October 19  

There are varying explanations for the uptick in violence in Israel-Palestine over the past few days, but one explanation that appears to have caught on with the Israeli government and much Western media, according to Duke University cultural anthropologist Rebecca Stein, is incitement through social media. As she notes, the word occupation is nowhere to be found in this new narrative.

ISLAMiCommentary editor Julie Poucher Harbin had a series of conversations with Stein over the past few days about this as well as her research into Israeli “digital militarism” and how it applies to the current conflict. Here are excerpts from our discussions held by phone and via email.

QUESTION: Many have pointed the finger at social media as a locus of the incitement.  Is social media indeed to blame?

STEIN: The narrative is facile and deeply misleading. To understand the root causes of the current violence one has to consider the effects of 48 years of military occupation and the increasing desperation of the Palestinian population — desperation that stems from both discontent with Palestinian leadership after two decades of a failed Oslo process and the desperation born of living under decades of repressive military rule.

In Israel today, there’s a wholesale failure to address these structural conditions – that is, save the work of activists on the besieged left.  Both Israeli government officials and media pundits point to “incitement” as the root of the current violence – a charge led by Netanyahu and directed both at Abbas (Palestinian president) and Palestinian social media. In his last two addresses to the Knesset, he used the word incitement some 14 times. The word “occupation,” however, was not mentioned. Last week, the occupation was also missing from most Western media accounts of the current tensions. This was quite a remarkable disappearing act, though that may now be changing.

QUESTION: Hasn’t social media impacted the conflict narrative?

STEIN:  There’s no doubt that Palestinian social media has become more militarized, and to a remarkable degree. But, as many Palestinian commentators have noted, we should not confuse the instrument with the cause. The same mistake was made in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Arab revolts, when many spoke of a “Facebook revolution.” Similar explanations are being offered today. Some journalists are calling the Palestinian violence a “Facebook intifada” or a “Smartphone intifada.”

The media ecology of this Intifada is, without a doubt, unprecedented. As we know, this is a moment when most Israelis and increasing numbers of Palestinians are equipped with smartphone cameras. The amateur videos of the violence of the last week – both the Palestinian stabbings of Israelis and killings of Palestinians by Israeli security services — are going viral on Israeli and Palestinian social networks. Often, the same incident was filmed by multiple cameras and can be seen on Facebook from many different angles. Israeli commentators on the left are speaking of the emerging phenomenon of the political “snuff film” – films that Israelis are now routinely consuming and that are becoming integrated into the everyday fabric of Israeli social media culture.

The contrast with the first and second Intifada is striking, as many commentators have noted. There was really only one example of viral footage from the first uprising, and that was the 1987 beating of Palestinians by Israeli security forces.  This grainy and silent footage, shot by professional CBS cameramen at a distance and only available for screening on television news, was considered the most impactful moving image of the first uprising. Indeed, this footage was credited with generating some of the sharpest international condemnation of Israel during the course of the uprising – video so damning as to have become the focus of debate in the Israeli parliament in weeks hence.  The contrast with the current moment – in which virality has become the basic grammar of the media sphere, and is virtually required to mark an event as significant – could not be sharper.

QUESTION: You’ve noted that the language of occupation is missing from most Israeli accounts of the latest violence, whether on social or traditional media.  Is this a new phenomenon?

STEIN:  In Israeli mainstream media, and in popular Israeli imaginations, the occupation has been invisible for quite some time. Over the course of the last two decades, the Israeli public has increasingly turned their eyes away from the occupation, refusing to contend with it. Sometimes, this takes the form of an outright denial that military occupation persists. Today, for example, most Israelis will simply deny that Gaza is still occupied.  Most Israelis also refuse to acknowledge the scale of Palestinian suffering in the occupied territories. Even images of Palestinian victims of Israeli military or settler violence are becoming less frequent on the evening news or the national daily newspapers. And when they appear in the media, they are often regarded suspiciously, as if their very appearance is the result of Palestinian political maneuvering. Some Israeli journalists even take issue with the very words “occupation” or “settlement” as they are considered misnomers.

In our recent book, Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (with Adi Kuntsman, Stanford University Press, 2015) Adi Kuntsman and I describe this phenomenon as the operation of a kind of ‘public secret.’ The term refers to a social agreement, however implicit, to un-know that which you already know: namely, that the Israeli occupation is alive and well. As we write in our book, this public secret is a kind of social contract that works to contain the effects of Israeli state violence.

QUESTION: We’ve seen how the language of “incitement” has been used as an explainer for the recent killings by the Palestinians in Israeli social media and in the Israeli press.  But isn’t there also “incitement” in Israeli social media for violent action? Over the weekend an innocent Eritrean migrant — mistaken for an attacker by Israeli security and shot — was physically attacked by Israeli bystanders. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did, though, condemn the attack by the bystanders, offering condolences to the migrant’s family and telling members of the Likud Party that Israel is a “law abiding” country, adding, “No one should take the law into their own hands.”

STEIN: Amidst the pervasive narrative of Palestinian incitement on social media, there’s very little media attention to the massive growth in right-wing extremism on Israeli social networks.  This phenomenon has grown quite markedly since the Gaza incursion of 2014, and more so the last two weeks, when we’ve seen a massive increase in anti-Arab sentiment on Israeli social networks. The Israeli left is also the object of popular vitriol.  Those Israeli activists or concerned citizens who criticize Israeli policy, or remind the public about the structural violence of occupation, are also attacked – both on and off-line.

The Israeli state has also been an active player on social media in this period, including recent efforts to link Palestinian attacks to ISIS violenceAs I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Israeli state prides itself on its social media literacy and its ability to speak the vernacular language of the digital street.

One of the pillars of Israeli right-wing discourse on social media is the charge that Palestinians lie about Israeli violence. We saw this narrative at work in the aftermath of last week’s stabbing attacks by two Palestinian youths. One of the assailants was killed by the Israeli security services and one was injured. Abbas was roundly attacked by Israeli politicians following his erroneous statements that both youth had been killed. In fact, the younger of the two was being treated for his injuries in an Israeli hospital. Whether the claim was a deliberate falsehood or merely an error, we just don’t know. But what followed was a very familiar Israeli chorus: ‘here they go again, lying again about Israeli violence.’ In Israeli political and media discourse, this is a very old claim – rooted in the notion of what some Israeli pundits call ‘Pallywood.” (ie, the Palestinian Hollywood).

‘Pallywood’ is the notion that Palestinians routinely perform victimization for the camera and that most of the images of Israeli military violence are actually Palestinian fabrications of some kind. The narrative was initially developed to manage the killing of Mohammed Al Dura in 2000. In the subsequent two decades, the claim proliferated – used to counteract precisely the proliferation of Palestinian-generated images of violence wrought by the Israeli security services; images made possible by smartphone cameras and social media. In this age of viral death, the Pallywood charge is considered a particularly important political weapon for those on the Israeli extreme right.

QUESTION: So, social media has become indispensable, politically?

STEIN: All players in the occupation context right now understand the political importance of social media. And all are actively employing social media as part of their political toolkits  — from the Israeli military to the Jewish settler population, from Palestinian human rights workers to Palestinian militants.  The language of a Facebook or Smartphone Intifada is not only erroneous but outdated, as it presumes we should be surprised by the presence of social media in the political theater. But, in fact, this is the new normal.

For Israelis, the viral and real-time violence of the current moment seems to make the killing more intimate and bring it closer to home. But herein lies the paradox of the current moment where Israelis are concerned. Even as new digital technologies make the violence more proximate and immediate, and even as it seems as if everything can be seen – and from multiple angles — the military occupation is increasingly receding from Israeli view.

Stein is the Nicholas J. & Theresa M. Leonardy Associate Professor of Anthropology at Duke University. She is the author of Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism (Duke, 2008); and the co-editor of Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture (Duke, 2005) and The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel, 1993-2005 (Stanford, 2006). Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford, 2015),  co-authored with Adi Kuntsman, is her latest book. She is also core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Stein is currently continuing her research on the ways that new communication technologies are meditating the everyday Israeli relationship to its military occupation,with a focus on the role of new photographic technologies and viral image networks within this political context.

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15 Responses

  1. HarryLaw on October 23, 2015, 11:05 am

    The reason occupation is rarely mentioned especially by Netanyahu is simply because he does not think an occupation exists, ‘how can you illegally occupy your own land’ [Judea and Samaria]. That is the nub of the dispute and the main reason why the ICC have been called upon to determine [amongst other things] that fact. A fact the World Court [ICJ] also had to rule on in ‘the wall case’ in 2004, there all 15 Judges came to the same opinion:- ALL THE SETTLEMENTS ARE ILLEGAL AND CONTRARY TO ARTICLE 49.6 OF THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS. If the ICC acts as it should do, as a non politicized court,[I can dream can’t I] they must agree with the ICJ. If on the other hand it compromises itself , then it truly could be said we no longer live in a world where the rule of law is enforced, [rather like the powers of all 5 veto wielding states and their friends in the UNSC who are above the rules for all time], and that might is right.

    • oldgeezer on October 23, 2015, 11:27 am

      There is no tested legal theory by which an occupation does not exist. Even Israeli high court judgements refer to occupied territories. While alternative legal theories are floated on the Internet none have ever been tested in any court which could be done any time at their option. The logical conclusion is that the proponents know the theories lack any legitimacy and they exist solely to muddy the waters and serve as propaganda.

      Zionists also refuse to accept the reality of their theories in that if the west bank is Israeli territory then Israel is a pure apartheid state. Of course they just switch argument as to whose territory it is to fit the case. There is no sincerity to their arguments. It is merely a cover for the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. That they trod upon the victims of the Holocaust to justify their crimes merely makes those crimes more despicable.

      • Kathleen on October 23, 2015, 12:26 pm

        Thanks Harry Law and Oldgeezer

    • italian ex-pat on October 23, 2015, 8:11 pm

      If Netanyahu doesn’t think an occupation exists, it’s only because he has spent his entire life in stubborn denial of that reality, and has made it his job (as did other PMs before him) to convince the Israeli people to share that denial. And he, more than all the others, has done a great job in that respect, by taking over more and more Palestinian land and homes in the name of a God-given right, and erecting walls to keep the occupation and the mistreatment of the Palestinians discreetly away from the Israeli public eye. If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

      Not that the Israelis were too hard to convince, most have been quite comfortable with the ‘non-existing’ occupation, as long as it was not in their face , and especially when the violence was not directly affecting them. Now that they are coming face to face with random attacks against their own, right in Jerusalem, their comfort zone is seriously shaken, and so they are seething with rage. Welcome to the club.

      But paradoxically, as the article points out, the occupation as the cause of the recent violence is even less acknowleged in the public opinion; rather, it is the ‘incitement’ to violence that’s causing it. Not Netayahu’s authorizing fatal shooting of kids throwing stones, not the mayor urging all Israeli to carry firearms, not the more and more frequent visits to Al Aqsa by ultra-orthodox extremists protected by a contingent of soldiers in full-combat gear (this is what I think Abbas meant with his comment about ‘filthy feet’. Army boots on holy ground? – filthy is a mild way of putting it.

      The article links to a recent op-ed in the NYT (a rare pro-palestinian piece to appear in the paper), which seems to explain, if not outright justify, the recent attacks on Israeli civilians as the inevitable result of years of oppression. The last paragraph in the op-ed says it all: “As long as the Palestinian believe the occupation comes at no cost to the Israelis, it will never end – Netanyahu and Abbas have taught them that”. Meaning ‘human cost’ – and who can blame them? Let’s remember it’s a new generation now; their parents and grandparents may have resigned themselves to the injustice and given up. But these desperate young people, seeing that all the Abbas years of exercising restraint have only made the occupation and the land-grabbing worse, now see violence against civilians as the only alternative left to them. Sadly, it will probably backfire, and we can only hope it will make the international community aware of the desperation that prompts these people to commit such senseless acts, knowing full well it will cost them their young lives – lives they feel hold no hope for a decent future.

  2. Kathleen on October 23, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Stein “Over the course of the last two decades, the Israeli public has increasingly turned their eyes away from the occupation, refusing to contend with it.”

    Two decades? How about at least 48 years almost five decades. Since 1967 each Israeli government illegally established and expanded the theft of internationally recognized Palestinian land. Now there are 163 Jewish only settlements (just way to folksy of a term) 98 outpost, 24 illegal neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. I believe all annexed to Israel by illegal means. Adding up to 261 stolen pieces of Palestinian territory.

    “two decades” hooey

    • wondering jew on October 23, 2015, 3:45 pm

      I think that consciousness of the West bank in Israel was raised as a result of the first intifada. It was on the news all the time in Israel and there was a feeling that something has to give. Then came Rabin and with him Arafat. That was a significant change to the consciousness of Israelis. Then came the second intifada. And after that the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza. So in fact, consciousness of the occupied territories was very much on Israel’s mind as the center of attention until 10 years ago from 1987 to 2005.

      • Mooser on October 24, 2015, 1:17 pm

        ” It was on the news all the time in Israel and there was a feeling that something has to give. Then came Rabin and with him Arafat.”

        And then the Israelis shot Rabin. And the right-wing never looked back. That’s true. When you are right, “Yonah”, you are right

    • echinococcus on October 24, 2015, 8:27 pm

      “five decades” hooey. The partition proposal was illegal and unautorized; it was not approved by the population and the very existence of the Zionist entity is illegal.
      None of the Zionist invaders have any business in Palestine.
      They don’t even have a right to a toe inside the door; the colonial powers that combined this murderous mischief in 47 were trying to achieve a strategic goal –what may you been trying to achieve?

      • Kathleen on October 25, 2015, 12:10 pm


      • echinococcus on October 26, 2015, 3:50 am


        Really, who gave the colonial powers the right to impose a partition of Palestinian land in the first place? What’s the source of such authority to commit an act forbidden by their freshly inked Charter?

  3. Kathleen on October 23, 2015, 12:30 pm

    Smartphone the new Palestinian slingshot. The images of violence perpetrated for decades by the IDF etc are being sent through electronics hitting folks around the world in the noggins. Wake up

  4. just on October 24, 2015, 11:05 am

    The tide will turn. It’s inevitable.

    “Cape Town (AFP) – South Africa’s ruling party hosted a rally in Cape Town for a top Hamas leader on Wednesday, capping off a controversial visit by pledging to stand by Palestinians amid growing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    The African National Congress (ANC) invited exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and colleagues from the Islamist militant group on a three-day visit to South Africa, sparking strong criticism from Israel.

    President Jacob Zuma exchanged gifts with Meshaal on Monday and signed a letter expressing support for Palestinians.

    “It is state-sponsored crime from the people of Israel on Palestine,” said Marius Fransman, a provincial ANC chairman, drawing cheers from the crowd in Cape Town.

    “People close their eyes, we are taking a stand. We have to reaffirm the message of the unity of the oppressed masses.”

    Hamas supporters lined the streets near the venue, waving the organisation’s white-and-green flag.

    Addressing the rally, Meshaal compared the Palestinian cause to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

    “South Africa, you have achieved your freedom, the people of Palestine are aspiring to attain their freedom,” he said. …

    …”The uprisings shall continue until the freedom is achieved and the land is for Palestine and its people,” Meshaal told the audience of a few hundred people.

    “Do not expect that they should stop with the uprising, do not expect that they should stop with the resistance.”

    The Israeli foreign ministry on Monday had summoned South Africa’s deputy ambassador to protest against Meshaal’s visit, which it said “encourages terror by giving some legitimacy to a terror organisation.”…”

    Twitter headline in Haaretz:

    “Meshal in S Africa: “Israel is becoming a burden on the shoulders of the Western powers”

    It’s criminal that the Western powers are still wilfully blind to GoI and illegal settler villainy.

    • Jon66 on October 24, 2015, 1:08 pm

      This is the same South Africa that last June allowed the convicted war criminal president of Sudan to flee their jurisdiction despite their own judiciary calling for him to be held.
      Now the SA government is planning to withdraw from the ICC

  5. just on October 24, 2015, 11:48 am

    While I obviously don’t agree with all that these 2 profs have written, this article is well worth a read

    “We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel.

    By Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl …

    Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University. Glen Weyl is an assistant professor of economics and law at the University of Chicago.

    We are lifelong Zionists. Like other progressive Jews, our support for Israel has been founded on two convictions: first, that a state was necessary to protect our people from future disaster; and second, that any Jewish state would be democratic, embracing the values of universal human rights that many took as a lesson of the Holocaust. Undemocratic measures undertaken in pursuit of Israel’s survival, such as the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the denial of basic rights to Palestinians living there, were understood to be temporary. …

    … In making the occupation permanent, Israel’s leaders are undermining their state’s viability. Unfortunately, domestic movements to avert that fate have withered. Thanks to an economic boom and the temporary security provided by the West Bank barrier and the Iron Dome missile defense system, much of Israel’s secular Zionist majority feels no need to take the difficult steps required for a durable peace, such as evicting their countrymen from West Bank settlements and acknowledging the moral stain of the suffering Israel has caused to so many Palestinians.

    We are at a critical juncture. Settlement growth and demographic trends will soon overwhelm Israel’s ability to change course. For years, we have supported Israeli governments — even those we strongly disagreed with — in the belief that a secure Israel would act to defend its own long-term interests. That strategy has failed. Israel’s supporters have, tragically, become its enablers. Today, there is no realistic prospect of Israel making the hard choices necessary to ensure its survival as a democratic state in the absence of outside pressure.

    For supporters of Israel like us, all viable forms of pressure are painful. The only tools that could plausibly shape Israeli strategic calculations are a withdrawal of U.S. aid and diplomatic support, and boycotts of and divestitures from the Israeli economy. Boycotting only goods produced in settlements would not have sufficient impact to induce Israelis to rethink the status quo.

    It is thus, reluctantly but resolutely, that we are refusing to travel to Israel, boycotting products produced there and calling on our universities to divest and our elected representatives to withdraw aid to Israel. Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.

    Israel, of course, is hardly the world’s worst human rights violator. Doesn’t boycotting Israel but not other rights-violating states constitute a double standard? It does. We love Israel, and we are deeply concerned for its survival. We do not feel equally invested in the fate of other states.

    Unlike internationally isolated states such as North Korea and Syria, Israel could be significantly affected by a boycott. The Israeli government could not sustain its foolish course without massive U.S. aid, investment, commerce, and moral and diplomatic support.

    We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.

    Repulsed by the Afrikaners’ ethno-religious fanaticism in South Africa, Zionism founder Theodore Herzl wrote, “We don’t want a Boer state, but a Venice.” American Zionists must act to pressure Israel to preserve Herzl’s vision — and to save itself.”

    Now for the day when they wake up and boycott Zionism…

    (psst, profs: “Zionists” and “progressive” don’t belong together in a sentence or anywhere else!)

    • Mooser on October 24, 2015, 1:15 pm

      “Like other progressive Jews, our support for Israel has been founded on two convictions: first, that a state was necessary to protect our people from future disaster;”

      You bet, Proffers! So clear, so nat’rul. A big department, but I couldn’t have said it better my owner’s self!
      And now that we know a ‘state’ is, in fact “necessary to protect our people” we don’t we look around and see what kind of state benefits Jews best, where they have done best, been persecuted least What kind of “state” might that be, oh learned ones?

      I never have figured that out. You put “state” next to “Jewish” and it short-circuits the entire brain.

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