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Palestinian Youth Channel an Old Struggle Through New Media

Student activists in the West Bank are educating themselves in grassroots organizing strategies--on the ground and on the Web.
 
 
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 On the last day of class, we’re unplugging the media revolution. The last session of my social media training program at An Najah University, in the city of Nablus in the West Bank, has been sabotaged by a campus-wide Internet outage, a scheduling mishap that left the students locked out of the computer lab, and a general lethargy afflicting summer-session students in the oppressive summer heat.

So I sit down with the four students who showed up, all primly dressed Palestinian young women, and ask them about what they’ve gleaned from the past few days of tweeting and blogging bootcamp. Some express hope that Facebook and Twitter can help raise social awareness among their classmates; others want to use social networking to reach out to people and news sources outside the barriers imposed by Israel’s apartheid regime. Like most of my students, they may not identify as political activists, but for them, the very act of trying to be normal in the face of occupation is a form of defiance.

Still, I’m here to teach this course because these young people are privileged compared to many others in the West Bank. They’re fortunate to be coming of age amid a dramatic media and Internet explosion in the Middle East and North Africa, which has been credited for Egypt’s youth-led, technology-lubricated revolution and subsequent protest campaigns throughout the region.

The girls in class have been admiring the Arab Spring from afar, but when I ask if something similar could happen in the occupied territories, their imaginations are clouded by cynicism.

One girl speaks about the difficulty she had rallying fellow students to launch a boycott of Israeli products and about constantly battling the apathy that has sunk in since the Second Intifada. “People are used to Israeli occupation, so whatever [happens], Israelis will stay with us.”

It’s not that they don’t enjoy using social media: many follow the news through Facebook, my training session produced a couple of “Free Palestine” blogs and introduced some to activist Twitter feeds. But the digital universe is far removed from the hardship and trauma with which students wrestle every day.

Education Under Occupation

The campus of An Najah encapsulates this gulf between aspirations and bleak realities. Next door to the towering sand-colored modern architecture is an enclosed fortress, which I am told is a Palestinian Authority prison. The students prattle in the halls and study computer science and English literature, but their academic aspirations are overshadowed by a military presence. A study of An Najah students published by the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University showed that the majority of students must cross a checkpoint to get to and from school, which typically led to delays that forced them to miss class or blocked them from traveling altogether. According to interviews with students who regularly encountered this ordeal, the vast majority had been “physically abused at a checkpoint; and virtually all reported feelings of anger and nervousness at checkpoints.”

“Education” here takes on a different meaning. There is the world of academics into which students escape each day, hoping to land an engineering job outside Nablus or get a scholarship to study overseas. At the same time, a self-education project is underway, as young people grasp for knowledge of the roots of the occupation and freedom struggles that followed. Not all students are political, but they all seek some kind of deliverance. Perhaps that’s why students say the university is the only place where they feel they’re free, because the campus is a rare intellectual refuge in a society besieged by concrete walls and bulldozers.