Story by Caroline Edwards
AMMAN, Jordan – On a recent Tuesday in May, protesters filled the streets of the capital to acknowledge Nakba, or “Day of the Catastrophe,” when Palestinians mark Israeli’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. It’s the anniversary of when nearly 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes and their villages were destroyed.
This year, Nakba Day also marked the end of one of the longest hunger strikes in history; two men in Israeli prisons went without food for 76 days in protest of the mistreatment of the Palestinian people, while a handful of others lasted up to 50 days without food.
More quietly, another form of protest took place to acknowledge the anniversary. On that May day, hundreds of people around the world swapped out their Facebook profile pictures to show instead the cartoon image of an Israeli prison guard in shades of brown. The Hebrew word “Shabas”– the name for the “Israeli Prisons Service” – was stamped across the image. The brown hues represent the color of clothes prisoners are forced to wear while they are detained.
The idea of the cartoon images, those involved said, was to raise awareness for the Palestinian perspective. Participants wanted people across the globe to sit in solidarity with their effort to return to their homeland – which is now occupied by Israelis.
Because not everyone knew what these pictures represented, when users saw them they began asking questions, which in turn created a buzz about the conflict. And that was exactly the point.
“A lot of friends ask, ‘Why did you change your profile picture? What do those words mean?’,” said Mohammad Zeidan, a local activist and blogger. “It’s a great movement on Facebook between foreigners, mainly Americans and Indians, who are advocating the Palestinian cause, and especially Palestinians in Jordan.”
Some people, like Zeidan, who also teaches in Istanbul, believe that the medium of social media is a powerful tool that will translate into noticeable results. Others, such as agricultural studies major Rand Qazweeny from Petra University, believe otherwise.
“It helps the situation, but only on Facebook,” he said. “In real life [people] don’t pay attention to it,” said Qazweeny.
Three months ago, University of Jordan chemical engineering student Mahdi Bsharat, 20, created the Facebook group “Ya Jabal Mayhesak Rih,” or Palestinians Students – Jordan Universities, which now has more than 500,000 members. He, too, believes that Facebook is a sort of new frontier to advocate a position and build support for a cause.
“I made the group to [organize] all the Palestinian students and unite them with other students who love Palestine into one group,” said Bsharat. “My ambition was to publish the love for Palestine; every Palestinian in Jordan believes that one day we will return home.”
The group regularly posts poems, recipes for traditional foods, videos of traditional dances and other culturally focused items to show their pride and love for their country. Many of the poems are works by the late Mahmoud Darwish, a nationally recognized native Palestinian poet who typically wrote about the relationship between his people and their country. Pictures from recent protests and news stories accompany these posts, many purporting to show mistreatment of Palestinian civilizations by Israeli military.
One specific post Bsharat shared recently was a photo of a woman trying to stop an Israeli officer from capturing a Palestinian boy during a protest. The poem that accompanies the photo reads, “I run/Broke up dust accumulation/Homeland and the profane/You/Titles of all/Most sacred/Most sacred/The most sacred/Will not forget you Palestine.”
Showing these pictures on a social media website has a broad impact as Facebook gives group members the opportunity to reach out not only to people in areas that are directly affected, but all across the globe, supporters say, leading to more allies.
Computer networking professor Abed Elkarim Al-banna, from Petra University in Amman, believes that social media is the most powerful tool for people to reach out to global supporters.
“Social networks make the world as a small village community with people in different countries and you stay connected; with the revolutions in the Arab world, social media makes everyone horizontal…everyone’s on the same level.”
It also helps to counter what some Jordanians feel is an unfair bias shown in the mainstream media toward Israel.
Even Jordanian people who don’t necessarily identify as Palestinian are passionately advocating on behalf of their friends and extended family to show their support.
“I think it’s a testament to the establishment of the 1948 war and the participation in Jordan on the popular level and how the Jordanian people tried to stand against the establishment of Israel,” said Zeidan.
Group members and activists say that this Facebook movement has crossed borders, reaching people worldwide.
“Facebook gives a good opportunity to connect with the world,” said Ezza Arnatour, an economics student from Petra University and a sympathizer with the Nabka cause. “It’s a very good way to send a message to everyone you know.”