Repairing the Narrative of Palestine

“The best way for me to help raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and about what happens in Palestine is through one-on-one conversations with my friends.”

Across the table sits a young, self-confident, joyful woman. Tara Shtayyeh, 23 years old, comes from the small Palestinian village of Tell, near Nablus, but was born and raised in the city of Ramallah. 

Background and Studies in the US

To complete her Bachelor’s degree, Tara moved to North Carolina, where she majored in psychology and minored in dance at High Point University. As she – like most Palestinians – feels deeply connected to her homeland, the decision to study abroad, far away from her family and friends, was a big one. However, for her it was the right choice, given the fact that universities in the US and in Europe, where she also applied, were more suitable for her choice of studies. Tara felt the urge to broaden her cultural horizon and connect with people from other parts of the world. In the end, what pushed her to study at High Point was the full scholarship she was offered there. 

“I feel like one of my main values is that education is a right and you shouldn’t pay for it. It just deepens the gap between classes and makes […] certain specific people more advantaged than other, mainly because they can afford it.”

Her accurate perception of equality and the urge to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause seem to have been inherited by her family – in particular her parents. While in high school, her mother was imprisoned for raising the Palestinian flag in the village of Qalqilya, showing that not much has changed regarding Israel’s violent attempts to suppress the Palestinian identity. Her father was also arrested several times when he was a young activist. “Yeah, I get that from him”, Tara points out smilingly. Additionally, her grandfather on her mother’s side was highly active in resisting the occupation, but his activist approach was more economic: he worked tirelessly on his business to make a profit in order to help the poor people around him. 

After graduating from High Point, Tara stayed in North Carolina for an extra year working at the university, but the closeness to her family and friends, and a longing for the land she grew up in made her decide to move back to Palestine. She felt disconnected from her people, as she noticed especially in May 2021 during the events that happened at Sheikh Jarrah, where hundreds of Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in East Jerusalem, and the bloody war on Gaza, where Israel killed up to 192 Palestinian civilians, including more than 60 children. Tara makes it clear that her future lies in Palestine in order to do as much as possible to help her society. However, that does not mean that she will not spend time abroad ever again. In fact, her approach to support is as follows: go abroad, obtain different skills and knowledge, come back and help the community. 

Tara Shtayyeh posing for a picture during her graduation ceremony at High Point University in North Carolina.
Life in Occupied Palestine

Back in Palestine, Tara is currently working as a project coordinator for a local NGO that focuses on the development of young people into engaged, employable, and active citizens, acting as a role model and sharing her experience with Palestinian youth. However, behind her mask of spreading positive vibes lies a Palestinian face that is affected by the consequences of occupation. Because she lives in a city “controlled” by the Palestinian Authority (Israel maintains full military control over all areas of the West Bank, including Ramallah), Tara does not perceive the direct impact of occupation as Palestinians living in refugee camps or villages that are constantly being invaded by the Israeli Occupation Forces, such as Jenin in July 2022. However, she still believes that all these events affect her subconscious. This is exacerbated by the quick spread of news through social media. Living in the occupied territories, Israel’s aggressions and stories of Palestinian victims dominate the newsfeed on social media.

One of the numerous things that Palestinians living under occupation lack is a freedom of movement and speech. “I still feel, just like any other Palestinian, not having the chance, or just the option to move, drive around, write whatever I want on Facebook, go to the beach if I’m bored that weekend. We need a lot of permits just to sneeze.” In fact, as a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Tara is prohibited from visiting cities in historical Palestine such as Jerusalem, Jaffa or Haifa. Moreover, she is constantly exposed to Israeli checkpoints when travelling within the West Bank from one city to another.

Although Tara humbly attempts to put the damages imposed by Israelis into comparison by claiming other Palestinians are worse off than her, it does not change the fact that she suffers from the occupation as well and is indeed directly influenced by it. She has friends and family who have experienced prison or are currently imprisoned, often without actual charges. In addition, one specific incident that occurred a couple of years ago can never be removed from her memory. In 2014, one of her close friends, Nadim Nuwara, was intentionally and unlawfully shot dead by an Israeli sniper. The murder was caught on camera, and the video clearly shows that Nuwara was just crossing the street, unarmed, with no intention of any violent action. Due to international pressure, the murderer, Israeli soldier Ben Dery, was later convicted, but released after serving less than one year in prison. Tragically, incidents like this have become normality. As Tara chucklingly says, this is an example of what “your average Palestinian experiences.”

Biased Western Media Coverage and Western Misperceptions

As a Palestinian, having lived in the United States for five years, Tara is well suited to analyze the American media coverage of Israel and Palestine in comparison to what is actually happening on the ground. “It [the Western media coverage] does not reflect reality, it’s not accurate at all.” First and foremost, the language and terminology used to describe events is often misleading. The term “Israel-Palestinian conflict” implies that there is some sort of power balance or equal footing, which is certainly not true in this case. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, while Palestinians do not even have a land army, nor an air force or navy. More accurate descriptions of the situation for the Palestinians are “military occupation” or “apartheid system”. Another example that Tara mentions were the headlines used by many Western media to cover the Israeli military’s killing of the renowned Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May. American outlets like the New York Times or the Associated Press among others were quick to deflect responsibility of the killing away from the Israeli military by claiming in their headlines that Shireen “was killed (…) during clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen” and “was killed by gunfire” respectively. In another article, the New York Times initially wrote “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51”, implying that her death was a result of natural causes. These news outlets later changed their formulation, but only after investigations of several sources, such as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem or the open-source portal Bellingcat concluded that an Israeli soldier fired the deadly shot, likely with intent. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the immediate adaption of the Israeli narrative that these American media outlets take on after an incident like this occurs. Furthermore, most readers will not dig into the story two weeks later, but form their opinion based on the first impression. The ignorance of many biased writers can also be spotted when they falsely treat the terms “Palestinian”, “Muslim”, and “Arab” as synonymous. There are Palestinian Christians and even a small minority of Samaritan Jews. Moreover, not all Muslims are inevitably Arabs. In contrary, in countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, to name only two of many examples, the Muslim population makes up the majority of the total population, and they are not categorized as Arabs. The conflation of these basic ethno-religious identifiers is testament to the orientalist ignorance of many Western journalists reporting on Palestine. Dissemination of inaccurate information of the apartheid in the media only serves to damage the Palestinian cause. 

During her time in the US, Tara also realized that whenever there is some kind of mainstream media attention towards Palestine, the images used usually have a negative connotation. Diving into her background in psychology, she claims that as we live in a world where information is spread quickly, “sometimes it gets overwhelming, so we use mental shortcuts, meaning that we use stereotypes”. Therefore, as the mainstream media continues to use these negative images to prime the readers’ consciousness, they begin to develop negative stereotypes, and when hearing the term “Palestinians”, they automatically associate it with people hiding their faces, throwing rocks or terrorists bombarding Israelis with rockets. 

Tara recognized that there are tremendous misperceptions people from the West have about Palestinians. In some cases, “you have to explain to them that, no, you’re not from Pakistan, you’re from Palestine – I understand that it’s phonetically similar, but some people are just plain ignorant”. Also, people were surprised that she was not wearing hijab. Another misperception, in Tara’s eyes quite an offensive one, was that many Americans were surprised that she spoke English so well. Such a statement implies the false perception that Palestinians are uncivilized, unsophisticated and uneducated, and it demonstrates the feeling of superiority that many people from the West still have, looking down on people from this part of the world. Tara challenges this false superiority and adds: “I guarantee you; you will see a Palestinian success story in every corner around this planet.”

Tara Shtayyeh wearing a thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress.
Censoring Palestinian Content on Social Media

On social media, the compelling influence of the pro-Israeli narrative is also evident, too, as censorship of Palestine-supportive content is a rising issue. In 2016, then Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked claimed that Facebook and YouTube had been complying with up to 95% of Israel’s request to take down content that the government views as inciting Palestinian violence. In 2021, during the events of Sheikh Jarrah, Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, who holds dual American-Israeli citizenship, admitted that Palestinian content was taken down during the events, but blamed a “technical issue”. Israeli authorities are currently preparing to institutionalize these censorships by introducing the controversial “Facebook Bill”. This bill would formally allow the Israeli government to remove posts across social media platforms, including posts from news outlets. 

Besides “shadow-banning” – limiting the reach of certain online posts – according to Tara other forms of censorship she experienced in the US were not being able to view her friend’s Instagram stories related to Palestine because they are pushed all the way back in her feed or because there is an “internet error” in loading the story. “We have 5G now in the United States, but we still have internet problems, funny”, she utters sarcasticallyTara compares the fight for the Palestinian cause and other human rights movements on social media with the “crazy gun-loving white supremacists” that are given the freedom to spread their campaigns “to buy more guns or kill more Black people”, strongly scrutinizing the individuals in charge of these platforms and the legitimacy of their guidelines. 

Another issue related to social media is that Israeli authorities use surveillance to intimidate activists wanting to visit Palestine. In many instances, when entering or leaving Israel, the border authorities have checked people’s phones for Palestine-related content, especially on their social media accounts. Tara has many friends in the US, but also other parts of the world including Europe, who are afraid of posting Palestine-related content on their social media out of fear of being denied entry into or even banned from Israel and Palestine. This fear is legitimate, as it is within Israeli policy to deport activists who demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians and advocate to end the Israeli occupation. In 2014, to name one of many examples, British activist Gary Speeding was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport upon his arrival. He was then deported and banned from entering Israel for ten years, after the Israeli forces collected messages and contacts from his phone and accused him of possibly “causing tumult” if he were to be allowed inside the country again, due to his activity on social media. 

Social media, though, is also instrumental to the Palestinian cause because it erases borders and reaches people all around the world within seconds. For Palestinians, “it’s the fact that there is a chance for you to go viral, to have as many people exposed to (…) the message that you’re trying to convey, the narrative, the Palestinian story”. This is even more relevant because mainstream media outlets have failed to give Palestinians the opportunity to share their narrative. Social media gives Palestinians the power to control their own narrative and disseminate it effectively, opening up a dialogue about the Palestinian cause worldwide. It is important to encourage interaction because by listening to people who are asking questions, Palestinians can understand their reality and thinking processes, and therefore realize how to effectively convey their message. 

Changing Misperceptions

Tara acknowledges that often times people – even journalists – are not willing to read or listen and learn new things. Using mental shortcuts instead of attempting to process information and rely on different sources is easier and it does not drain a lot of energy. In Palestine, there is a saying – the rough translation is: “You can take a horse to the river, but you can’t force it to drink water.” This implies that providing people with details and evidence of your perspective is feasible, but if these people are not interested in hearing arguments that contradict their viewpoint, you cannot force them to listen. Consequently, misperceptions will persist. 

People in the West are biased regarding the Palestinian cause because of the one-sided mainstream media coverage, the social media censorship and an unwillingness or laziness to explore. This did not prevent Tara from trying to change people’s misperceptions when she was living in the US, even if she could reach only a small minority. “The best way for me to help raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and about what happens in Palestine is through one-on-one conversations with my friends.“Still, she found other ways to reach a broader audience, for example by donating books by Palestinian writers to the university library. Furthermore, since her return to Palestine, Tara has been very active on social media, helping to disseminate the Palestinian narrative and the human rights violations committed by the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. 

Tara Shtayyeh posing in a coffeeshop in Ramallah.
Palestinian Optimism

Asked about her future hopes regarding the people of Palestine and their situation, Tara’s answer is plain and honest: “I hope that Palestine will be free, and we would actually have decent and fundamental human rights like any other person on this planet.” Once again, Tara demonstrates her selflessness and awareness of equality by putting Palestine’s liberation into a broader context, claiming that “our liberation as humans should come all together”. She compares the case of Palestine with ending the oppression of African Americans in the US or the Muslim Uyghurs in China. Tara also hopes for Palestine to have an improved health and economic sector, where Palestinians have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, which is not possible under the current occupation.

Lastly, she wishes for more internal social cohesion in the context of a seemingly divided society. When asked about her realistic assessment of achieving an end to the occupation, Tara first pauses, but then confidently answers that she is always optimistic. “I am optimistic because if you’re not, then what are you fighting for?” Even though internally things might not be flawless, she sees hope in the rise of international solidarity, exemplified by the rising Palestine-supportive representation in the US Congress and the increasing amount and extent of international protests in solidarity of the Palestinian cause. She is confident about the future of Palestine because, as representation and support increases, the topic is being put on the table more frequently than ever, and governments around the world are being pressured to make decisions in the interest of the Palestinian people. And even internally, she believes that the social divisions can be overcome, as “the long-term vision for every Palestinian is clear, which is a free democratic Palestine (…), regardless of [the] political party”. The collective reaction after Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder certainly demonstrated that Palestinians can be unified indeed. 

If Palestinians like Tara continue to spread their narrative, using social media and other innovative tools, they will be heard by people around the world. In particular, the US population must be reached, and their misperceptions changed. They have the power to elect their representatives, who must hold the US government accountable for the major role it plays in sustaining the Israeli occupation and the daily violations of Palestinian human rights. 

*This interview was conducted in June 2022. 

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