Gaza Strip – Ahmed Hijazi was one of the first people to arrive at the al-Rimal neighbourhood in Gaza City hours after Israeli bombing wreaked havoc and bombed the upscale area to a shadow of what it was.
The neighbourhood, with its trendy cafes, boutiques, apartment buildings and villas, was bombed last Wednesday, leaving a trail of destruction, debris, broken glass, and hollowed-out structures.
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Hijazi, a content creator and programme presenter with more than 980,000 followers on Instagram, was there to fulfil the mission he has been on since the Israeli assault on Gaza began: to show the world what was happening.
“Our role has shifted … to communicating to the outside world what the Israeli army is doing in its aggression against us,” Hijazi said.
Before the assault, he used his social media presence to shed light on community initiatives and showcase life in Gaza, with all its beauty in spite of the blockade and suffering.
“There is nothing left in Gaza. The war has destroyed any beauty and has devastated so much.”
‘It’s where our love grew’
Gaza high-rises have been levelled, like Palestine Tower and al-Badrasawi, where Hijazi’s wife used to have her photography studio.
“We had some beautiful moments there, that’s where our love for each other grew,” Hijazi said.
Now, he posts videos from inside hospitals, showing terrified children in agony who survived Israel’s attacks on their homes, and doctors battling exhaustion and coming face to face with the death and injuries of their loved ones.
“What we’re witnessing will never leave me,” he said. “What affected me the most was the newborn baby whose entire family was killed, the children selling black pepper at the doors of the UNRWA schools their families fled to, and the injured child who was consoling his father in the hospital.”
Battling the algorithm, too
But Hijazi, echoing many others who post Palestine content, says his content has been shadow-banned, which is when a social media platform blocks a user’s content from showing up without notifying the user.
“My account has been closed twice, my followers’ access to my posts has been restricted, and my content from photos and videos have been hidden,” he said.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it was taking “specific steps” to monitor its content amid the violence, and said support and praise for Hamas is banned on its platforms. But Palestinians and others have accused Meta of restricting content that depicts Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip as part of the Western media’s pro-Israel bias.
— Eye on Palestine (@EyeonPalestine) October 10, 2023
The comedian who cried
Mahmoud Zuaiter is popularly known as the “Minister of Happiness” to his more than 600,000 followers. The comedian, who co-founded popular Gaza City-based comedy troupe Tashweesh in 2012, has made a name for himself using satire to keep people “smiling and laughing”.
“Our role as influencers is to convey the truth of what is happening in Gaza,” he said. “We’ve managed by circulating the videos that we share on social media sites to Arabic TV channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.”
Zuaiter, whose followers have increased by the tens of thousands since Israel began bombarding Gaza on October 7, added that content from the Gaza Strip must reach the whole world, not just Arab countries.
“We noticed that Palestinian content in Arabic is limited to Arab countries and needs to be translated,” he said. “It helps a lot if the influencers here have good English because their role is to convey what’s happening to us to the world.”
The 37-year-old, who posted comedy skits before, says the current situation is extremely difficult with no joy anywhere.
“One of the most emotional scenes I saw was people fleeing with little to no belongings from north to south,” he said.
According to the United Nations, more than one million Palestinians have been internally displaced in the blockaded Strip in 10 days, with nowhere to go.
“I cried when I saw people leaving,” Zuaiter said, saying displacement keeps replaying in the history of Palestinians, starting with the 1948 Nakba, or Catastrophe, that forcibly displaced 750,000 people.
“I took a video and shared it on social networking sites,” he said. “Some followers asked me to be more optimistic, but I’m not going to hide my feelings as a Palestinian in Gaza living through this.”
Families of journalists and influencers killed
More than 2,800 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli air attacks, a third of them children. The bombings have not spared journalists, killing 11 so far, nor their families.
The killing of popular artist, actor and digital creator Ali Nisman, who had nearly 200,000 followers on Facebook, was a shock to his fans.
Nisman, whose last video on Facebook was uploaded last Wednesday, was killed two days later on October 13.
“This is Gaza and, I swear, if they kill us all, our graves will fight back,” he said as explosions sounded and smoke rose behind him.
One of his last messages on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, was poignant: “My friends, trust in God and His mercy … If we are cut off, we will meet either in Jerusalem or in heaven.”
Since the beginning of the war, 11 journalists have been killed.
Anadolu Agency’s photographer Ali Jadallah, who covered every Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip since 2008, lost his three younger brothers and father last week after an Israeli missile targeted their apartment building in the Sheikh Radwan area, northwest of Gaza City.
A widely circulated video showed Jadallah crouching over the rubble, kissing the ashen, exposed hand of his mother, who ended up being the sole survivor. Jadallah’s sister’s body is still under the debris.
Jadallah himself shared a video of himself driving his car with his father’s body in the backseat, going to bury him alone as there was no time for funeral rites or a burial attended by others.
Motaz Azaiza, another photojournalist with more than a million followers on Instagram, filmed the aftermath of an Israeli attack that targeted his family home in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp. At least 15 members of his family, most of them women and children, were killed. One of the body bags contained the body parts of two of his younger cousins.
Fighting predominant narratives in Western media has given social media users in Gaza more drive to share the truth about Israel’s siege and being cut off from water, food, electricity and communication inside and outside the Gaza Strip.
But with little to zero network connectivity, many people are using hospitals running on generators to charge their phones and devices.
“Everyone cares about staying in touch not just with the world but with their own families who fled their homes,” Ahmed Hijazi said.
“Each of us has a role in conveying the truth,” he added.