Bearing witness to expose the Israeli military: Janna Jihad's activism as a Palestinian citizen journalist
In this paper, fifteen-year-old citizen journalist, activist, and 'vigilante' Janna Jihad will be discussed.
Janna Jihad and Palestine's lengthy and bloody history
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for years and years and, despite many peace talks, there seems to be no end in sight. Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank are territories occupied by the state of Israel with a large population of Palestinian refugees. Palestinian citizens have partial authority in these territories, divided into areas A, B, and C (see Figure 1), which was agreed upon during the Oslo Accords in the nineties. Yet, according to the BBC, in the past 50 years, Israel has built many Jewish settlements in these areas and more than 600.000 Jewish people now live in these areas. Tensions rise when violent acts from militant groups against the other spark rage resulting in more violence (BBC, 2021).
Self-evidently, both parties have a different perception of the situation. Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank say that the pro-Israeli actions and restrictions cause them to suffer while Israel says it is only acting to protect itself from Palestinian violence (BBC, 2021). The organization and movement Amnesty International claims that Palestinian children face discrimination and systematic racism daily. Between January and June 2021, Israeli forces killed at least 73 children.
Moreover, each year Israel prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children in military courts who do not meet the international fair trial standards. Officially, Israel has signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child but has excluded Palestinian children in the West Bank from those same protections (Amnesty, 2021). The hashtag #freepalestine is trending every time tensions arrive and news of Palestinian citizens dying reaches international media attention.
We will see that Janna Jihad’s activism has resulted in a target on her back to the point of receiving death threats
For Janna Tamimi (15), going by her pseudonym Janna Jihad, a Palestinian child living in the West Bank, one of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is no possibility to have a normal and free-from-violence childhood. She bears witness to violent acts committed by the Israeli military in her hometown, Nabi Saleh, and documents the life-threatening conditions Palestinian children have to live in. Janna started when she was just seven years old; she filmed her uncle getting killed by the Israeli military with her mother’s phone (Amnesty, 2021).
As the director of Women's Affairs in the Palestinian Ministry of Development, her mother encouraged her activism and to participate in peaceful resistance activities (VOC news, 2017). Today, at fifteen, she deserved a spot on the list of the world’s youngest activists of human rights, representing the Palestinian youth whose childhoods and rights are violated by the ongoing conflict and the discriminatory acts of the Israeli military. They do not offer the same protection to Palestinian children as to Israeli children living in (illegal) settlements in the West Bank.
We will see that Janna Jihad’s activism has resulted in a target on her back to the point of receiving death threats. Janna Jihad forms an interesting case of digital activism and vigilantism.
Citizen witnessing, digital vigilantism, and activism
To analyse how digital journalism, citizen witnessing, and the affordances of social media contribute to Janna Jihad’s activism and to analyse the positive and negative consequences of her position, I will use the concept of ‘bearing witness’ and ‘citizen witnessing’ as discussed by Stuart Allen in Citizen Witnesses (2016). It refers to citizens feeling compelled to witness and capture an event first-hand by generating embodied visuals and sharing it across social networks. It is often at considerable personal risk (Allen, 2016). The concept also returns in Axel Bruns’s article (2018) and will be included to broaden the theoretical framework.
Because she exposes the wrongdoings of the Israeli military, it can be argued that Janna Jihadpractices a parallel form of criminal justice, which can be connected to the concept of vigilantism and digital vigilantism. Vigilantism practices refer to activities of informal regulation of criminal deviance (Johnston, 1996). As discussed by Daniel Trottier (2016), digital vigilantism refers to the process where citizens are collectively offended by other citizen activity and take matters into their own hands through coordinated retaliation on digital media, including mobile devices and social media platforms. The visibility produced through the video footage of Israeli soldiers is unwanted and has negative consequences for Janna Jihad (Trottier, 2016).
DV should not be confused with digital and political activism, despite the overlap. Janna's (digital) activism refers to her promoting certain agenda of her achievements as an activist, as well as spreading and reposting information on her social media. For it to be vigilantism, there needs to be some sort of violence involved when the vigilante attempts to punish an individual or group. We will see how in Janna’s case, she falls in the middle of these two concepts.
Because she exposes the wrongdoings of the Israeli military, it can be argued that Janna Jihadpractices a parallel form of criminal justice, which can be connected to the concept of vigilantism and digital vigilantism
These concepts will not be enough to answer the research question and so qualitative analysis will be done. The analysis will be done on posts from Janna’s social media accounts, especially her Facebook account, on which she is most active and has more than 600.000 followers. She does live streams and posts video reports, but she also posts and reposts her achievements and news from other sources.
Furthermore, the Facebook page of Amnesty International and Amnesty Arabic will be used. The international human rights organization commits to sharing information to bring awareness to individuals and minority groups like Janna Jihad and Palestinians who face unjust treatment like violence and discrimination. They take action by providing educational tools to help people learn about human rights and injustice, as well as setting up petitions and letter drafts for people to send to authorities to put pressure. Lastly, some articles and interviews about Janna’s activism and her vision will be included.
Analysing Janna Jihad's activism and vigilantism
To analyse how Janna Jihad bears witness to the violent and brutal acts of Israeli forces occupying her town, we must look at her posts and video footage she shares on Facebook and other social media sites. Due to the growing availability of affordable portable consumer devices in areas like the West Bank, Janna Jihad could become familiar with social media at a young age. She learned how to produce and upload first-hand visual evidence like videos. It allowed her to share with the world how the rights of innocent Palestinian citizens and children are violated by having to deal with discrimination and violence just by being born there (Allen, 2016).
In the video above for VICE News, Janna (9) considers herself a journalist and part of the so-called Third Intifada. It refers to this generation’s group of Palestinian citizens protesting and organising uprisings against Israel in a sometimes peaceful manner while using new technologies. These new technologies like filming with your Smartphone function as a new tactic to oppose the Israeli forces and spread the news of events happening in the Palestinian Occupied Territories to a large audience (VICE news, 2016).
Janna understood at a young age that her posts can be easily shared with others all over the world and get visibility.
So, not only do mobile digital devices provide the functionality to capture eyewitness footage, but also to instantly post it to the Web (Vis et al. 2014: 385). She also learned to speak English at a young age, allowing her to address and educate a large audience. At just ten years old, she explained: “My camera is my gun. It is stronger than the gun. I can send my message to small people, and they can send it to others” (Dierckx, 2016).
On the 23rd of August 2020, the Israeli military violently came into Janna’s house and arrested her cousin Hamada and took their phones away. She live-streamed the event but was forced to end it to hide her phone and posted it on Instagram as well as Facebook. On Instagram, shown in Figure 2, she explained what had happened exactly. She was not able to film the horrific things that the family went through, like the room being pepper-sprayed and them being physically hurt by the soldiers.
The posted visual footage created shocked, raged, and compassionate reactions. Its emotional affectivity made the video go viral (Allen, 2016). As of January second, 2022, the Facebook video is watched 17,7 million times. received 456K interactions, 183K comments and 117K shares. She pinned the video so that anyone going to her page will be confronted with it.
Due to the interconnections between different media forms and Janna Jihad using multiple platforms, Jihad’s eyewitness reports get seen by a large audience as they are passed on across networks and picked up by international sources like Amnesty and international news sites (Bruns, 2018).
As a citizen journalist, she must be at the scene to be an eyewitness and to capture the crimes of the Israeli military that occupy her hometown. There are genuine risks involved to be there and filming the soldiers in uniform, but she needs the first-hand experience to be able to bear witness (Allen, 2016). This video compilation with personal commentary from Janna, which she reposted from Amnesty Arabic’s Facebook page, shows footage from her six years of activism. In the interview, she reflects on becoming a citizen journalist and her views on the injustices happening to her community. She speaks from experience, for example from when her cousin was arrested (see Figure 2).
She seems to be very dedicated and confident in what she does, despite still being so young and afraid due to the never-ending violence around her. During the interview commentary, she presents herself as an activist whereas, in some of the videos, she seems just a small kid at the scene filming. In one fragment of her being surrounded by people and military releasing gunshots, she shows her humanity and innocence by saying she is very afraid. In her commentary, she says: “I wanted to show the world how we felt when we saw our parents getting arrested in the middle of the night when we saw our friends get killed in front of us”. With ‘we’ and 'us’ she addresses herself and her loved ones but also the Palestinian citizens in general who face terrible things every day because of the violent occupation of their territory.
In her activism, she does not aim to throw violence onto the Israeli military but she does want them to be held accountable and punished by the international community so that she and all Palestinians do not have to live in fear.
In an opinion piece for the news site, Al Jazeera, Janna (15) defines the problem and says what needs to be done to realise change. She wrote: “Israel is violating our rights and breaking international law with impunity” (Jihad, 2021). Impunity refers to the exemption from punishment from the injurious consequences of an action. With her reports of the violence in the West Bank, she means to show the outside world things desperately need to change. However, she is also aware that she cannot do it alone as it is also a systematic issue: “For us to succeed, the international community needs to end its silence and stand with us”.
Positive and negative consequences of Janna's activism
Considering Janna's numerous followers and the frequent media attention, you could argue that her courage already got her quite far.
At only fifteen, she has been featured in the book ‘Know Your Rights’ by actress and human rights advocate Angelina Jolie, alongside Greta Thunberg and Malala. The book hit the shelves in October 2021 and with this child rights book, Jolie hopes to provide a handbook and source of inspiration for children and adults to fight back against injustices and provide the tools they need to defend their rights (Adams, 2021).
She reposted an article about it and her enthusiastic caption, as can be read in Figure 3, it seems as if this gave her the recognition and motivation to continue fighting for her rights, her people, and her homeland.
Yet, becoming a well-known activist and exposing the Israeli military has negative consequences. Her public persona makes her a target and maybe even an enemy to some. Pro-Israelis do not like what she does as it puts the powerful state of Israel in a bad light. Janna Jihad's journalistic practices as a citizen bearing witness put her in more danger than she already was. She exposes the wrongdoings and now gets harassed offline and online. Since Janna Jihad has been publicly sharing things since she was seven, personal information like her home address or the names of family members can be easily found. They could go to her house and search for human flesh (Trottier, 2016).
Almost daily, Janna Jihad faces death threats and intimidation. According to Amnesty: “Janna is at risk of physical violence, collective punishment, criminalization in military courts, and torture and other ill-treatment” (Amnesty, 2021). Amnesty International tries to call people for action to protect Palestinian children like Janna against violence (figure 4).
Considering the threats Janna Jihad receives and the violence she has witnessed and experienced by being on-scene, it seems like she is regarded as a vigilante by pro-Israelis and the authorities, but not in a positive sense. She is regarded as a kid vigilante who has to be stopped. As an activist, she goes against the authorities and their pro-Israeli values by protesting and exposing the violence that the Israeli military does not want outsiders to see.
Summing up and the relevance of findings
After analysing the social media posts of both Janna Jihad and Amnesty, watching some video reports and interviews and reading some articles about her, the research question can be answered.
In sum, Janna Jihad uses social media to share visual evidence of the wrongdoings of the Israeli military in the West Bank. She also reposts information and news from other sources, which she, thus, recontextualises. It all adds to her identity as a young citizen journalist and activist. The affordances of social media contribute to her activism as she can post videos of her bearing witness as well as let the outside world know what is going on. People can interact with her posts and express sympathy and admiration. Footage of violence creates shock and outrage which amplifies the visibility and virality of her posts and video testimonies. The interconnectedness of social network sites allows Jihad to have her voice heard by a big international audience.
Her activism getting international recognition has had both positive and negative consequences. Being featured in Jolie’s book and her videos getting more views are wonderful career-wise but it does create a target on Janna’s back. Amnesty commits to take action to demand protection for Palestinian children like Janna Jihad.
Janna Jihad uses social media to share visual evidence of the wrongdoings of the Israeli military in the West Bank
It is both of academic and societal relevance to investigate Janna’s work as an activist and, arguably, (digital) vigilante. She seems to form the middle ground between digital activism and vigilantism, even though she is primarily thought of as an activist and citizen journalist. Her activities are, especially by authorities, seen as vigilantism, but with a negative connotation. It also would be interesting to see more in-depth scholarly work on digital activism through citizen witnessing. It is for many inspiring how such a young activist like Jihad utilises social media to get her message across and share testimony, regardless of the serious risk of getting arrested, tortured, or worse. She gives other Palestinian children a voice and reports to the outside world what her community’s living conditions are because of Israeli’s violent actions to exercise power in the West Bank.
Janna Jihad thus commits to defending her community’s rights and homeland. She hopes to, one day, see and live in West Bank without violence: without the Israeli occupation and illegal Jewish settlements. She believes her generation is going to be the one to liberate Palestine (Jihad, 2021). She cannot do it alone as she is only fifteen and the conflict is complicated. Nevertheless, her work is influential enough to go around the world and educate more and more people on Palestinian conditions. She is featured in the same book as Malala and Greta, after all.
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