The US Student Intifada: Palestine’s New Soft Power Leverage
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The US Student Intifada: Palestine’s New Soft Power Leverage

On 18 April, US student at Columbia University in New York initiated a sit-in on the campus lawn, protesting the Ivy League institution’s ongoing financial links to companies connected to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its brutal war on Gaza.

The demonstrations quickly spread to other top US universities, including New York University, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of North Carolina, as demands intensified for an end to both the war and support for the occupation state.

This growing wave of US and global student activism is of vital importance: it represents the soft power ripple effects of the resistance‘s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, and as with other historic, mass US student movements against South African apartheid and the Vietnam war, will likely begin to fray at American support for Israeli aggressions.

For decades, the US has portrayed Israel as a beacon of democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, often citing it as “the only democracy” in West Asia to justify its unwavering support.

However, recent shifts in public perception, particularly among western youth, now increasingly portray Israelis as “terrorists” and “colonizers.” This sea change in the discourse, driven by the global spread of information and activism, will have a significant impact on the Zionist entity.

Israel’s global reputation had already been tarnished by the time South Africa filed genocide charges against the state in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) earlier this year, the first time Israel has faced such accusations at this level.

In March, the ICJ demanded that Israel take immediate, effective measures to ensure the entry of essential food supplies to Gaza’s residents, emphasizing the severe famine conditions already present.

A gut punch to ‘Brand Israel’

“Soft power” is defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or pressure.”

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the influential Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “soft power can be more effective than hard power in achieving political outcomes, because it influences the preferences of others rather than forcing them to change through coercion.”

This form of influence arises through culture, values, and policies that are universally attractive and morally legitimate – and, therefore, harder to contain.

Decades of Tel Aviv’s “nation branding” or soft power initiatives in the west, geared at deeply entrenching the notion of Israel as “the only democracy” in West Asia that shared the occident’s “Judeo-Christian values,” aimed to justify Washington’s unconditional support for the occupation state.

It took a show of Palestinian hard power, however, to unlock that narrative stranglehold in the west. Within weeks of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, western populations began for the first time to see the real face of Zionism – unleashed in an overwhelming military assault on Gaza’s hospitals, universities, infrastructure, and civilian populations.

Had Tel Aviv not reacted with unhinged “hard power,” western sentiment may have remained firmly with Israel. Instead, today, western populations have interacted profoundly with these horrifying scenes and with actual Palestinians on the ground in Gaza, galvanizing “soft power” support for the Palestinian cause across the globe.

West Asian wars could not achieve what footage out of Gaza has done: Not only are the two-state solution and the Palestinian cause back at the top of the international agenda, but the very viability of Israel’s colonial project is being discussed widely, and in incautious language, for the first time in the state’s short history.

Recognizing Palestine as a state

In the realm of soft power, the Palestinian resistance put Palestine back on the map. Today, Spain, Ireland, Malta, Slovenia, and Norway have shown a willingness to recognize the State of Palestine, a pivotal shift influenced by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the strategic failure of the once-vaunted Israeli military machine.

None of these diplomatic developments would have unfolded without Operation Al-Aqsa Flood triggering subsequent events.

Citing two US officials, Axios reports that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked the State Department to “conduct a review and present policy options on possible US and international recognition of a Palestinian state” after the war in Gaza.

Although no significant changes are expected anytime soon, the outlet notes that this signifies a possible shift in US foreign policy.

Even Britain, responsible for establishing the mandate that led to the creation of Israel, has expressed its readiness to recognize a Palestinian state soon after a ceasefire in Gaza without awaiting the conclusion of prolonged peace talks.

The impact of the Gaza war is further highlighted by the contrast in the UN Security Council’s votes: from a draft resolution in 2014 that received minimal support to a strong majority favoring Palestine’s full membership in April 2024 – with the US as the sole dissenting vote.

Power card: student protests for Palestine

In just over a week, thousands of university students have amassed in protests across the US demanding an end to the genocide in Gaza; a halt to US military aid for Israel; divestment of university funds from Israeli entities, companies, and universities; and upholding their right to protest on campus without facing repercussions.

During these demonstrations, more than 900 people have been arrested on at least 15 college campuses across the country, with countless student activists subjected to brute force by state security forces.

One notable aspect of these demonstrations was the presence of flags associated with resistance movements like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, long demonized by the US establishment. This shift reflects how once-vilified West Asian resistance movements have gained moral traction among American university students, influencing the mindset of US future leaders.

On the flip side, scoring zero points for Tel Aviv, US-born and educated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the university protests as “horrific” and characterized the student activists – many of them Jewish – as “antisemitic.“

Tel Aviv views the campus protests as a long-term existential threat to Israel, fearing the impact these young influencers might eventually have on US foreign policy.

Against this backdrop, two New York State representatives, supported by both major parties and notably funded by the Zionist organization AIPAC with approximately $1,329,480 during the 2022–2024 election cycle, have introduced a bill aimed at strictly “monitoring antisemitism” on campuses – a move perceived as influenced by the Israeli lobby.

Hard power talks

The appeal of supporting Palestine has resonated beyond US campuses, with significant demonstrations now taking place in Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Ireland – in addition to Japan and South Korea – also calling for an end to the Gaza conflict.

This reflects a broader shift evident in US opinion polls since the Gaza war began, indicating a growing disapproval of the conflict among western youth, who comprise about 20.66 percent of the US population.

The Gaza War and regional events have profoundly affected perceptions of Israel’s vulnerability. Incidents like the 7 October resistance operations and the Iranian retaliatory attack on 13 April have exposed Israel’s absolute reliance on western governments – for weapons and political cover – who have themselves now turned to the use of force to subdue critics.

Therefore, any discussion of Israel’s dwindling soft power and the global youth-led protest movement must acknowledge and credit the hard power demonstrated by the Axis of Resistance in advancing Palestinian national liberation.

The ability to influence “through attraction” requires moral legitimacy, which Israel has irrevocably lost by killing more than 34,000 civilians in the Gaza Strip, 72 percent of them women and children.

Indeed, with each passing day and further Israeli carnage, Palestine’s soft power projection only grows stronger, adding to the mounting global pressure against Israel’s disproportionate use of hard power.
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