The ongoing catastrophe in Gaza is driving a surge in sympathy for Palestinians in the Western world that could mark a turning point in how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is engaged with moving forward. Changing attitudes among younger generations are primarily responsible for this shift, which can be attributed to two complementary factors: the smartphone/social media phenomenon that is, for the very first time, vividly streaming an ethnic cleansing in real time on platforms dominated by younger age groups; and a post-Black Lives Matter (BLM) narrative that has simplified and distilled the conflict into an established worldview popular among the demographic.

The convergence of the Palestinian struggle with a post-BLM outlook is challenging long-established narratives perpetuated by Western elites that have yielded continued sympathy for Israel, and disregard for the plight of Palestinians.

For Palestinians, unwavering Western support for Israel over the decades has had devastating consequences, the results of which we are witnessing today in Gaza. “The main problem for the Palestinians,” the late academic Edward Said noted, “is not what Israel has done but the fact that it has never been acknowledged.”

After seven decades of indifference, Palestinian suffering appears to be receiving long-overdue acknowledgement among Western populations. And BLM has, indirectly, hastened that process by facilitating a reimagining of the Palestinian question through a global lens that centers the residual effects of colonialism pervading the international order, and sees Israel, as historian Rashid Khalidi put it, as “the last colonial war in the modern age.”

Growing public support for Palestinians

Western public support for Palestinians is at unprecedented levels, reflected not only in the ongoing mass protests against the war in Gaza across Western capitals but also in shifting opinion polls. A sustained majority in both the US and the UK support an immediate cease-fire, but a closer examination reveals a sticky trend that goes beyond a natural revulsion of war.

In a 2013 Gallup poll, 64% of Americans professed greater sympathy for Israel compared to 19% for Palestinians. A shift is perceptible in a January 2024 Gallup poll, which showed that 36% of US adults thought Washington was supporting Israel “too much,” compared to 38% who said it was the “right amount.” Interestingly, 49% of Democratic voters said the US supported Palestinians “too little,” compared to 14% who said “too much.” A shift in attitudes was also observed in a New York Times/Siena College poll from December 2023, which saw American sympathy for Israel at 47%, while support for Palestinians remained steady at 20%. And those poll results are the best for Israel among all OECD countries, with a recent Morning Consult survey showing the US “remains the only rich country that still had net positive views of Israel.” In the UK, net favorability for Israel is at a low of -29.8.

Fueling this trend is a generational divide in how Israel-Palestine, and US engagement in the region, is viewed. That divide was reflected in the New York Times/Siena College poll, with respondents aged 18-29 the only cohort to express greater sympathy for Palestinians (46% vs. 27% for Israel) — compared to 63% in favor of Israel among those aged 65+. More younger Americans also oppose providing additional economic or military support to Israel (55% aged 18-29 and 47% aged 30-44), and think Israel is intentionally killing civilians (48% aged 18-29 and 26% aged 30-44). By contrast, older age groups demonstrated greater support for Israel in response to both questions.

A separate poll by Harvard Caps/Harris also caught a generational gap. Younger generations, for example, do not see Hamas as a terror group. A minority of 36% of those aged 18-24 view Hamas as such, compared to 64% who do not. The view of Hamas as a terror group steadily rises with each age group, until reaching a comfortable majority among American voters aged 45+.

Converging causes amid deepening distrust of governments and media

The Palestinian struggle has exploded onto the global stage at a time of heightened distrust of the institutions of power. Western nations in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer of 28 countries recorded the lowest trust in government and media. The survey noted a widely held view of governments and media as incompetent and unethical, with a sizeable majority of respondents worried that government leaders and journalists were “purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

Distrust of governments and media was thus a deepening trend in the West prior to Oct. 7, particularly among younger generations who perceive existing political and economic systems as disadvantageous to their own prosperity. This level of distrust provides fertile ground for counter-narratives that reject establishment perspectives and policies to flourish.

BLM has proven to be an effective and resilient counter-narrative that channels the frustrations of many Gen Zers and millennials. Three years after George Floyd’s murder, half of Americans still profess support for BLM. That figure jumps to 70% among US teens. Similar trends can be identified in other parts of the world where BLM catapulted race issues to the fore that were retrofitted into a local context.

In Australia, for example, voters aged 18-24 were the only cohort to express majority support — the 25-34 bracket was just shy of it — for the recently defeated referendum that would have enshrined recognition of First Nations in the Australian constitution and established an advisory Indigenous body for parliament.

At the core of this counter-narrative is a recognizable intersectionality of systemic oppression and an asymmetry of power, often drawn along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. It is a narrative that finds resonance among various colonized and oppressed peoples, and is thus being applied to the Palestinian experience. The adoption of the BLM counter-narrative among younger generations has undoubtedly been aided by the rise of TikTok. The 2023 Digital News Report, produced annually by Reuters, showed a decline in trust for traditional media with more users turning to TikTok for news. Specifically, 20% of respondents aged 18-24 said they turned to TikTok for news, up five percentage points from 2022. And the New York Times/Siena College poll showed that although 45% of American voters aged 18-29 said they sourced their news from mainstream media, 35% selected social media as their first choice — the largest of any age group. By contrast, only 2% of voters aged 65+ used social media as a news source.

The prevalence of social media has not only further eroded mainstream media’s influence as the primary source for news content, it has exposed its failings. Audiences are seeing the horrifying reality of Israel’s war on Gaza in real time, with a constant stream of highly graphic videos and harrowing stories of Israel’s bombing campaign on social media — a reality that would be largely unavailable were they to solely rely on mainstream Western media coverage, which has been accused of pro-Israel bias throughout the conflict.

On a thematic level, the Palestinian issue has neatly flowed into a confluence of post-BLM ideas that is loosely connecting disparate race-based struggles from the African American experience to Indigenous rights in Australia.

“There is no way in the world that we can leverage the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, there’s no way in the world we can leverage the weight, the ancestry of our movement, in defense of a war, in defense of indiscriminate bombings on refugee camps. … We would be a disgrace to our ancestors,’’ prominent Black author Ta-Nehisi Coates said in response to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Uncomplicating Palestine with a settler-colonial narrative

Quite simply, the premise of settler-colonialism — as first articulated by Australian academic Patrick Wolfe — is that it “destroys to replace … settler colonizers come to stay.” Wolfe noted that original intent by the godfather of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, when he acknowledged in 1902 that, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.”

Settler-colonialism applied in the Israeli-Palestinian context positions the state of Israel, and its Zionist underpinnings, as a Western colonial project, imposed on the Arab world by Britain and sustained by the United States. The narrative frames Palestinians as the natives driven from their ancient lands to make way for a new, Western-backed colonial enterprise. Such a narrative, as explained by Ta Nehisi-Coates, untangles and simplifies the conflict for Western audiences familiar with a framing that has been applied to their own contexts.

“The way this [conflict] is reported in the Western media is as though one needs a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies. … It’s actually not that hard to understand. It’s actually quite familiar to those of us with a familiarity to African American history,” he said.

That familiarity is witnessed in other contexts too, such as the sympathy among many First Nations in Australia, who see parallels between the Palestinian struggle and their own. “We know your pain,” Indigenous Australian Senator Lidia Thorpe told a pro-Palestine rally in November 2023.

The Palestinian question has been subsumed into a prevalent and popular post-BLM outlook that recognizes familiar patterns of systemic oppression and amplifies solidarity through an understanding of a shared experience. Framing Palestine within a lens of structural injustice — which still informs the current realities of African Americans and Indigenous peoples in various Western contexts — has provided a gateway for younger Western generations to understand, and de-complicate, the Middle East.

How the settler-colonial narrative rewrites the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Recognizing an intersectionality of systemic oppression has profound implications for how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is historically understood, and thus has the potential to inform future approaches to the region. Applying a settler-colonial narrative effectively reimagines the conflict and dismantles several underlying and inaccurate readings of it. The first is removing Western disassociation that encases the conflict within a false duality of Arabs or Muslims vs. Jews. The settler-colonial narrative instead positions Western culpability at the core, in particular the role of Britain and France in fragmenting a post-Ottoman Middle East into artificial states to suit their colonial interests at the end of World War I and America’s role in sustaining that order. The narrative highlights Britain’s indispensable role in turning the Zionist project from a fringe concept that yielded few supporters among European and American Jewry at the beginning of the 20th century into a geopolitical reality in Palestine.

Although British policy diverged in the late 1930s and 1940s to accommodate changing global dynamics — primarily the outbreak of war in Europe and Arab outrage over Britain’s brutal repression of a Palestinian revolt between 1936 and 1939 — it is undeniable that without Britain the state of Israel would never have come into existence. As Khalidi details, the British not only created the conditions for the Zionist project to succeed in Palestine during their rule, they also armed and trained Zionist militias, whose leaders, such as Moshe Dayan, would eventually play key roles in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and become ministers in the fledgling state’s government. Khalidi also contends that a key British strategic imperative for creating the Israeli state was to plant a local ally that could further its interests in the Middle East.

An important distinction with other settler-colonial enterprises, as both Wolfe and Khalidi note, is that Israel was not conceived as an extension of the British people per se, like Australia or New Zealand, but as a colonial project that invented its own, distinctive national identity. Its relationship with Britain was not a natural appendage of the British empire, but an alliance of convenience. This suited the Zionists, who, as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim writes, saw — and continue to see — a need to attach themselves to a global power to secure the Israeli project and ensure its continued existence. Britain, after the downfall of the Ottomans, assumed a hegemonic role in the Middle East and thus — up until the outbreak of World War II — was the primary focus of Zionist efforts to cultivate and maintain a close relationship.

This narrative also acknowledges a pre-colonial history of continued coexistence in the Middle East — with periods of turbulence — between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities under Islamic rule since the 7th century CE. The centuries-long persecution of Jews in Europe was entirely different from the Jewish experience in the Middle East, where, as Shlaim states, Jews adopted local Arab cultures and were, in essence, Arabs. Acknowledging this history, as done through a settler-colonial lens, positions Western colonialism in the Middle East as the primary source of the current crisis, not a falsified narrative of the inability of Muslims and Jews to coexist in a shared land.

The second major element of the settler-colonial narrative is that it denies Israel the status of victimhood — a status that has long been perpetuated by Western political and media elites and continues to this day in Western governments’ repeated references to Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Instead, the settler-colonial narrative frames Israel squarely as the colonizing aggressor and sees European and American Jewish migrants to Palestine as foreign settlers expropriating a land that belongs to another people.

This particular argument strikes at the core of Zionism, primarily that Jews form a single religio-ethnic group and that all Jews have an inalienable and exclusive right to Palestine due to a historical, religious connection. The settler-colonial narrative, as explained by anti-Zionist Israeli academic Jeff Halper, does not dispute a Jewish connection to Palestine, “it simply rejects their right to impose a settler colonial regime over it.” Such a religious connection is, for example, not dissimilar to Christian attachments to Palestine as the birthplace of Christ. Religious connections to Palestine of any kind can still be maintained, he argues, “without compromising Palestinian rights and national claims to the country.”

Settler-colonial narrative critiques existing Western policy

For a younger generation absorbed in a post-BLM counter-narrative, arguments put forth by government and media elites to justify continued support for Israel are failing to resonate. Rather, the pro-Israel stance of Western elites is only further solidifying already deep distrust, adding to precarious and polarizing domestic political climates.

The ongoing atrocities in Gaza are exposing a moral chasm where the application of human rights is still determined through a colonial framing that ranks a human’s worth by race or creed. The underlying principle that builds on the momentum of BLM is that black and brown lives matter less to white elites.

Conversely, the power of the post-BLM narrative is in its humanizing of people of color. Through this narrative, Western audiences are understanding how their own racial hierarchies and domestic power structures are manifesting into calamitous foreign policies, all the while breaking down malignant stereotypes of Arabs as aggressive and violent. The social media streaming of Gaza is not merely a window into the real-time horrors affected by Western policy; it is an unfiltered mirror revealing the painful truth that the legacies of colonialism still contaminate the West.


Antoun Issa is a journalist and commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, with a particular focus on civil society and grassroots efforts to improve governance post-Arab Spring. He is a non-resident scholar with MEI and the offplatform and newsletters editor for The Guardian Australia.

Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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