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Grand Theft Auto in the West Bank

Young Arabs are turning to video games to role-play a version of the conflict in which they win

Ari Flanzraich
May 22, 2023

Just as Jews toy with the possibility of a Nazi victory in World War II, so Arabs constantly flirt with what could have been had 1948 gone otherwise. Under the cover of darkness, each wants to try his hand at playing the landlord.

Most Israeli Arabs tend to opt out of military service, if not out of political resentment, than to avoid finding a cousin at the other end of a barrel. Otherwise innocent boyish fantasies of military heroism are infused with political stakes, for in these parts, only Jews are soldiers.

A recent trend on social media, however, indicates that many Arabs have begun acting out fantasies of a different world online in Grand Theft Auto, a setting in which Arabs can man Israeli checkpoints in broken Hebrew, join the ranks of a beefed-up Palestinian Authority, or set off on terrorist rampages without the prospect of jail time.

GTA was initially meant to serve as a loosely interactive narrative, based on the execution of missions, but it quickly gained traction for what could be done between missions. You played as a gun-toting crook in a vast digital city in which any car could be stolen and any passerby gunned down. You could amass wealth, pick up prostitutes, and even work part time as a taxi driver.

Developers caught onto this preference for open, anarchic free play, and began upgrading and modifying the game’s multiplayer mode. At first, the additions were subtle, still at a safe enough distance from real life. This changed, however, with the advent of “FiveM,” a modification to expand the multiplayer mode made into customized dedicated servers, one of which is called GTA RP, or “Grand Theft Auto Roleplay.”

Each server has different rules and characteristics, and demands varying degrees of immersion. They allow the user to spawn into a world and act out a role in various settings and scenario: biker gangs, mafia families, cops and robbers. And those with a taste for banality can play an anonymous cashier.

Within the world of GTA RP, numerous Israel-Palestine servers have sprung up, which do their best to imitate the contorted reality of the conflict. Users recently began flooding social media platforms with clips documenting some of the conflict role-play—featuring, for instance, digital copies of Israeli checkpoints, rows of cement blocks with Israeli flags and spray-painted Stars of David set along the barren outskirts of the game’s virtual California.

Zain is a 23-year-old resident of East Jerusalem and the GTA enthusiast responsible for the production and publication of many, if not most, of the Israeli police vehicles available across online servers. A poorly adapted Kia Sorento, widely used within the Israeli police forces, caught his attention in real life, and Zain eventually began producing digital copies for the role-playing servers, with the aim of representing the actual vehicles as faithfully as possible.

His first step was adding metal window-cages to the generic Israeli police vehicles. In reality, most Israeli vehicles are not equipped with metal cages, but the fact that Zain’s image of one necessarily includes them is an indication of an East Jerusalem childhood, where Palestinians live under far harsher conditions than other Arab Israeli populations, despite being able to move freely within Israeli territory.

I corresponded with Zain to get a sense of how the conflict translates within gameplay, particularly at the checkpoints. “I would notice, and still do, that most of the ones playing at Israeli checkpoints are Arabs,” he told me, adding that a disproportionate number hailed from East Jerusalem. “Some act as though they cannot speak Arabic,” he tells me. “They do this for lack of any other alternative—they grew up in a world of Jews and Arabs.”

Zain repeatedly told me that he plays alone most of the time. He produces Israeli vehicles and tests them out in a vacuum, filming and then releasing them for general use. He tried to avoid political discussions at all costs, either expressing distanced agreement with whatever I suggested, or digressing into platitudes about peaceful coexistence.

Zain is part of a small minority of Arab users who view the Israeli police outside of their relations with Palestinians, and his obsession with it is childishly naive: “I spent a long time fixated on this one subject, in addition to making adaptations from GTA5 to GTA5-ISRAEL, such as street signs, station symbols, as well as specific police uniforms, all so that the game would resemble the State of Israel.” Zain sees officers as officers, not occupiers; symbols as institutional codes, not dogma. And his hermetic tendencies allow him to play with his fantasy symbols without the disruption of reality.

Some videos, however, are more expressly political. One recent video, titled “Release of Special Forces Commander From the Hands of Occupation Soldiers,” follows two Arab players as they spot an exchange of fire between Palestinians and Israeli forces. They refer to their own as muqawameen, the Arabic word for “resistance fighters” typically used within the Palestinian territories.

Israeli forces kidnap one of the Palestinians, code-named Basel, who turns out to be dressed in the all-black Palestinian SWAT uniform. After a long gunfight, Basel is liberated from enemy hands and tells of how “they attacked, we responded; they came, hit me, and took me.”

Basel’s partner, who goes unnamed, suggests ceding them over to the Palestinian Authority, but Basel is quick to caution against it: “I advise you not to submit them but rather to blow them up. I am of the Palestinian Authority, which maintains coordination with the occupation. In other words: whatever you hand over to the Palestinian Authority will in turn be handed over to the occupation.” The resistance fighters concur: “that means whatever belongs to them we blow up.” Basel continues: “If they knew I opened fire on Israeli forces, they would arrest me.”

One of the touchier subjects among Palestinians—PA president Mahmoud Abbas’ abandonment of resistance in exchange for profitable security coordination with the Israelis—presents a stumbling block for the players: Basel is limited by his job in the PA. They form an official “gang” in order to spare Basel any issue and take revenge upon the Israeli enemy.

Most of the TikTok videos focus on Israeli checkpoints. One opens with two Arabic-speaking users approaching a checkpoint. The Israeli officer is also played by an Arab, as are his comrades. He forces them out of the car, asks about their intentions, turns them around and feels them for weapons, and then sends them back for no good reason. The user pleads but the soldier will not budge, and so they reverse and head in the direction of a Palestinian checkpoint, where one of the guards agrees to assist them. He offers up his Palestinian police vehicle that, given the seriousness of the role-play and the “security coordination” between the two sides, will allow them to approach the checkpoint without raising too much suspicion.

All goes as planned and they even wind up taking an Israeli soldier back with them as a hostage. They give him a speech in a corporate-looking underground parking lot and then a single bullet to the head, before taking the two stolen Israeli jeeps out for a joyride through the desert.

It seems only Arabs play the part of Israeli checkpoint soldiers—some even pepper their speech with whatever Hebrew they have in order to enhance the reality of the scene. In one case, an Israeli soldier approaches a lone Palestinian looking to enter for work. The Israeli soldier deviates from his native Arabic for a single word “sheket”—Hebrew for quiet.

One YouTuber, a Bedouin Israeli whose channel also includes videos of simulated house cleanings, offers a tour of the Palestinian server. He drives a white Toyota Land Cruiser—a favorite among actual Negev Bedouins—and takes the user down what would appear to be central Los Angeles, if not for the unmistakable gleam of Al-Aqsa’s golden dome, adorned with a large Palestinian flag perched on the corner. He introduces this fictional city with pride, as if a Palestinian-controlled Jerusalem has been transferred to Southern California as part of a twisted second Oslo.

I noticed a similar tendency in a video called, “We Took Revenge Upon the Occupation Army,” featuring a full-scale Palestinian Authority checkpoint, a far cry from what usually amounts to a handful of pylons guarded by smoking men packed into a Toyota pickup.

The checkpoint consists of Palestinian soldiers, Palestinian special forces units, in addition to a slightly more militarized Palestinian police force, donning the same light blue collared shirts, only with black ski masks and heavy bulletproof vests. Together they are managing an attempted attack on an Israeli border guard. An obvious fantasy for Palestinians: Even better than acting out Israeli power is acting out a Palestinian power that has never been actualized.

For the most part, however, there is very little violence. For minutes on end, users run through the banal motions of manning a checkpoint: arranging pickup trucks to block roadways, coordinating positions, and discussing the fate of an alleged suspect. At other times, they simply stand in the middle of an open roadway, waiting for something to happen. I catch one soldier turn to the other: “What’s going on, we’ve been just standing here for days!” The player is acting out an alien frustration: facing boredom with a legal weapon in hand.

GTA is but one example of Palestinians looking to escape a reality that, at best, only ever gives them half of what they want.

Sometimes these fantasies even spill out into the lesser-read news headlines. A recent military drill in Gaza consisted more of performative kidnappings than tactical exercises, staged in a sandy pit dug out of a dune and covered in cement structures plastered with phrases like, “We will liberate Palestine!” or “Here we killed the occupiers of Eli Sinai” (a former settlement in the northern Gaza Strip and one of the last evacuated as part of the Israeli withdrawal). One year ago, Hamas boasted a life-size mock Temple Mount in the Strip where Gazan schoolchildren can pretend to be back in Palestine. And this past May, the “Ministry of Religions” elected Ahmad Said Jabar as imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque after its future liberation from Jewish hands.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, when all is said and done, it turned out that Hamas were responsible for Al-Aqsa at the heart of a virtual Los Angeles. It’s hard to keep up a fight without an element of fantasy.

Ari Flanzraich is a Canadian journalist living in Israel.