RAMALLAH, West Bank – Moad Arqoub, a Palestinian graduate student, was bouncing around the Internet the other day and came across a site that surprised and attracted him. It was a Facebook page where Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs were talking about everything at once: the prospects of peace, of course, but also soccer, photography and music.
“I joined immediately because right now, without a peace process and with Israelis and Palestinians physically separated, it is really important for us to be interacting without barriers,” Mr. Arqoub said as he sat at an outdoor cafe in this Palestinian city.
The Facebook page Bronner profiles is called YaLa-Young Leaders and is founded by Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat and head of the Peres Center for Peace. It is supposed to be a forum for interaction and normalization between Israeli and Palestinian youth in particular, and Israeli and Arab youth in general.
It is endorsed by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Tony Blair – figures more likely to repel than attract Palestinian youth.
But Bronner’s story reads more like a promotional piece than a report. He appears to have relied only on the page’s creators for information, and presented people involved in managing the project as if they were unaffiliated users. Whether he was duped, careless or engaging in advocacy, Bronner’s report raises many questions about his standards of reporting from Palestine.
Moreover, while falsely presenting the project as popular with Palestinians and Arabs, Bronner ignores the vast body of Palestinian public opinion that opposes such projects for violating the Palestinian civil society call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Who are Moad Arqoub and Hamze Awawde?
Moad Arqoub and Hamze Awawde are real people whom Bronner quotes in his story as if they were just ordinary Palestinian users of the YaLa Facebook page.
But examination of online records shows that Arqoub and Awawde are likely involved in the YaLa project, and already knew each other long before YaLa was created through their work with and participation in MEPEACE, an organization and Ning social network founded by an Israeli activist, Eyal Raviv.
Bronner’s claim that Moad Arqoub was merely “bouncing around the Internet the other day and came across a site that surprised and attracted him” is highly suspect and not credible as the evidence will show.
YaLa’s Facebook page was apparently created in early May (the first postings are on 4 May). Arqoub began participating on YaLa’s Facebook page as early as 22 May.
Both Arqoub and Hamze Awawde “liked” a posting from that day which announced the upcoming creation of a discussion forum.
Awawde also makes an appearance in Bronner’s story and is pictured in it:
Most of the talk seems to be between people in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. But Hamze Awawde, a 21-year-old student here in Ramallah said he got “friend” requests on Yala from Morocco and Egypt.
He said: “I asked one Egyptian why he had contacted me and why he was taking part in this, and he said: ‘After the revolution, everything is permitted. I want to see what Israelis are like.’”
This is Bronner’s only reference to Awawde, presenting him – like Arqoub – as just another user.
But what Bronner does not disclose is that by every indication Awawde is a representative of the YaLa project, and there are strong indications that Arqoub assists him. Moreover, apart from fleeting comments here and there, Arqoub and Awawde appear to be the only Palestinians with any involvement or investment in YaLa.
Who manages the YaLa Facebook page?
Awawde’s role as a representative of YaLa can be easily seen from his frequent postings on the page’s wall – answering questions from other users and posting information about a photo contest that Bronner mentions in the article.
Awawde used the YaLa logo as his avatar on his personal Facebook page and when responding to questions and leaving comments (Awawde replaced the avatar with the picture of him that appeared in The New York Times a few hours after Bronner’s article was published online).
While Hamze Awawde clearly appeared to be acting as a representative for YaLa, Arqoub’s role is slightly less clear. But the nature of his involvement in it and the fact that it began a lot further back than “the other day,” as well as his prior relationship with Eyal Raviv and Awawde through the very similar project MEPEACE casts severe doubt on Bronner’s account.
At times, Arqoub appears to assist Awawde in representing the project. For example on 19 June, Arqoub answers a question posed in Hebrew by another user about the date of the photo contest.
Both Awawde and Arqoub responded enthusiastically, Arqoub writing, “Ahlan Eyal Raviv Fast progress :1,277 now ! we will be 1 000 000 soon Inshallah :)” – suggestive that Arqoub felt some responsibility for ensuring the success of the page.
Awawde and Arqoub already knew each other through MEPEACE
MEPEACE was founded in 2008 according to a Haaretz profile and has similar goals to YaLa: encouraging normalization between Palestinian and Israeli youth.
On his Facebook profile, Awawde lists under “Employers”: “mepeace.org with Eyal Raviv.”
Arqoub has also been involved in MEPEACE since 2008, the same year it was founded. In December last year, for example, Arqoub is acknowledged along with Raviv for work on an MEPEACE video called “Middle East Peace start with each of us” [sic].
Photographs posted publicly on mepeace.org show Awawde and Arqoub seated together in a January 2010 MEPEACE event. The two are recognizable in the photographs, and images of the same event posted on Facebook are tagged with Moad Arqoub’s name and describe the event as a “Leadership Training” held in the occupied West Bank town of Beit Jala. Other photographs taken at the same event show that Eyal Raviv was also present. Awawde is pictured at many other MEPEACE events in 2010 and 2011.
Thus, Awawde, Arqoub and Raviv are part of a tight “peace dialogue” circle. The notion that Arqoub just happened upon the YaLa site serendipitously as Bronner claims is simply not credible. Awawde and Arqoub have not responded to emails requesting comment, but this article will be updated with their responses if they do.
Raviv offers congratulations for New York Times article
After Bronner’s profile of YaLa was published on The New York Times website, Raviv, Arqoub and Awawde quickly began to circulate it among their networks, especially on mepeace.org and Facebook. Raviv posted the following message on Facebook: “Congratulations to MEPEACE Peacemakers Hamze Awawde and Moad Arqoub on their success and sensational story in the New York Times about YaLa-Young Leaders.”
Exaggerated claims of participation
Called Facebook.com/yalaYL, the site, created by a former Israeli diplomat and unambiguous about its links to Israel, has had 91,000 views in its first month. Of its 22,500 active users, 60 percent are Arabs – mostly Palestinians, followed by Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Lebanese and Saudis.
Yet close examination of the Facebook page finds little to substantiate this. When first viewed by The Electronic Intifada at approximately 6:30 p.m. in Chicago on 9 July, the page had just 2,971 fans. This rose above 3,000 within hours, almost certainly as a result of the publicity from Bronner’s article.
The page’s wall and discussions reveal little activity and much of that is by Israelis. Very few Arabs participate, with the exception of Awawde and Arqoub. An early participant in MEPEACE had the same observation about that group in 2008 – the vast majority of the activity was by and about Israelis.
Bronner ignores mainstream Palestinian opinion
Bronner presents YaLa as unambiguously positive – a “virtual bridge” – and even claims that:
the Facebook page has surprised those involved by the enthusiasm it has generated, suggesting that the Facebook-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may offer guidance for coexistence efforts as well.
Not only is there no evidence for this enthusiasm on YaLa’s page, but there is strong general resistance to such normalization projects within Palestinian civil society and in the Arab world more broadly. These initiatives are opposed because they reward Israel with normal relations and integration without requiring it to end its oppression of Palestinians and its occupation of Arab land. They may also violate the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as well as the call for cultural and academic boycott of Israel.
Cultural events and projects involving Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis that promote “balance” between the “two sides” in presenting their respective narratives, as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the “conflict,” are intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible. Such events and projects, often seeking to encourage dialogue or “reconciliation between the two sides” without addressing the requirements of justice, promote the normalization of oppression and injustice. All such events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott.
There is nothing on YaLa’s page that expresses opposition to Israeli occupation and oppression, and indeed Bronner quoted Salah al-Ayan, “a Palestinian Authority official and a friend of Mr. Savir’s who is helping with the site” saying:
“Our goal is to start by talking about art and sports. Since Israelis and Palestinians don’t meet face to face anymore, this is a virtual place to meet. I was happy when I saw that some Palestinians had voted for Israeli photos in the contest.”
Palestinian youth reject normalization
Last year, dozens of Palestinian youth organizations throughout Palestine and the diaspora signed a joint statement condemning such initiatives under the banner of “Palestinian youth united against normalization with Israel.” The statement rejected:
the efforts of Israel and its apologists around the world, who aim to direct our efforts at convincing Israel of our inalienable rights rather than resisting its oppression through legitimate and legal means to obtain them; especially organizations that aim to convince us that that conflict is but a symptom of psychological barriers that can disappear through dialogue with the other. Such organizations they completely ignore the reality which is Israel’s oppression and systematic discrimination against the Palestinian people. Organizations like Seeds of Peace, One Voice, NIR School, IPCRI, Panorama, and others specifically target Palestinian youth to engage them in dialogue with Israelis without recognizing the inalienable rights of Palestinians, or aiming to end Israel’s occupation, colonization, and apartheid.
While Bronner might disagree with these positions, his job is to report the views of Palestinians, not to help promote astroturf organizations where a tiny minority of Palestinians are falsely portrayed as speaking for a nonexistent groundswell.
Where are the Palestinian organizations YaLa boasts about?
On the info section of its Facebook page, YaLa makes the following claim:
YaLa is an opportunity provided by Israeli and Palestinian organizations, led by the Peres Center for Peace and the Palestinian Wide Link Media company, as well as international business, cultural and sports entities….
Little is known about the Wide Link Media company. A domain name (wlinkmedia.com) that is registered to the company in Ramallah is devoid of content and up for sale. A LinkedIn profile for Wide Link Media names the director of the company as Mamoun Matar, who elsewhere identifies himself as a media consultant and also has a profile on Eyal Raviv’s MEPEACE social network.
There is no indication of any participation from grassroots Palestinian organizations.
Ethan Bronner’s report is no more than a press release from the YaLa-Young Leaders initiative, which is itself nothing more than another Israeli attempt to use social media for hasbara.