The blogging war

Arjan El Fassed

Politically-oriented, personal Web-journals - dubbed ‘blogs’ - have become part of the battle being fought over the Internet between supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians.

Arjan El Fassed, 28, is a Dutch-Palestinian resident of Ar-Ram, a Ramallah suburb, who has recently published op-ed pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday.

“TalG” is the online name of a 30-something resident of Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood who has been quoted in recent articles in the Christian Science Monitor, as well as numerous Web sites.

Their politics couldn’t be more different. El Fassed is a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights and critical of Israeli policies. TalG is a one-man pro-Israel hasbara committee, who regularly points out Palestinian terror attacks and political extremism.

What they have in common is they are both “bloggers,” writers of online diaries known as “blogs.” They, like thousands worldwide, and hundreds in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are changing the terms of media and policy debates through their handmade, personalized blogs.

Blogs come in all shapes, sizes, quality and political bent. The best ones are having an impact on global public opinion.

“Blogging is changing the media world and could, I think, foment a revolution in how journalism functions in our culture,” former New Republic magazine editor Andrew Sullivan wrote in Wired magazine this year.

He said the personal touch of bloggers is more in tune with current sensibilities than the impersonal, corporate voices of mainstream media.

“Readers increasingly doubt the authority of The Washington Post or National Review,” wrote Sullivan, who has his own highly successful blog. “They know that behind the curtain are fallible writers and editors who are no more inherently trustworthy than a lone blogger who has earned a reader’s respect.”

Not everyone is making such sweeping assertions of the power - or potential power - of blogs. But thousands are pouring their hearts into these efforts.

What drives most bloggers - and what makes them interesting reading - is the passion and human face behind them.

Not every blogger in Israel has a political slant to his or her writing.

Yaniv Radunsky, 29, of Petah Tikva, who manages an online list of Israeli blogs, says most of the ones on his site are journals or diary entries.

“There are some about the matzav (situation),” he says. “But the majority are personal, where people talk about their life and what they are doing.”

An entertaining example of that is a blog run by Liron, who worked on the IDF Web site when she was in the army. Her blog catalogues past and upcoming events in her life, including the date of her army discharge (August 11) and the date she got her lip pierced (August 11).

In advance of that event, she wrote of her fears of going forward, despite her pierced ears and eyebrow.

“I’m still very frightened, and I’m trying to figure out the root of it,” she wrote. “It’s not a pain issue I still know that when I step into Danny’s studio tomorrow, my blood pressure is going to go haywire and the blood will drain from my face (which creates a less-than-bloody procedure - yay!). Here goes nothing; I’ll update everyone tomorrow night. Wish me luck?”

Such personal writing can be riveting in a voyeuristic, opening-the-locked-diary-on-your-sibling’s-desk kind of way. But the world of bloggers and journal writers are in fact far apart in intention and impact. Journal writers like Liron primarily want to explore their own personalities. Bloggers generally have a political or economic agenda.

TalG, perhaps the most widely cited English-language Israeli blogger, says he used to post items on online bulletin boards.

“I thought there was value in a first-person perspective,” he says. “Back in March, I think that people abroad were much less aware what the wave of Palestinian bombings was doing to the country. I wrote about things like calling my wife after hearing about a pigua (terror attack) on the radio, or going out to eat in a restaurant that kept the door locked.”

As the so-called “warblogs” started to pay attention to the Middle East in early 2002, he says, “I just said to myself, ‘Hey I could do this.’”

Since then, his site has begun to receive thousands of page views a month and is now the first Israel-based link on many other blogs and mainstream news organization Web sites.

Gil Shterzer, 23, an economics major at Tel Aviv University from Hod Hasharon, says he was inspired by TalG to start his own pro-Israel blog.

“I am sometimes amazed by the biased news coverage of the situation over here by the world media, biased in favor of the Palestinians, of course,” he says. “I don’t intend to be a news site. I’ll write my personal opinions and feelings over here, opinions and feelings that I believe are popular in Israel these days.”

Rinat Malkes, 23, a recent immigrant from Rio de Janeiro, is a budding journalist who says she began a personal log about the pros and cons of giving up her life and job in Brazil to make aliya.

But with encouragement from her friends in Brazil, she began writing in both Portuguese and English on the political situation as she found it.

“I also wanted to do something on the hasbara issue, due to all the situation in Israel,” she says.

Malkes says her site now receives 100 visitors a day, 10-15 e-mails a week and dozens of comments on her site.

Similarly for el Fassed, keeping an online diary became a way of correcting perceived shortcomings in the mainstream media.

“Weblogging has given Palestinians their own media tools,” he says. “Now we don’t have to rely on mainstream media. To Palestinians who have so long been deprived of the opportunity to narrate what it is like to live under the world’s last military occupation, the citizens’ diaries in the form of blogging are a logical outcome.”

El Fassed says his efforts are part of the do-it-yourself ethic of blogging.

“When Israeli authorities prevented foreign media access to various cities, towns and villages on the West Bank, what they failed to recognize is that the media is no longer limited to those with press passes,” he says. “In the age of the Internet, anyone can become a journalist.”

As with the journal writers, El Fassed also finds the act of writing for the public a form of therapy.

“I need to find a way to get it out of my system,” he says.

Despite the mainstream media access El Fassed has gained, as well as the publicity and audience drawn by bloggers such as TalG, it is not clear yet whether Israeli and Palestinian blogging has had a significant impact on the domestic debate.

Shterzer questions whether he is reaching anyone who is undecided about the conflict or is only “convincing the already convinced.” What conversation is occurring between Israeli and Palestinian bloggers so far seems to be mutual shouting, rather than dialogue. Malkes says she receives significant quantities of mail from Palestinians.

“It’s always criticizing me, of course,” she said.

El Fassed said he is not even sure dialogue is a goal of blogging, at least for him and the other Palestinians writing political blogs.

“It comes down to the permission to narrate one’s experiences, thoughts, and expressions,” he says. “Basically, it is a way to communicate to the outside world.”

The following are excerpts from recent postings by leading Israeli and Palestinian bloggers on their respective Web sites

Tal G is a Jerusalem resident in his 30s. His blog is the first you receive on a Google search when you type in “Israeli blog” in the search box.

Posted 8:44 AM http://talg.blogspot.com/2002-08-11-talg-archive.html#80264328 by Tal G

Last Saturday, CNN Europe’s International Correspondents program decided to take up the issue of why the European press so unskeptically accepted the Palestinian fabrications about a “massacre” in Jenin.

Janine Di Giovanni (of the London Times) claimed that the press really did the best job that it could to evaluate the competing Israeli and Palestinian versions of what happened, that reporters such as herself who were out on the ground in the West Bank were not merely heroic and but also the most reliable, that the press was actually heavily impressed by IDF spokesman Ron Kitrey’s later-retracted remark of “hundreds dead” (though in reality, Kitrey spoke of 100 “casualties”), and that what “we were really concerned about” was the human rights violations conducted by the IDF such as those described in the Human Rights Watch report on Jenin eg. the “use of human shields.”

Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday was less slick, but he skewered Di Giovanni’s attempt to portray herself as circumspect by reading from an article she wrote entitled “The Meaning of Jenin”: “The refugees I had interviewed in recent days while trying to enter the camp were not lying. If anything, they underestimated the carnage and the horror. Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.”

While praising those brave journalists on the ground, di Giovanni described how the IDF turned Palestinian homes into “sniper’s nests” (another nice phrase she would never apply to Palestinian snipers). She said this as if she were describing a major revelation - though it’s well-known that the IDF established positions in buildings in the Jenin refugee camp. She could have found that out from the Israeli press; I’ve even heard second- and third-hand stories that started with reservists.

What di Giovanni said on CNN does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny - she was relying on her charisma, the uninformedness of her audience, and the limited ability of her opponent to respond. If CNN were to place transcripts on its Web site it would contribute to the quality of public debate by preventing people from getting away with this kind of thing.

That accusation of the “use of human shields” - you don’t hear much about what the accusation is about. It would seem to be this ie. ordering local Palestinians to go door-to-door advising residents to evacuate. Maybe that’s unethical or even really does contravene international conventions, but the intentional vagueness on the part of di Giovanni (and apparently HRW) is obviously tendentious.

Arjan El Fassed, 27, is a Palestinian journalist who lives in a Ramallah suburb. His blog entries are available on a Web site called Electronic Intifada. The section for blogs is called “Live from Palestine.”).

Monday, August 5, 2002 Nablus: “In the Time of Curfew” posted by Arjan El Fassed (Ram, occupied Palestine, 5 August 2002)

Ala, who lives in Nablus, started to write his long awaited “Love in the Time of Curfew,” a title he borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. Ala hopes he could travel from Latin America to Palestine to write a new novel: “Love in the Time of Curfew” or “Love under Siege.”

Ala just wrote me a message. I spoke with him on Saturday, just an hour after Israeli occupiers left his home. “It’s the most savage army in the world. I thought they had a modern well-trained and equipped army, but they’re a bunch of hooligans,” he said. Ala told me about how Israeli occupiers emptied stores in the old city of Nablus, looting and stealing, throwing goods on the floor which were later overrun by Israeli tanks.

“They are looking for Hamas,” Ala told me, “but from the hundred Palestinians they arrested, only two were known politically to be affiliated to Hamas. They don’t know what to do. Of course, we all know that there is an option out of this mess, they just need to discover that oppression and occupation does not work and that to end this mess they need to withdraw.”

I agreed with him. “If they could occupy the West Bank and Gaza in six days,” I told Ala, “they can also withdraw in six days. What do they need to negotiate?”

Ala wrote me about the curfew today. “Staying at home for 46 days is a great opportunity for somebody who used to work for the whole year, travel around the world, and be exhausted from meeting people. It is something else for us. We did not work at all for past few months. We did not even leave our city. I haven’t seen our lands and its green trees. I am only used to see the destroyed dusty streets of Nablus and unemployed residents. What can you do if you are forced to stay in your home for such a long time? You do not even have the right to sit on your balcony. You might get shot, if you are that brave.

Mahmud, the three-year-old son of my neighbour was shot yesterday. He was sitting on the balcony. He got injured. He had to wait for the ambulance for half an hour.

Ala made up his mind about the curfew. “My computer is like a home for orphans. Data just sits there to be used. The Women’s Union modernisation project, uprising cartoons, a flash course, and a TOEFL training course. I have to call my friends, the friends of my friends, clean my apartment, reading (My Antonia of Willa Cather) philosophy.

“Frustration increases as an Israeli tank destroyed the electricity provider in front of our home. We did not have any electricity today. The computer does not work. I wish I can close my eyes and when I open them again, this nightmare is gone. I dream about visiting Birzeit University and Ramallah. I see them in my dreams. What a strange life. I used to dream and revisit Damascus, I used to dream about Amman, they seem so far away. Now, I dream of Ramallah and Birzeit, so nearby. I left my friends but part of me is still there. If such dreams cannot be realized, how can I continue dreaming about Jaffa?”

Blogging at a glance

Blog: Short for weblog. Individual, personalized, regularly updated Web-based diary that provides links to and comments on current news items. Topics range from hi-tech to music, sex and the war on terror

Journal: Online diary more concerned with the writer’s personal life (favorite clubs, music, relationships, body piercing) than political, social or cultural matters. Israeli example: www.deathstarnebula.com

Blogger: One who blogs

Blogosphere: The world of blogging and bloggers. Total worldwide (English): 500,000

Warblog: Blog concerned with War on Terror

Blogging Community sites/software: Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com, UserLand.com, www.microcontentnews.com (weblog about weblogs)

Big Name blogs: AndrewSullivan.com, Dan Gillmor’s Ejournal

Israeli blogosphere (English and Hebrew): 100-250 (est.)

Israeli Webjournals: 500 (est.)

Demographics: age-range - 13-40, gender breakdown - equal representation, male and female

Israeli Blogs (English, political):

  • talg.blogspot.com
  • israeliguy.blogspot.com

    Israeli Blog Directories (mostly Hebrew):

  • ilblogs.djyaniv.com
  • www.israblog.co.il

    Palestinian blogs:

  • Electronic Intifada,
  • arjanelfassed.mediamonitors.org
  • nigelparry.com

    Total Palestinian blogs: 30 (est.)