Tired of biased news coverage? Want to sign an online petition in support of the Palestinians’ right of return? Pascale Ghazaleh logs on.
There are many differences between the uprising that has come to be known as the Intifada of Al-Aqsa and its precursor, which erupted in 1987, bringing the terrible reality of Israeli occupation to the attention of millions around the world. Peace agreements have been signed, new realities have been imposed on the ground, governments have come and gone… There is another difference between 1987 and 2000, however, which may not be immediately apparent. In the 13 years that have passed since the first Intifada, the Internet has been born.
The World Wide Web is supposed to be many things — democratic, uncensored, and… well, worldwide, among others. That it does not always live up to its name is frustratingly obvious, not least to the millions of people who have access neither to the technology nor even to the written word that remains the accepted means of communication on the Internet; but as a tool for coordinating grass-root activities in very different locations, and transmitting information almost as the events take place, the Internet seems unparalleled. Faxes and telephones can do the first, while breaking news has taken up the latter challenge; but only through the Internet can the greatest possible number of people send out the largest possible amount of relatively unfiltered information at the same time.
This fact alone makes it potentially subversive: the major television networks can and do monopolise airtime, but those seeking alternative interpretations — or even entirely different news — can just switch on their PC, or head for the nearest cybercafé. And at no point, perhaps, has the Internet’s potential as a forum for alternative discourses been made so overwhelmingly clear to the Arabs as it is now. Many are outraged by the way the Western media has “covered” — for here, Edward Said’s emphasis on the dual meaning of the term is relevant once again — the Intifada of Al-Aqsa. Among the factors fuelling this discontent is the feeling that we “are not getting the whole story.” Along with the Arab satellite channels, the Internet has served to redress this feeling of imbalance to some extent.
In the words of Nigel Parry, who helped create and launch Birzeit’s Web site in 1996 and has been working on Palestinian Web sites since, “the main reason that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has carried on as long as it has is simply because the Israelis have learned very well the importance of winning the war of words […] Since the Internet became such a phenomenon, this has become a key new arena in which to carry on this war of words, not least […] because it overturns the tables on the traditional power structure of media.”
Typing “Palestine” or “Intifada” into any search engine will yield a plethora of possible sites for the interested cybernaut (not all relevant, of course, for the Internet’s appeal as the “great leveller” is also one of its principal faults as far as research is concerned). One informative site is Hanthala Palestine (named after the famous character created by caricaturist Naji Al-Ali), which launched a mailing list beginning in the summer of 1998 to discuss “strategies, tactics and values along which we could unite the grassroots and (re)connect the Palestinians inside Palestine (the Occupied Territories, as well as those living beyond the ‘Green Line’) and those living in exile around the world.”
Hanthala presents itself as “an alternative source of news for both the inside as well as those around the world, on the developments in the field of human rights and political processes in Palestine, providing a base for activism.” Its principal efforts are focused on “petition-campaigns, world-wide letters-to-the-editor, mobilizing protest-letters and actively involving itself in holding corporations accountable for human rights violations in Palestine. Additionally, Hanthala Palestine disseminates information on a wide range of subjects related to human rights and international law.” To all these, of course, the Web is ideally suited. A click of the mouse, and one can make a donation, send a letter of protest to the White House, or sign a petition supporting the Palestinians’ right of return. Thanks to communications technology, it is possible to coordinate activities, or at least to know that marches are scheduled to take place in London, Paris and Washington DC, say, at the same time. And just as such networks can give people on the “outside” — whether Diaspora Palestinians, sympathisers or, indeed, detractors of the Palestinian cause — a glimpse of what is going on “inside,” they can also give Palestinians living under occupation the feeling of being (pun inevitable) connected.
Although Hanthala “only exists in cyberspace,” with “an email address and a website,” in the words of one of the people involved, it coordinates its outreach with other networks, some of which exist on the ground. Individual activists, linked up through the Internet, established a network called Al-Awda (The Return), which organised demonstrations in Washington and London on 16 and 17 September, for instance. “So when the clashes in Palestine erupted,” explained activist Arjan El-Fassed, “we at Al-Awda were already planning other actions and all the infrastructure was already present.” Through Al-Awda, which has local action committees in the US and Europe, “demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians and against the Israeli aggression were planned and organised.” The demonstrations, again, may not have received much prime time news coverage; but it was possible for anyone with access to a computer to view images and video material of the event.
Hanthala is also a partner of Addameer (Conscience), a Palestinian prisoners’ support and human rights association registered as an NGO in Palestine, with an office in Ramallah. When the Intifada broke out, says El-Fassed, Addameer’s front-line position allowed it to send out regular information about what was happening in Palestine, “and through the existing networks like Al-Awda and Hanthala this information was disseminated widely” — not just to activists but to the media and NGOs across the globe. On 12 October, for instance, subscribers to the Hanthala mailing list received an update from Addameer with this heart-stopping news — much of which would not be reported in any detail by the major networks — almost as it happened:
11:10 am. Three Israelis, it is not known if undercover units or settlers were apprehended by Palestinian police in center of Ramallah near the Ramallah Boys Friends School. They were carrying explosives. The three were beaten by protestors and their car was burnt. Palestinian police have advised residents to evacuate the center of Ramallah and four Israeli Cobra helicopters are currently circling low over the centre of the city.
1.57 pm. Two rockets fired from Cobra helicopters near the Muqata (PA Headquarters in Ramallah), and another one near the central police station, totaling six altogether […]
1.59 pm. Two more rockets heard, totalling 8 rockets altogether.
2:01 pm. The electricity grid is out near the Muqata.
2:02 pm. Another rocket.
3:00 pm. Sixteen people reported injured in Ramallah: 12 civilians, 4 members of Palestinian security forces […] A demonstration is currently underway in Ramallah with thousands participating. Two more rockets have been heard.
3:02 pm. Planes and helicopters can be heard. More rocket strikes. Ambulance sirens fill the air. More attacks reported in Gaza. Injuries reported above were not from the police station but from attacks on the heavily populated residential area of al-Tireh, a suburb east of Ramallah […].
It is reports like this one that have made the September 2000 Clashes Information Centre such a popular site: according to the webmaster, by 10 October it had seen 34,417 visitors, making a total of 138,473 page views.
Just as the Internet allows information to be disseminated rapidly by individuals with access to only the most rudimentary technology, then, it also makes it possible for small networks to multiply exponentially and enables activists all over the world to stay in touch. The immediacy of e-mail, furthermore, allows them to make decisions in what appears to be the closest possible approximation of total democracy. Al-Awda includes the following information on the FAQ section of its site:
“Each committee sets its own agenda and plans of action. Committee members answer to each other and arrive at decisions […] by a subcommittee-monitored electronic voting mechanism at each and every stage. We are all participants and we answer to each other and anyone else who asks […] We are in contact with each other each and every day and night of the week.”
While the Internet makes it possible to achieve such a town-hall meeting atmosphere on a global scale, it has also allowed participants in chat-rooms devoted to the “Middle East crisis” to air their views freely across the Web in past weeks. At Salon.com, where language and personal insults are not censored by a “mediator” — as is the case on more decorum-conscious sites such as CNN’s — a slug-fest as heated as it was enlightening to the uninitiated observer is still underway. Highlights from a 12 October discussion — with the nastier bits excised, keeping relevant sensibilities in mind — read as follows:
A: “There was clearly PLO orchestration of this violence […] The day after the Ariel Sharon ‘provocation’ at the Temple Mount, the Palestine government closed schools so the kids would be on the streets, and a general strike assured that there would be lots of other vulnerables abroad […] Palestinians are clearly the aggressors here, but you’d never know that from the news coverage.”
B: “And Sharon’s deliberate provocation had nothing to do with it, huh? Biased coverage… please. How do you justify the murder of a 12-year-old boy as he hides for cover against Israeli machine gun fire? […]”
A: “The ‘provocation’ is all part of the game. The hatred of Palestinians for Israelis is so widespread that no event can be blamed for what happened. Sharon ‘provoked’ the fragile Palestinian sensibilities. Big […] deal, and now 80 Palestinians are dead because of this provocation charade, which is on a par with such local institutions as honor killing […]”
For those in the Arab world, and elsewhere, who feel that many Western newspapers and networks consistently favour the official Israeli interpretation of events, such discussions come as quite a shock. The Western media may suggest that the Palestinians are somehow responsible for the “violence,” and reinforce this suggestion in many subtle or not-so-subtle ways; anchors and print journalists will speak to 10 Israeli sources and only one Palestinian, or (whether inadvertently or intentionally) dehumanise Palestinians by referring to them only as numbers of dead. It is rare, however, to hear or read the statement that the “stone-throwers” have been placed deliberately in the line of fire by a scheming Arafat. Not so in Internet chat rooms, where participants take full advantage of their right to freedom of expression.
In other forums, participants were more virulent still. The optimistically named CNN Community’s Mideast Peace message-board more closely resembled a dartboard by 20 October, with participants blasting each other’s religion, political views and historical interpretations in a total of over 24,000 posts (brief messages). Here, perhaps, was an illusion of universal access — and the guarantee of anonymity for those who chose it. Perhaps inevitably, there was more mud slinging than chatting; for here was a chance to say what one wanted to, and have it heard by someone other than the members of one’s immediate family. Charlie Gregor, for instance, seemed to be expressing a peculiarly US-centric perspective on the conflict in his post of Friday 20 October:
”[…] Make Israel the 51st state. Heck, we’ve already paid enough for it. Our air force, tank battalions and intelligence services will greatly benefit. We’ll be able to refuel in Haifa and Beersheba. Next time Saddam starts up, we won’t have to travel so far. Not everyone who wants their own country has earned it. Remember the Confederates just a little while back?”
Others, like a certain R C Callaghan, took a broader view:
“The Arabs are exporting violence throughout the world […] Aside from that, Muslims are attacking the Christians in East Timor and fighting in the Philippines (against Christians) and Kashmir (against Hindus), in Iraq against the Kurds and various places against other religions. They bombed the World Trade Center and took that plane down over Lockerbie, Scotland. And everywhere they repress their own women […]”
Discussions continue interminably, revolving around the same points, and ultimately returning to the same bottom lines. On 10 October, one post on the CNN board read as follows:
“It looks like the ugly Arab snakehead has resurfaced attacking Jewish institutions. [T]hey behave the same not as human but as animals. I’ll repeat again and again this is not about land this is about Islamic domination on all human races. Watch out Christians you’re next on the list if you don’t stop the Islamic immigration […]”
Another participant added:
”[…] ISRAEL belongs to the jews, always has and always will. Since biblical times we have had the right to Israel and especially to Jerusalem. No jew in the world would under any circumstances let Jerusalem fall in to the hands of the Arabs […] The reality is, Israel will always be OUR home.”
And these two contributions seemed to sum up that particularly vocal point of view. Then a small voice chimed in:
“If as they say the Palestinians are the terrorists, why am I living in Canada since I was four and half years old, and some Israeli settler is living in my grandfather’s house, in Jerusalem? We are the victims, not Israel and her mass of weaponery [sic] donated by the US.” - Joseph (Palestinian refugee)
That, ultimately is the bottom line, on the Internet and elsewhere: a people have been dispossessed; another people have been compensated, at their expense. No amount of chatting, it seems, can change that fundamental reality. So while the CNN message board and others like it seek to create an atmosphere of relatively free, unfettered discussion among people who otherwise would never have heard each other’s ideas, there is scant evidence that such forums lead to better understanding. On the contrary — perhaps the knowledge that they are in fact risking so little encourages participants to be even more virulent than they would be if they were actually face to face. For after all, they remain anonymous if they choose; they may be whoever they want to be, for exactly as long as they like. Most of these discussions could illustrate the phrase “preaching to the converted;” if anything, stances harden as the debate develops, and slurs fly far more freely.
Even then, however, these conversations are not entirely free; in the CNN case, a “moderator” censors the more extreme contributions. One post calling for the elimination of Islam and the mass slaughter of all Muslims was hastily expurgated from the message board, for instance, although approving responses from other participants were not.
The Internet, therefore, while giving voice to some of the voiceless, is not as transparent as one could assume. Nor is it as impersonal as your average garden-variety aspiring political pundit may believe. It is, ultimately, neither more nor less than the people who run, contribute to, and monitor it. Its main advantage, for activists such as those involved in the advocacy of Palestinian rights, is that it gives them access to a potential audience of thousands, in return for a very limited outlay of resources. Only the dedication of a few individuals is required; El-Fassed estimates that “combined actions of Hanthala and Al-Awda have a minimum outreach of 150,000 — that is, if no e-mails are forwarded. If everyone who receives one e-mail forwards it to only one other person, the outreach is doubled.”
As Parry notes, the potential of the Internet is enormous “only because the reality is that just a handful of the 700 or so foreign correspondents registered in the country at any one time actually live outside of Israeli-controlled areas.” And, as Addameer’s Hanan Elmasu explained in an interview with the Weekly (conducted by e-mail, of course): “So much is left unsaid, so much is left unreported. And if it is not reported, who’s to say that it happened?”
Thanks to the Internet, people on the ground can send out video material that the networks will never see, reaching thousands of people in a matter of minutes; hundreds of signatures can be collected in a matter of days (the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation reports that so far 81,500 people have signed its petition, available online, supporting the Palestinian right of return).
And no doubt this form of activism — the electronic equivalent of door-to-door campaigning, but with a far greater scope — will ultimately benefit the Palestinian cause, by literally bringing it home to an audience that has managed to ignore it, against all the odds, until now. But will it change anyone’s mind? That remains to be seen, especially since the Internet Intifada, too, is held hostage to developments outside the ideal world of cyberspace. On 20 October, Hanthala mailing list subscribers received the following message:
The September 2000 Clashes Information Center website was down this evening […] The server is near Jerusalem, which is currently blocked off by Israeli military checkpoints. The site is now up but may go down again, as we have received recent threats. […] In the event that the server does go down again, we will continue to offer regular updates through our contacts abroad.
Addameer’s site can be found at: