Intifada spurs Palestine internet boom

The internet, with its ability to transcend borders, distance and government censorship, has become the preferred medium of information exchange for local Palestinians and foreign activists alike.

One of the indirect results of the ongoing Israeli occupation has been an increase in internet connectivity and interest in computer ownership throughout Palestine. 
“A political situation that is most deplored is most celebrated by the IT industry in Palestine,” said Sabri Saidam, head of the Palestine chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC).

Internet usage in Palestine has risen from 2% to 8% since 1999 - an increase that may be nominal by regional standards, says Saidam, but remarkable given the current situation.  

“If you compare this figure to neighbouring countries, an increase of 2% annually is reasonable. But if you keep in mind that you are comparing the statistics of countries that are stable, have their own system and their own control of borders, transport, and access with a country that is suffering terrible socio-economic conditions and political instability, then 8% is something to celebrate.” 

In real terms, this means the figure of 50,000 internet users in 1999 has now grown to 200,000.

Nearly 80% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip live under the poverty line, surviving on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. Nevertheless, the internet is booming like never before.  

“You’re talking about a society with no food but great interest in the internet,” said Saidam.

Overcoming barriers

Constant closure of towns and villages imposed by the Israeli military has forced ordinary Palestinians to find alternative solutions to overcome the problems of physical separation.

Many, especially university students unable to attend classes, have resorted to cyberspace to exchange information with their tutors. 

The internet has also been serving as a venue for electronic activism since the start of the current Intifada, or uprising for statehood, in late 2000.

Israeli tanks roll into Jenin’s refugee campIncursions in areas such as Jenin and Rafah - areas which were subsequently closed off to the outside world, including the media, for long periods of time- have prompted many activists, both inside and outside of Palestine, to do their own online reporting to make sure the message gets out.

“Had it not been for the Intifada, not so many Palestinians living inside would be interested in sending out information and pictures about what’s going on… and Palestinians in the Diaspora would not have had such interest in receiving such information and being active themselves,” said Saidam.

Notable among the online activist initiatives is the site known as “the Electronic Intifada” (EI), an online news portal about the Palestinian experience in the Intifada. The site has been credited with bringing increased prominence and visibility to the Palestinian cause in the media in recent years.

EI provides a professional forum to freely articulate the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” co-founder Nigel Parry said.

The site receives up to 50,000 unique visitors a week, a count that increases in times of heightened conflict, according to Parry. 
The site saw more than 600,000 unique visitors during the month of the Jenin Massacre, for example, when Israelis completely closed off the city for two weeks and invaded the camp away from the scrutiny of the media.

“People are certainly relying more on the Internet as a communications network during this Intifada. For us, we have been able to expose Israel’s excuses for its occupation and violence at key moments, which has resulted in some attacks in major Israeli and international media, which suggests we’ve been somewhat effective in rattling Sharon’s cage.”

But Parry hopes EI can have an even more dramatic impact.

“We believe that information can save Palestinian lives. In the last year especially, more and more people around the world have realised that the status quo in Palestine cannot be allowed to continue, and that Israel is more interested in land than peace.”

Personal testimony

Many local Palestinians, such as Muhammad Mughayir, rely on websites they have set up as part of an individual effort to display otherwise unseen pictures and personal testimony from his home in the Rafah refugee camp.

Mughayer’s brother was killed while sitting at home in the October raid of the camp.

He could have been treated as another nameless statistic by a jaded press, but the website gives Mughayir the opportunity to share his family’s tragedy with the world.

“I send out daily accounts of what’s going on here, and I have friends, journalists and groups who distribute and forward this.”  Mughayir has had more than 28,000 visitors since he initiated his site over a year ago. 

Others, like Mark, who writes under the nomme de plume “Rafahkid”, has set up a blog site or online diary of sorts, where he posts everything and anything to do with Rafah, including links to articles, accounts from residents like Mughayir, and pictures. Mark was a former ISM activist stationed in Rafah and plans on returning to the region soon.

“It’s a place for me to voice my frustration with the conflict and the government,” said Mark.

“It makes me feel I am playing a part. The main satisfaction I have had from people is when they have sent me stories, pictures, and accounts that no one else seemed interested in and I have posted them on the internet for the world to see”.

Online refugees

Palestinian refugee camps, known more for their squalor and poverty than for having internet savvy residents, have also seen a particular peak in online interest.

Internet cafes have opened everywhere from Rafah to Jabaliya.

Internet lease lines are bought from Palestinian ISPs and re-sold to several households in the camp, using the same bandwidth and server, according to the head of one local ISP. The households then open makeshift internet cafes, where they rent out their line at a rate of two new Israeli shekels per hour ($0.45). 

While internet providers complain that the system is being abused in this manner, they laud the resulting increase in internet connectivity nonetheless. 

In hopes of capitalising on this potential, Bir Zeit University launched a project known as “Across Borders”, which aims to bring internet technology, skills, and knowledge into Palestinian refugee camps and to facilitate the connection of refugees with each other. 

In essence, the internet has enabled the refugees to reach thousands of fellow Palestinian refugees and peoples interested in their plight, despite their inability to travel.

The internet can communicate the reality of occupationSo far, several computer and internet centres have been established in camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Numerous bilingual camp websites have been created, and include on-line testimony by refugees themselves. 

“We created this as an opportunity for people to express themselves and their reality on the internet… to let them get their message to the outside world,” said Raid Muhammad, coordinator of the program in the Nuseirat Refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.

Children and women make up more than 75% of the project’s participants. 

“In all honesty, the first time I ever used the internet was through the Across Borders initiative,” said 25-year-old Wala Abu Sharif, resident of the Nuseirat camp. 

“I have been able to communicate with other Palestinians in different refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank. I tell them about how life in Gaza is, because they have never been here. I hope one day we can all meet in person.”