When Israeli authorities declared Ramallah a closed military zone early this week, the army decreed that the media would also be banned from the city. What they failed to recognize is that the media is no longer limited to those with press passes. In the age of the internet, anyone can become a journalist.
On April 1, a man who signed his name as Ashraf sat down at his computer and began to write his own version of history.
“The worst thing is that so many people are living without electricity or water,” he wrote. “And the food is finishing. Some people are injured, and some are just ill and need to get to the hospital to get treatment. But the Israelis don’t let anyone through to help anyone.”
More surprising than Ashraf’s decision to write about the siege is the number of those across the world who would later read it. In the last days of March, The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), began publishing first-hand accounts of the siege in Ramallah written by verifiable citizens and witnesses.
Since then, Live From Palestine - a citizens’ diary project recording events (found on The Electronic Intifada website) - has been transformed into a literary force. Updated daily, the site contains on-the-ground accounts of the siege written by doctors, aid workers, human rights activists, and anyone else who has managed to get access to the internet despite repeated power cuts and curfews.
Intended as a news source, the site has slowly been transforming into a work of art, a human testimony of collective grief and a will to survive.
“We cannot hope to understand what is going on without access to alternative information sources,” insists Nigel Parry, one of the Electronic Intifada’s founders in a letter posted on-line. “This latest project represents the closing of a gap between our experience on the ground and the different experience suggested by the media coverage we critique.”
“With Israel’s current attempts to remove the witnesses from the scene of the crime, initiatives like this will become increasingly important.” Founded by media activists Ali Abunimah, Arjan al-Fassed, Laurie King-Irani, and Nigel Parry, The Electronic Intifada was originally created as a means of combating bias in Western media sources and providing a Palestinian point of view.
“The four founders of the Electronic Intifada were all motivated by the same thing, the lack of a clear articulation of the Palestinian side of the conflict, and the structural bias of a media that made no real effort to see a Palestinian side of the conflict,” Parry told The Daily Star via e-mail.
Live From Palestine has taken their mission a step forward, urging Palestinian citizens trapped in Ramallah not just to lobby the media, but to essentially become the media. The result is a series of diaries that succeeds in deconstructing headlines and redefining them within a human context, reinforcing the fact that the current siege has transformed into an attack not only on militants, but on a civilian population.
While the headlines this past week have understandably focused on the plight of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as well as the gun battles raging in Bethlehem, the testimonies on Live From Palestine reveal a markedly different side of the conflict. In the last days of March, horrified residents living near Arafat’s compound began logging in reports on their feelings of violation as homes were raided by Israeli forces.
“I heard a crashing noise. I ran to the house and found my husband on the floor with three guns pointed at him,” wrote Palestinian-American Maha Sbitani from Ramallah on March 29. “I screamed at the commanding officer that came and pushed them away. They were everywhere and doing what they wanted, including urinating on the floor.”
Soon accounts of Israeli pornography being aired on local television stations appeared. These were later verified by the media.
By the beginning of April, the accounts intensified, and were joined by a chorus of protests and calls for action from Palestinian activists around the globe. On April 2, Tzaporah Ryter wrote from Ramallah about women carrying their children and desperately trying to flee from the city, and about ordinary citizens panicking and trying to buy bread.
So detailed were her observations that they could easily have been from chapters in a novel. Sadly, it was a crash collision between literary talent and the horrors of real life.
By April 3, the accounts become chaotic and chilling. Arjan al-Fassed, one of the founders of the website who lives in the Occupied Territories, begins to send increasingly desperate accounts.
Andrea Becker, the refugee coordinator at Oxfam Quebec, continuously writes in with horrifying details of the barrage of phone calls their center is receiving, from pregnant women needing to deliver, families needing food, water, medicine.
A nineteen-year-old named Malek calls repeatedly, stuck in a restaurant by Israeli snipers. Scared and isolated, he finally leaves the restaurant and the phone, and is killed outside.
Diaries and eyewitness accounts, from Anne Frank’s to Elie Wiesel’s, have long been the way that we understand history. In the end, Live From Palestine does not read all that differently from a novel of fragments, each of the different voices coming together to make sense of a collective tragedy.
The site is different, though, in large part because of its remarkable immediacy. It is art in progress, history in the making, a document not discovered in an attic but available simultaneously as the events themselves occur. It is not literature - it is a plea for help.
On April 3, Fassed wrote about being tear-gassed at a demonstration trying to reach the Kalandia checkpoint. Later, he logged in again to write about children trapped in their home.
“The children, who lost their mom, 64-year-old Sumaya and her son Khaled yesterday, are still in the bathroom of their home in the old city of Bethlehem,” he wrote. “The bodies have still not been evacuated.”