Mideast Unrest Fuels Search for Info on Web

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories has given a boost to Internet sites that offer not only the region’s news but also its wide range of views.

The awful slide into violence in the Middle East since the failure of peace talks nearly two years ago keeps spilling forth dramatic stories and pictures of death and destruction.

The rise in traffic on Web sites that follow the events in the region suggests that there is a big appetite for the objective coverage of the major news organizations, and also for opinions and news slanted toward one side or the other.

Bitterlemons.org (http://bitterlemons.org), a Web site devoted to keeping the channels of communication open between Israelis and Palestinians even as bloodshed escalates, has seen its popularity soar, the worse the fighting gets.

“We got the highest daily rate of new subscribers in April when Israel launched its first major offensive to reoccupy the West Bank,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli who founded the site with Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian who is serving in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s government.

Given an ultra-hot-button issue like the Israeli and Palestinian future, it’s easy to visit a search engine like Google (http://www.google.com) and, with a few imaginative keywords, find a Web site that gives you a glimpse of the anger, the intransigence and the danger gripping the region.

Indeed, many sites on the Internet present extreme, unmediated hatred on both ends of the spectrum.

Nonetheless, Web surfers have come to expect the Internet to deliver more explicit opinions than are found in traditional media, and that is true of some of the more moderate sites.

“The Internet is the voice of the unheard on both ends, whether on the Israeli end or the Palestinian end,” said an Egyptian man who works in diplomatic circles in Europe and who declined to be identified further.

He says the Internet is the ideal medium to become deeply informed about the Middle East, if you can avoid hate.

“If you are serious, you should read anything and everything. This way you can build a better global picture,” he said.

Electronic Intifada (http://electronicIntifada.net), a Web site popular in the Arab world, posts news articles from many traditional sources as well as almost daily opinion pieces aimed at more carefully presenting the Palestinian perspective.

Palestinian Chronicle (http://www.palestinechronicle.com/) is another pro-Palestinian Web site with a fair number of original news stories and links to various Palestinian causes.

On the other side of the current divide, Diane Shalem, one of the editors of Debka.com (http://www.debka.com), an Israeli site specializing in geopolitical security and intelligence issues, told Reuters: “We mix reporting with analysis because we feel it’s right for the Internet. People want to know not just the facts, but they want to have a feeling that whoever is writing has a point of view.
“We don’t conceal our Israeli background, but we do cover many other things. And we have readers from all over the world,” she said.

“Scoops are very important,” They are the anchor,” Shalem said.
Hush-hush sourcing is the nature of the cloak-and-dagger intelligence business, even for journalists, according to Shalem. But it does beg the question: Do Debka’s “military” and “intelligence” sources consistently deliver the goods?

Whatever the answer is, interest in the site is increasing as conflict flares in the region and anxiety related to Osama bin Laden, the U.S. war on terrorism and the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Iraq grows around the world.

“There was a big spurt in subscriptions after September 11 for sure. But it started growing before that,” said Shalem.

It’s the same story of improving hits for all sorts of Web sites like http://memri.org or http://amin.org that post articles and opinion pieces on Middle Eastern politics.

For Yossi Alpher, it’s a bittersweet state of affairs. Subscriptions are up at bitterlemons.com, but peace is now a long way off.

He feels the leaders who could make a difference, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and President Bush, all lack realistic plans for peace.

So Alpher and his colleague, Ghassan Khatib, will plug away at bitterlemons.com, choosing new topics and posting four opinions on them each week — two Palestinian and two Arab — until leaders change, peace gets back on track and, hopefully, long after that too, Alpher said.

“In some ways the worse things get the more people turn to sites like ours,” Alpher said.