They may e relative latecomers to the world of cyberspace, but Israeli political organizations are making up for lost time.
Since June 1994, when the Internet became available to any Israeli with a computer, a modern and $30 to spare each month, local grass-roots organizations and political parties have used the Net to disseminate information and raise funds overseas.
Today, groups from every shade of the Israeli political spectrum share their view via computer.
Both right-and left-wing Israeli organizations and parties – as well as a variety of Palestinian groups – now send newsletters, news releases and loads of newspaper “clippings” via the Internet.
“We got on-line about a month ago, and we’re already reaching many more people than we reached by faxing,” said Sharon Katz, an organizer of the settlers group Shomrei Efrat. “And it’s lot cheaper, especially when we want to reach supporters in places like England and Australia.”
Although the Internet, with an estimated 40 million subscribers worldwide, is old news in many countries, it is still a novelty in Israel.
Until last year, only people associated with the government or a university could gain entry to the system – officially, at least.
Once the government approved the system for private and commercial use, subscribers signed up with a vengeance.
Jacob Richman, a Jerusalem-based Internet expert, estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Israelis subscribe to the Net.
He said that “while that number isn’t large, the monthly growth rate of subscribers is about 15 percent a month, compared with the U.S. growth rate of 7 percent a month.”
Like their counterparts abroad, “various Israeli organizations are using the Internet to advance their political agendas,” Richman said.
He notes that the opposition Likud Party, the Yesha Council representing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Mapam, a faction of the left-wing Meretz Party, all use the Net.
“Palestinians living overseas are active on the Net, but local Palestinians have been slower to sign on,” he said.
The Internet’s popularity among Israelis is no coincidence, Richman believes.
“Internet is a fast and cheap means of mass communication. It enables Israelis to reach a large audience – to distribute their materials and goods to people worldwide, even in Arab countries,” Richman said.
One of the Net’s most popular features, particularly among Israelis, is the system’s electronic “bulletin boards.”
Just as an office bulletin board is filled with postings from a variety of people, these electronic files allow subscribes from anywhere in the world to “post” their views and to respond to the opinions of others.
“What’s special about the boards,” said Richman, “is the way in which people from very different backgrounds – people who would never sit together in the same room – share information.”
Sitting at his computer, he calls up a bulletin board titled “soc culture palestine.”
Like a call-in talk show, the file enables participants to say what’s on their mind – in this case to air their views on terrorism.
Someone started the discussion by asserting: “The Hamas and Islamic Jihad are violent for no reason.”
A respondent, who identifies himself as an American Christian, retorts, “Yeah, right! I would say almost 50 years of occupation, persecution, injustice and murder is reason enough to retaliate.”
Scanning several bulletin boards, Richman said, “You’ll find people from different political factions – from Hamas, the PLO, Peace Now, Kahane Chai – sharing and pushing their own points of view. The can freely exchange viewpoints without the fear of physical violence.”
Although anyone can gain access to the Internet, the most visible users appear to be right-wing organizations.
“There are definitely more right-wing nets than left-wing nets,” said Peace Now spokesman Danny Miodownik.
“I can’t say why with certainty, but personal motivation, demand for information from supporters abroad and funding considerations may all be playing a role.”
Peace Now, which hopes to be on-line by the end of august, plans to create an electronic clearinghouse for pro-peace activities, Miodownik said.
“Americans for Peace Now is already on the Net, and we will join forces by translating pro-peace articles published in the Hebrew press,” he said.
Asked why Peace Now has waited this long to join the Net, Miodownik cites the language barrier.
“Right now, the Internet uses only Latin characters, so it’s not practical for non-English speakers. I think most political parties are waiting to see whether the Internet will eventually work in Hebrew.”
From a Palestinian perspective, the language problem is just one of the Internet’s inherent flaws.
A bigger problem is the fact messages originating from Israel usually have the abbreviation for Israel – “ill” – attached to the mailing address, something many Palestinians cannot stomach.
Khader Abusway, research coordinator for the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, said, “Palestinians can’t have Internet access unless they subscribe through an Israeli provider, all of whom use Israel as their address.”
Realizing that the word “Israel” is still taboo in many settings, at least some of the country’s five main Internet providers have begun issuing addresses without the “il” designation.
“If a customer requests another kind of address, we do our best to accommodate,” said Gil Ben-Nun, general manager of the Internet provider Dataserve. “It’s not a special service, anyone can request it.”
Abusway said ignorance has also kept local Palestinians off the Net.
“Palestinian institutions don’t have the high-tech knowledge or equipment to run Internet,” he said. “Many don’t even know something like this exists.”
In reality, a small number of grass-roots Palestinian organizations are already on the Net, with many others following suit. The number of subscribers is sure to increase dramatically if and when a Palestinian service provider opens up shop.
In their quest to gain supporters, both Palestinians and Israelis see the Net as a giant PR machine.
Abusway said his group sends out a daily survey of articles from the Arabic media.
“Without the country, we fax copies to the international media. We have a separate Internet account to send things abroad,” he added.
Nadia Matar, co-chairwoman of the Women for Israel’s Tomorrow, also is a Net User. Her group, known as the Women in Green, has staged dozens of demonstrations opposing territorial compromise.
“We send a lot of press releases and other materials on the Net, and we’ve had a good response,” she said.
“Many people around the world don’t know what’s going on here, so we update the public by sending out articles and information about our activities,” she added. “Many of the articles we’ve sent out have appeared in Christian newspapers.”
Sharon Katz of the settlers group Shomrei Efrat said that for all it advantages, the Internet has not helped the group with fund raising.
“When we sent out envelopes, people send us checks; when we use the e-mail, we get a lot of messages saying. `We love you, keep up the good work’ – but no checks.”