As Uneasy ‘cease-fire’ Descends, the Battle Still Rages in Cyberspace

The intifada may have cooled somewhat since the recent Israeli-Palestinian cease- fire, but Palestinian activists are struggling as hard as ever to make political gains on the Internet.

That’s where Arjan Fassed and three of his friends have joined forces to create the Electronic Intifada Web site — www.electronicintifada.net — with the goal of showing that Israel is violating “international law and international human rights.”

“We are not a part of the intifada,” Fassed told JTA. “Intifada means ‘shaking off’ in Arabic. We are simply trying to shake off some of the anti-Palestinian bias in the world media.”

Fassed may not be firing machine guns or throwing stones, but his computer is on the new frontline of the century- old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are no bullets, no explosives and no noise, but the Internet has become an extension of the war of attrition between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hackers regularly sabotage enemy Web sites.

Massive e-mail campaigns urge friends and contacts to send petitions, contact government officials or complain to media outlets. Mobilizing thousands of people to vote for or against politicized photographs as Picture of the Year seems as important as any military gain on the battlefield.

Uri Noy, director of the information and Internet division at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA that there are scores of sites like Electronic Intifada, all focused on blackening Israel’s name around the world.

“The propaganda war is everywhere, but in the Internet it is so much easier to wage,” Noy said. “One can build a Web site in a matter of minutes. You don’t need to identify yourself, you carry no responsibility and it involves a small expense.”

Facing that front is no different than facing other hostile media, Noy said. It demands a continuous effort — often Sisyphean, sometimes rewarding.

Six months ago, Israeli scientists met at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba for a special seminar on cyber- terrorism.

Cyber-terrorism, organizers said, is no longer the domain of teen-aged hackers whose crowning achievement is denying someone access to a particular server.

“It’s a phenomenon that can affect the course of a conflict and the minds of the public,” said Prof. Dov Shinar, head of the university’s Hubert Burda Center for Innovative Communication, which organized the seminar.

Hackers regularly target the Web site of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, www.mfa.gov.il, even paralyzing it for a few days last October. Since then, however, the cyber-terrorists have been less successful.

“We have matured since,” Noy told JTA.

True, Web sites like Electronic Intifada are not cyber-terrorism; cyber-propaganda is a more appropriate term. They may contribute to a better understanding of the Palestinian cause — though their material is too biased to be of much use to mainstream publications — but they are unlikely to contribute to better understanding between Palestinians and Israelis.

Fassed is Electronic Intifada’s equivalent of a military correspondent. This month he reported from his residence at Dahiyat al-Barid, a Palestinian suburb in north Jerusalem.

Unlike other battlefield correspondents whose profession demands objectivity, Fassed’s reports clearly take the side of “his” army.

Not a word of criticism is offered about Palestinian terrorist attacks against civilians inside Israel proper. He expends no keystrokes to describe the almost daily shooting attacks against Israelis or the murder of settlers — as if Palestinian violence is somehow legitimate.

“There are two sides to every story,” Electronic Intifada proclaims, going on to challenge each of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s answers to 16 Frequently Asked Questions.

Like other Palestinian sites, Electronic Intifada is rich with quotes of international resolutions and conventions — carefully culled to bolster the Palestinians’ self-image as victims of a historic injustice not at all of their own making.

Although the Web writers claim total objectivity — “all our information is well-sourced,” they proclaim — only information that shows Israel as wrong and the Palestinians as right is used.

Electronic Intifada was founded last October by four activists associated with Bir Zeit University, the hotbed of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank. The key figure was Nigel Parry, a Scottish citizen who worked as Bir Zeit’s webmaster and previously built other anti-Israel Web sites.

One debuted in September 1996, after Israel opened a new exit to an archaeological tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem. Siezing on the development, the Palestinian Authority claimed Israel was seeking to collapse the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, sparking days of gunfights in which 15 Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed.

For Parry, the violence was an opportunity to launch “the first-ever Web site in which local residents of an active war zone” told their stories, providing daily reports during the violence.

Fassed and his friends are convinced that the world media is biased toward Israel, and it is their mission to put things in order.

“The Electronic Intifada Web site aims to enable a growing, worldwide network of human rights and media activists to challenge myth, spin, and distortion about Palestinians and Palestinian rights disseminated by Israel’s official spokespersons and allied pro-Israeli organizations in North America and Europe” a press release on the site says.

To make that point, however, Electronic Intifada staff must ignore what many see as the “good” press the Palestinians enjoyed until this month, when a suicide bomber killed 21 Israeli youths outside a Tel Aviv disco and Israel chose not to respond — temporarily tipping the scales in the battle for world opinion.

The Palestinian activists point to the favorable press Israel received after last summer’s Camp David summit and subsequent negotiations.

They appear unable to understand why then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak emerged from the negotiations as the “good guy,” while the Palestinians — who rejected Barak’s offer to dismantle most Israeli settlements end the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — still see themselves as an occupied people.

To prove their point that “there are two sides to every story,” the Electronic Intifada cites the recent killing of five Palestinian policemen near Ramallah, in what the Israeli army ultimately admitted was a case of mistaken identity.

“The media waited for five days with its reports until the Israelis admitted that the policemen were killed by mistake,” Fassed claimed — though in fact the killings were reported immediately around the world. “It is not a war between two equal partners.”

Perhaps the only common ground between Fassed and Noy is the belief that “there are two sides to every story.”

There are also cases in which journalists make mistakes that could hurt the public image of either side in the conflict.

As an example, Noy cites a photograph that ran in The New York Times, Boston Globe and other papers shortly after Palestinian violence began last September. According to the caption, the photo showed a Palestinian youth bludgeoned by an Israeli policeman, who was rushing again toward the bleeding young man with his baton raised.

While the photograph was shocking, it depicted something far different from that indicated by the original caption. What it really showed was a Jewish yeshiva student from Chicago who had been beaten up by Palestinians and was being rescued by the policeman.

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