Millennial Middle East: Changing Orders, Shifting Borders
(Middle East Report #213, Winter 1999)
The WWW in Palestine
An Informational and Organizing Tool
Traditional forms of media divide those who make the news from those who present it. Large corporations and states monopolize and shape the media, delivering information in ways that serve their own interests, rather than as objective reporting on events. The pretence of the mainstream media's objectivity belies its very bias.
Since the Oslo accords of 1993, local media in Palestine have depicted the political situation as a battle between those for or against "peace." Since the nature of this peace is never interrogated, a false dichotomy has constrained the limits of officially sanctioned debate and discussion. Consequently, anyone outside of Palestine is likely to form a distorted view of recent events. Those inside Palestine are disturbed by the ever-widening gap between their lived reality and the images presented by the mainstream media. Voices expressing most Palestinians' views are seldom heard in the mainstream media. In the words of Edward Said, mainstream media have refused Palestinians "permission to narrate."
Although alternative sources of information do exist, they tend to reach only those with the will, patience or good fortune to find them. Alternative media have always been hindered by financial problems and insufficient means of dissemination.
The advent of the Internet is gradually improving the frustrating media situation in Palestine. Its impact is evident in the experiences of Birzeit University students. Located near the West Bank town of Ramallah, Birzeit University (BZU) launched its website in 1994,(1) one of the first Palestinian institutions in the West Bank and Gaza to do so. At critical points in the last few years, BZU's website has provided important sources of alternative information compared to traditional media sources. The WWW has introduced a new dynamic into the relationship between those who receive information and those who produce it: The WWW serves as both an informational and an organizational tool.
More Than Words
The web encourages a multimedia presentation of news stories. This allows not only for a livelier format, but also gives media workers a wide array of choices for conveying information in the most compelling and comprehensive manner. It is easy and virtually free to broadcast video and audio over the web. Multi-media formats provide a more immediate and fine-grained view of evolving realities and help break the domination of mainstream media by choosing which images of Palestine are presented, and how.
A good illustration of the Web's power and reach was the "On the Ground in Ramallah" website created by BZU staff during the violent September 1996 clashes.(2) Images of Israeli army helicopters hovering threateningly over Ramallah and compelling eyewitness reports provided powerful, daily counterpoints to the international media's version of events. In the two weeks between September 27 and October 12, 1996, the "On the Ground in Ramallah" site received more than 3,000 "hits" (individual visits). Compared to the current 40,000 hits per month on the BZU website, this may seem unimpressive, but given the infancy of the WWW in Palestine three years ago, it was a significant number.
The 1996 experience has since been replicated and enhanced. News on BZU's website includes pictures and occasionally sound and video, too. During last year's coverage of the Gaza Students Action Campaign,(3) the BZU website featured video footage of demonstrations, audio interviews with Gazan students (in Arabic and English), as well as photographs of various campaign events. A separate website was established especially for the campaign, the first and only campaign website based in Palestine.(4)
BZU also launched a popular online radio station in October 1998: BZU OutLoud,(5) which anyone with a computer can access. Around 700 people listen to each show via the WWW (with listeners to the Arabic show equal in number to those of the English show). Not only does this provide a powerful connection between Palestinians outside and those still in the homeland, but it also allows people to hear things they never would in mainstream media reporting on Palestine. Several local radio stations in the West Bank are now considering going online, and the Palestinian Legislative Council is developing its own website and planning to include Real Audio broadcasts of events and interviews with council members.
News by Newsmakers
The WWW allows us to respond to events quickly and to achieve wide distribution. In December 1998, BZU students called a hunger strike in solidarity with political prisoners. During the strike, BZU's Webteam videotaped student leaders from all political blocs in both English and Arabic and featured these interviews on the website along with daily news stories about the strike.(6) We could have done a conventional story for a journal or newsletter, appearing a month after the end of the event. We could have contacted CNN, hoping that they might take time or divert attention and personnel from President Clinton's Gaza visit to come to Birzeit. Instead, we reached thousands of people throughout the world daily, virtually for free. This is an example of how the Internet lets Palestinians speak for themselves in their own voice without mediation or distortion from outside bodies or interests. Those involved in newsworthy events can choose what to present, rather than passively allowing others (who may have very different objectives) to represent and reinterpret developments in Palestine.
The Internet also alters the traditional relationship between the audience and speaker(s). The hunger strike demonstrated this trend powerfully. We received hundreds of emails during the strike, which had a great impact on students. At the end of each day, students eagerly asked for new emails, which they read and translated each night while sitting around a fire. Heated debates often followed about emails and topics such as religion, support from Israelis and the role of the Palestinian Authority. By the third day, the students decided to reply to everyone who had sent messages of support. They sat down together and drafted a letter that was posted on the website.(7) It was a very moving and thoughtful response, which also solicited replies from readers worldwide. This established a valuable dialogue that would not have been possible through conventional means. Indeed, several students began a regular email correspondence with people who had first contacted them during the strike. This example demonstrates the many-to-many nature of Internet communication and its immense political potential in comparison to the traditional one-to-many nature of traditional media.
Another compelling example of the Internet's many-to-many political and cultural potential was a series of interviews conducted by Rosemary Sayigh and Ghena Ismail with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The interviews, recorded on normal cassettes, were based on questions sent by the BZU webteam. The answers were then sent back and broadcast on Birzeit Outloud(8). Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank listened to their counterparts in Lebanon, and were asked the same questions, which were broadcast in turn on the radio station, creating a dialogue between people separated for half a century.
The Internet also provides considerable information not available elsewhere. This includes not only news about Palestine difficult to access in the West, but also information unavailable internally. On more than one occasion, local media neglected to report on key events occurring in Palestine. These events were reported on the Internet, such as a 1998 hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Jneid prison under the Palestinian Authority.
An Organizing Tool
The Internet can play a powerful organizing as well as informational role; indeed the two roles are closely linked. Discussion groups that debate issues in an open, democratic and immediate way are an excellent example. Any post can immediately reach hundreds of people with an equal right to reply. The best recent example of the organizational potential of these discussion groups was the 1999 campaign against the Burger King franchise in the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. The campaign began through discussions on Freedom List(9) (a discussion list run from Jerusalem), and drew in thousands of individuals and organizations in a way that would have been difficult using traditional organizing methods. The WWW's organizational capacity is particularly important in Palestine, where solidarity networks are currently very weak. Rebuilding networks between people at the grassroots level is crucial for progressive politics, and the Internet can play a key role in this process.
The Internet's organizing potential was a driving force behind the Across Borders Project(10) launched by BZU's Information Technology Unit this year. The project aims to establish Internet centers in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East and to encourage refugees to build websites describing their lives in the camps and thereby sharing their experiences and hopes for the future with each other and with the wider world. A key objective of the project is to rebuild and strengthen links between different, widely separated refugee communities. The first center was launched in July 1999 in Dheisheh Refugee Camp(11) and a second center is currently underway in the Gaza Strip. Centers are also in progress in camps in Lebanon.
Hypermedia: Deep Information
The Internet is based on hypermedia: Information is presented in a dynamic, multi-layered fashion rather than as a static and isolated page of text. Hyperlinks on the WWW enable people to jump between topics, concepts and sites with ease. The Internet allows users to explore, define and shape concepts in a much more immediate and effective way than through conventional forms of information exchange. For example, an expository article on Palestine might include embedded links to relevant political agreements, background information, photographs, maps and explanatory diagrams. In traditional text-based media, readers usually need to go away'physically, to a library'to find key references that help them understand or verify the original source. Interspersing text with links to background or secondary information increases the text's depth. If this article were on the WWW, all of the examples could be linked and immediately accessed by the reader, rendering the main points and the connections between different concepts that much clearer.
Barriers to Internet Expansion in Palestine
It is certainly not this author's aim to present the WWW as a magic solution to all the problems facing Palestinians today. Internet access in Palestine is limited, and linguistic and cultural barriers can be formidable.
A recently published survey conducted by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics(12) reveals the extent and nature of Internet access in Palestine. Only 6.9 percent of households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have a computer. The total number of household computers in Palestine is 33,867, and most are concentrated in the West Bank (29,038 in the West Bank as opposed to 4,829 in the Gaza Strip). Of these, 24,723 are located in urban areas. Refugee camps have the lowest number, just 2,554.
Major Palestinian population centers enjoy fairly dense Internet service provision (ISPs). Ten ISPs cover major population centers: Jerusalem (6), Ramallah (4), Bethlehem (4), Hebron (2), Tulkarem (1), Qalqilya (1), Jenin (1), Nablus (2) and Gaza (3).
Costs for Internet access through an ISP range from US$10-25 per month for dial-up access and $200-400 for a permanent connection. It should be remembered that the average Palestinian wage is just over US$300 each month.(13)
Currently, Palestinians cannot directly access the Internet "backbone." All Palestinian ISPs must go through an Israeli service provider. Internet bandwidth ranges from 128 K to 768 K. Palestinian ISPs have an estimated 8000 clients, representing individual, institutional and corporate customers. The actual number of Palestinians who use the Internet is much higher, however. All universities have Internet access, as do several high schools. Palestine has recently witnessed a proliferation of Internet cafes at reasonable prices (the number in the West Bank town of Ramallah grew from one in early 1998 to eight by mid-1999). These cafes are crowded at all hours of the day and night.
According to figures gathered by the BZU Web Team,(14) the number of websites located in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem grew from 9 in early 1996 to 228 in September 1999. Many Palestinian organizations use the web in an impressive manner and have expanded their cyber-presence over the last 12 months. BADIL http://www.badil.org, LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment http://www.lawsociety.org; The Palestinian Human Rights Center http://www.phrc.org; the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group http://www.phrmg.org and MIFTAH http://www.miftah.org, all disseminate regular press releases by email and simultaneously post them on the WWW. Many reports and publications of these organizations are also online.
It is now possible to find virtually all important statistics, documents and maps on Palestinian websites located within the country'something unimaginable just a year ago. Important to mention here are: The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics http://www.pcbs.org and the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies http://www.cprs.org for census and statistical information; SHAML http://www.shaml.org and BADIL http://www.badil.org for refugee information; PASSIA http://www.passia.org, ARIJ http://www.arij.org and the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute http://hdip.org for maps; ARIJ and the Ma'an Development Center http://www.maan-crt.org for environmental issues; JMCC http://www.jmcc.org and the Jerusalem Quarterly File http://jqf-jerusalem.org for analyses; and the websites mentioned early for human rights information.
The WWW affords crucial access to alternative information not found in the mainstream media. It has also engendered a qualitative shift in the nature of that information. The WWW is not a panacea for all problems related to media control and access; at this stage its true potential is as yet unknown and its role remains contested. Those concerned with Palestine or progressive struggles at large must work together to shape the WWW's role, capacity and powers.
Experience over the last three years has shown that Palestinians have an enthusiastic appreciation of the WWW's potential. Yet we must not forget the nature and extent of the barriers preventing its further expansion. These barriers'mainly related to repression and poverty resulting from Israel's continuing occupation of Palestine'will only be overcome through collective action by Palestinians living in the region in solidarity with those outside. The WWW can be a key tool in motivating and organizing such collective action.
1 Birzeit University's website is located at http://www.birzeit.edu. For more detailed discussion of the history of the WWW in Palestine and Birzeit University, see the articles at http://www.birzeit.edu/web particularly those by BZU's former webmaster, Nigel Parry.
2 The "On the Ground in Ramallah" website is located at http://www.birzeit.edu/palnews/war. Also see the website established in September 1997 as a memorial to those who died in the clashes at http://www.birzeit.edu/martyrs/september96
3 See the Birzeit News stories from August and September 1998 at http://www.birzeit.edu/bzunews
4 See the "Academic Freedom First Campaign" at http://www.birzeit.edu/aff
5 Located at http://www.birzeit.edu/outloud
6 See the Birzeit News stories of December 1998 at http://www.birzeit.edu/bzunews
8 See the June 5 show at http://www.birzeit.edu/outloud/archive.html
9 See the Freedom Website at http://www.alquds.net/freedom/
10 For more information about the project, see http://www.acrossborders.org
11 The Dheisheh website is located at http://www.dheisheh.acrossborders.org
12 Available at http://www.pcbs.org/english/com_use.htm
13 Palestinian Bureau of Central Statistics.
14 See the "Complete Guide to Palestine's Websites" located at http://www.birzeit.edu/links for a categorized directory of websites located in the country. More detailed analysis of the state of the WWW in Palestine in 1999 is located at http://www.birzeit.edu/web/99internet.html.