JERUSALEM – Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians may be deadlocked, but an online community of young Israelis and Arabs from across the Middle East is hoping for better results in the virtual world.
On Monday and Tuesday the group, using Facebook, is hosting a virtual peace and economic cooperation conference seeking to transcend borders by sharing ideas on the Internet.
Initiated by the Peres Center for Peace, an Israeli institution, and Palestinian partners, the YaLa Young Leaders Facebook page has attracted more than 40,000 supporters since it was launched last summer. Participants in the online conversations have included Egyptians, Palestinians, Israelis, as well as people from Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, according to organizers.
The conference agenda includes guidelines for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and proposals for online projects, including technological incubators, gaming development and music studios, as well as a planned Young Leaders Academy with Internet courses in such fields as government, economics and business.
The Facebook site was the brainchild of Uri Savir, a former chief Israeli peace negotiator who is president of the Peres Center. “If we leave peace to the current leaderships, we will go nowhere,” he said. “We have to give an opportunity to a much younger generation on social networks. I want to translate Tahrir Square, the social process (of the Arab Spring) into a peace process.”
Ahmed Essam, a 22-year-old Egyptian, said by telephone that he had joined the YaLa community (yala means “let’s go in Arabic) because he wanted “to discover the Israeli people, to talk to them and know their ideas and opinions.” He said that he and thousands of other Egyptian participants were evidence that many in Egypt do not share the anti-Israeli sentiment that erupted in the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by protesters in September.
Several Israeli and Palestinian participants have met face-to-face in the West Bank city of Ramallah and on a joint trip to Spain.
“We discovered that basically we weren’t so different, and that as students we were going through the same stress of papers and exams,” said Naama Shpak, 26, an Israeli who graduated last summer. “They knew that I had served in the army, but that didn’t prevent us from becoming friends and having a conversation.”
Hamze Awawde, 22, a student at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, said he had been criticized by Palestinians opposed to contacts with Israelis. “I tell them that without going this way, we will not have a better future,” he said.