By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006
The fragile cease-fire still holds, but for wary Lebanese and Israelis the barrage of noise continues -- in cyberspace. By provoking a trade in words, the 33-day war in Lebanon didn't just wreak death and destruction. It also helped knock down a wall of silence.
"I think it's the start of something. In a way, it's a revolution," said Mustapha Hamoui, the blogger behind Beirut Spring. "Communication is never bad. It's better to tell someone, 'I hate you.' Then you have to ask, 'Why do you hate?' Then you have to have a conversation."
The Lebanese government forbids its citizens contact with Israelis. But keeping a lid on the Internet is a bit like trying to shovel sand with a sieve. And in the midst of war, scouring online for views from the other side has been one way for Lebanese and Israelis to alleviate the terrible sense of the impotence of standing by as their countries bled. Thousands of people, often posting in English, seem compelled to try to make some sense of the chaos -- or, through personal narratives, to help debunk stereotypes and misperceptions.
"Bloggers from both sides of the border . . . have been providing live updates, commenting on one another's blogs and sometimes linking to posts by bloggers on the other side of the border," wrote Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-Israeli blogger and journalist, on her site On the Face six days into the war. "Will this turn out to be the first time that residents of 'enemy' countries engaged in an ongoing conversation while missiles were falling?"
The war, paradoxically, provided the common ground, and blogging -- a roughly three-year-old medium unavailable in previous conflicts -- offered the space for it.
"After more than four weeks (seasoned with a couple of short home leaves of a few hours each), my dear man is back home!!!" wrote Anat El Hashahar, a 34-year-old mother of two and the blogger behind Israeli Mom, which she started last month soon after her husband was called up to his reserve post in the Israel Defense Forces. "He surprised us this morning and just showed up at the door, looking extremely tired, his face covered with stubble, but very very happy to see us," she wrote of her husband's return to their home in Pardes Hana, northern Israel.
"Hey, wanna try something funny?" answered Jean Souc, a Lebanese 25-year-old who works for the Red Cross in Paris. "let's test his military reflexes. tell him you are speaking with a lebanese on the computer! make sure you empty his rifle from bullets before, if you love your screen. [smiley face] After you tell him that, you will experience fist-hand [sic] military reflexes. he'll need time to loose them [sic]."
Souc and El Hashahar are new friends. Eager to seek a Lebanese and Arab perspective, El Hashahar had actively sought out and commented on Lebanese sites, generating a regular correspondence with several people from Australia to Iran, and enough trust with Souc and another Lebanese man to invite them to visit her and her family in Israel, she said in a phone interview from Pardes Hana.
"It's been very refreshing for me to talk to them," said El Hashahar, which means "toward the dawn" in Hebrew. "I wasn't that familiar with Lebanese people, their history or politics."
For his part, Souc surfed only the Lebanese blogosphere "to get an idea about street opinion" when the conflict erupted. But, he said in an e-mail, he was "hit by the intense presence of Israeli people commenting on those Lebanese blogs." With that in mind, he started his own space, The Middle East Exception, inviting Israelis to comment on how they perceived Lebanese.
It generated a thread of 92 comments, with 32 Israelis offering long responses that veer from accusatory to apologetic. At their suggestion, Souc invited Lebanese to post on how they perceived Israelis.
"Actually before this, the Israeli society was a big question mark for me," Souc said in an e-mail. "This blog helped me assert a little bit more the idea that all the fuss and all the propaganda in the Middle East are really plain lies when it comes to the 'historical animosity,' or 'the bad Jews' or 'the deadly Arabs.' "
This is a common theme.
"I had little idea about Lebanon until I started checking their blogs," said Oskar Svadkovsky, 36, a Russian-born Israeli in Tel Aviv who hosts a blog that parodies the Arab press. He posted on Souc's blog and, like El Hashahar, struck up enough of a friendship with Souc to invite him to Israel. "Lebanon is a very complex country. Actually it's not complex, it's just a total mess. Nobody, including the Lebanese themselves, understands what's going on there as far as I can see. We are all guessing."
It is, though, hardly a great cyber peace-fest; angry rants are as likely to advance civilized dialogue as graffiti scrawled on a wall. Many comments generate a frenzy of back-and-forth vitriol. Others get deleted entirely, and bloggers such a Souc or Hamoui say they censor a lot of venomous commentary from both sides.
But shrill or reasoned in tone, the surge in comments still astounds Hamoui. "For myself, I'm 28 and I've never had communication with Israelis" with a single exception, he said by phone from Eheen, in the mountains of northern Lebanon. "Now I'm personally in e-mail contact with several." His site's stat tracker, he said, showed a sevenfold increase in his audience during the war to about 4,000 individual views per day, with 32 percent of readers from within Israel. Even after the cease-fire, the tide doesn't appear to be abating.
"We Israelis moved against our own people in order to withdraw from Gaza. Why won't the Lebanese people move against their own people to kick out Hezbullah from Southern Lebanon??" asked Dan K on Beirut Spring in a post-cease-fire thread of comments that includes some heavy Israel-bashing. He added a link to his own bilingual English-Hebrew blog. "I love your blogs. But you gotta stop blaming your government in egnlish [sic] and take your movement to the streets in Arabic. And coordinate with each other. Like kicking out Syria. If you don't like your government, make marches, make protests."
Charles Chuman, the 24-year-old co-blogger of the Lebanese Political Journal, has had much the same experience. Since the war started, he said, he's received well over a thousand messages to his blogger e-mail address, many of them personal e-mails from Israelis. "It's overwhelming the amount that people are contacting me as I try to establish a new life for myself. I don't even have a place of my own yet," he said from Chicago, shortly after evacuating Beirut in mid-conflict.
"You do get extremes of positions on either side, but what has been surprising and recent is the number of Israeli bloggers who are reaching out to the Lebanese blogs and putting comments there," said the Lebanese host of blog-aggregator Open Lebanon, who tracks more than 100 blogs a day in real time. (He asked to remain anonymous, citing conflicts of interest with his public profile at a large global firm.) "The majority of them could be classified as conciliatory. It is obvious Israelis will not favor a Hezbollah win, but would rather see a moderate, modern, democratic, strong type of government in Lebanon, so they gently 'push' the Lebanese bloggers towards these directions."
English is a convenient lingua franca. The Lebanese blogosphere, drawing from a trilingual Arabic-, French- and English-speaking population, is chiefly English. So when the war broke out, many Hebrew-language bloggers switched to English in a deliberate attempt to reach across the border, according to Goldman, who provides a regular roundup of the Israeli blogosphere for global blog aggregator Global Voices Online.
Many bloggers are students, work in technology, like El Hashahar and Svadkovsky, or are expatriates, like Souc. Hamoui, a graphic designer and business executive, studied at the American University of Beirut. Chuman and Goldman studied in U.S. colleges.
Underrepresented are outright supporters of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, who draw from Lebanon's mainly Arabic-speaking Shiite population.
"If social revolutions are led by elites, then I'll accept that," said Goldman.
Beirut Spring and Lebanese Political Journal were founded among a first wave of blogs in the midst of the Cedar Revolution, the youth-infused political ferment that followed the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. With hundreds of new blogs springing up since July, the war with Israel has proved itself to be the second wave in the development of a politically cacophonous alternate media space for many young, tech-savvy Lebanese, at home and abroad.
Chuman, the Beirut man who fled for Chicago, had sampled the Israeli blogosphere in April and found it a nuanced and informed contrast to what he could glean from traditional news outlets. "The lack of news about Israel -- not an unimportant country in the region -- is astounding," wrote the political consultant, under his then-nom-de-Web, Lebanon Profile. "Not knowing about 'them' is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don't even matter. They are Stalin's faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil blood suckers whom it is righteous to kill. Our papers definitely need to start covering more than major political events in Israel."
Several Israeli bloggers contacted him. "It was around the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day and memorials for soldiers and I was learning a lot. I'd never read that before. A lot of people were touched by what I wrote, and we developed quite a community," he said.
Over the next few weeks, a fragile community of a handful of Lebanese and Israeli bloggers sprang up. "We came to realize how alike we were culturally, as secularized, westernized residents of Beirut and Tel Aviv," Goldman, the Canadian-Israeli journalist, said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. She blogged about the surreal experience of a Beirut-Tel Aviv instant messaging chat with Chuman as he sat on the roof of his apartment building in Beirut and watched missiles from Israeli planes fall on his city. And Chuman wrote in his Lebanese Political Journal about the treacherous route out of Beirut through Damascus.
Virtual contact translated into real contact when Goldman met up separately with Chuman and the Perpetual Refugee, the pseudonym of a Dubai-based blogger and another member of their circle who had been visiting Israel semi-clandestinely for months in his capacity as regional manager of a major European food conglomerate, Goldman said. He subsequently wrote a series of what Goldman described as moving and conciliatory posts; then came war.
Perpetual Refugee now "writes that he does not want to rebuild the bridge with Israelis. He has closed the comments option and deleted the comments that were left in previous posts," Goldman said. "He and I are still in irregular contact, but our relationship is very fragile." The Perpetual Refugee declined to respond to requests for comment.
In the quickly evolving cyberspace of the Middle East, one dialogue abruptly ends, but another one bursts forth.
El Hashahar, the Israeli mother and soldier's wife, was sufficiently inspired by the contacts she's struck up across the Arab world to start an online Middle East forum. "It's just a shame," she said, "we had to have war to get to know each other."