Palestinian refugees get wired

What can the Internet bring to a culture that has been scattered across the world?

Published August 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The word "Palestine" bounces back and forth across a computer monitor in this refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem; the screen saver symbolizes one desire that a new computer center might fulfill for the residents of the camp's makeshift houses: words that can travel, between Palestinians wherever they live.

Dheisheh is the first Palestinian camp to go online, with a Web site -- and basic computer training for the camp's residents. The program is the first building block in an ambitious Internet project undertaken by Birzeit University's Across Borders Project, which promises to give a voice, a meeting place and a window onto the world to several million displaced Palestinians -- and perhaps open their minds to new ways of thinking.

The Across Borders Project aims to bring the Net to Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East, to promote connections among the refugees, as well as provide a repository for Palestine news and history.

"When you're unable to go to picnics, unable to go to the sea, unable to go to movies in Jerusalem, it's like being in a prison cell. Your world becomes very limited," says Muna Muhaisen, a 39-year-old Palestinian-American journalist who is one of the project's main architects. She was born in Jerusalem but lost her residency rights during her parents' exile. An American-trained journalist who came back to the West Bank in 1988 to cover the intifada and live in Dheisheh with her husband, Muhaisen faces deportation to the United States by Israeli authorities if she ventures out of the small territory under Palestinian control. The camp itself measures less than one (over-crowded) square kilometer. The Internet provides her with a way out -- and a livelihood: Muhaisen is now an armchair reporter who gathers information on the Web.

The Web's wealth of information is key not only for journalists like Muhaisen, but for many Palestinians, given that local media is still heavily censored by the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of Gaza and the West Bank. And, in a culture that has been dispersed across vast distances, the Web may offer the chance for refugees to make their voices heard in a coherent and organized way. "People are not happy about what is happening to them, but they need information," said Muhaisen.

Bookmarks on the Dheisheh computer center's machines link to a wide range of Arabic newspapers online, representing all sorts of political opinions -- including opposition to the Palestinian Authority. Muhaisen sometimes jokes with her husband that "they will come arrest me and put a bullet through my head." But her teasing sounds extremist. So far the Palestinian Authority, unlike other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, has not tried to block or filter access to the Internet.

The camp, however, may not be eager to have its site turned into a virtual battleground -- with Palestinians and Orthodox Jews exchanging the same bitter invectives that have caused so much real-world bloodshed. The camp Web site, therefore, may filter some content itself. According to Adam Hanieh, Muna Muhaisen's partner in the project, the camp can decide what do with unpleasant messages and whom to communicate with. "We're just giving them skills," he says. In Dheisheh, Webmaster Jamal Abdulkareem, a bearded serious-looking 33-year-old Palestinian who studied at the University of Portland, will decide what goes on the bulletin board and what doesn't. It will not be possible to post messages directly on the site's bulletin board.

Before the Across Borders center was inaugurated in July, about 20 people out of Dheisheh's 10,000 residents had access to personal computers. Now, for 6 shekels (about $1.25) an hour, anyone can walk into the bright computer center housed in a busy cultural center for children and surf on one of the center's 14 computers -- provided they first get some basic training. (The center was funded with grants from the Canada Fund and several aid organizations, and with training from Birzeit University, the West Bank's most prestigious Arab university.)

Compared to Israel -- a technologically advanced society with a per capita gross domestic product that is 10 times that of Palestinians, the West Bank and Gaza still look like technological wastelands. There are 10 Palestinian Internet service providers and there are Internet cafes in most large towns of the West Bank and Gaza but only 20 percent of households in the West Bank and Gaza had telephone lines in 1997 and a mere 4 percent had computers, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.

As Palestinians get a taste of what the Internet offers, that could change. Mutassem al-Ghrouze, a 13-year-old resident of the camp's makeshift houses and cluttered streets, has already received e-mail from Wissam, a 15-year-old Palestinian whose grandparents took refuge in Lebanon. "I am not happy here. I hope to go to Palestine," wrote Wissam.

It's been 51 years since Palestinians fled or were forced out of their villages during the war that followed the creation of Israel, and dispersed throughout the Middle East. The future of these refugees and their offspring -- about 3 million people -- is one of the thorniest issues Israel and the Palestinian Authority will need to address in a final peace settlement.

Most families in Dheisheh have relatives in various Arab states, in the United States or in Europe. However, poverty, distance and ill-defined citizenship prevent frequent reunions between former neighbors or relatives. Palestinians in the West Bank cannot visit compatriots in the Gaza Strip 70 miles away on the Mediterranean coast unless they obtain hard-to-get permits from Israeli authorities.

It is unlikely that the refugees ever will be granted the right to return en masse to their grand-parents' villages, many of which no longer exist or have been converted into Israeli cities. But in the meantime, Across Borders is trying to bring refugees back to a virtual Palestine, with plans for a network of computer centers and Web sites in the often low-tech and run-down Palestinian camps -- first in the West Bank and Gaza, and eventually in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

By making letters, oral history, family trees, pictures and maps all available in Arabic and in English, Across Borders will help young Palestinians like Mutassem and Wissam compare experiences, return to their roots and develop a shared identity.

Mutassem is still mourning his older brother Bassam, killed by an Israeli sniper in 1991. At 12, Bassam was the camp's youngest victim of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that rocked Israeli-occupied territories from 1986 to 1993. His name and brief biography are mentioned in the camp's Web site under "martyrs."

Wissam, the pen-pal from Lebanon, sent Mutassem words of consolation: "I'm very sorry for your brother. But he is lucky to be in heaven with the other martyrs," he wrote. "You should be proud of him."

Of course, since the Net's inception, people have pinned hopes on its ability to break down political borders -- and there is some evidence that it has encouraged communication between Israelis and Arabs. In June, when the Israeli army destroyed a power plant and cut electricity in Beirut in retaliation for rocket attacks on Israel's northern border, the local press reported that citizens of Lebanon and Israel came together in chat rooms to discuss the blackout.

For Muhaisen, however, the Net's value as a tool to communicate with Israelis is greatly overshadowed
by its potential as a tool for Palestinian communications. "Even if there is a peace settlement, we'll have to fight for democracy and social change," she says.

In her mind, this means, for example, resisting Islamic pressure to segregate the sexes. Muhaisen wants all Across Borders centers to be co-educational. "We're going to be relentless about it because you can't exclude girls," she says. "It's important that the centers be accessible to as many people as possible so that they reflect the needs and the voice of the whole camp," adds her partner, Hanieh.

Although Palestinians in Dheisheh have become more religious in recent years -- "because of their despair and lack of faith in the peace process", according to Muhaisen -- staff at the computer center is confident it can convince recalcitrant parents to allow their daughters to use computers in the presence of boys. The statistics are encouraging: Nine out of 15 adults who registered for their first computer class at the Dheisheh camp were women. One of the computer instructors is a long-haired 22-year-old woman who wears no veil. And in the camp, where Muhaisen is one of three female journalists, working mothers are increasingly common.

Promoting gender equality may prove more difficult in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, where Across Borders plans to open its next computer center. Gaza residents, stuck on a narrow piece of land, wedged between the Mediterranean sea, where they can't sail, and Israel, which they can't enter without a special permit, generally practice a stricter strain of Islam than their West Bank counterparts.

Opening people's minds, however, is one of the project's main goals. Refugees will be able to communicate with outside visitors thanks to bulletin boards on the camp Web sites. The two-way dialogue between refugees -- who live in a relatively closed, traditional environment -- and anyone or anything that happens to be on the Web is likely to yield some surprises.

In theory, supervisors and peer pressure in the computer room will keep sites that mention sex, drugs and other topics offensive to the community off-limits. But at the center one recent day, a teenager quietly read an innocent-looking, all-text Web page devoted to the merits of Viagra -- seeming to suggest that walls would fall faster than the project's founders imagine.

The real question is whether Israelis and Palestinians, who live in mutual suspicion and often hatred, a literal stone's throw away from one another, will meet peacefully on the camp's Web site. Some Israelis may find the site's tear-wrenching accounts of Palestinian tragedies one-sided, or object to texts cursing Israelis for having ever set their eyes on the land of Palestine. And, as Hanieh points out, it's likely that not every message sent will be posted.

Dheisheh residents haven't had to respond to any online Jewish extremists yet. But Muhaisen has already made her choice -- she won't reply to Israeli e-mail, good or bad.

"I'm not for the normalization of relations unless it's on an equal footing," she said. "I received messages of support from Israelis but I don't plan to write back. They said [about the project] 'It's a wonderful idea. Can we do anything to help?' But I thought: We're here because of you, as refugees with stories to tell. It's just too paradoxical."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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