War and peace are two popular media topics in the Middle East. When will war break out and who’s working on a temporary peace to prevent war, which most people believe is inevitable anyhow?
Mainstream journalists, politicians and pundits portray the peace process in the region as one that goes around in circles, featuring disappointment and impasse as the two main themes over the decades. But the peace process in the Middle East, specifically the efforts spearheaded by civil society to improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians are pushing through obstacles to peace every day. Through information sharing online via live chats, discussions, forums and blogs, thousands of individuals – Palestinians, Israelis and members of the international community – are engaged in round the clock dialogue, discussion and activism, with the common goal of creating peace.
In particular, two online peace networks are attracting thousands of peace activists of varying levels and interest from all over the globe. These are ME peace (Middle East Peace), with over 1,000 members focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and iPeace: Sharing Peace, Making a Difference, with over 8,000 members discussing world conflicts and peace initiatives. They both serve to bridge the communication gaps between people in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In some cases, these online encounters have evolved into organized meetings in neutral ground like Amman, Jordan. The Jordanian capital is a feasible travel destination for people from the West Bank as well as Israel.
At the official level of negotiations, the issue of borders is one of the main impasses to a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The borders that already do exist, including the checkpoints and the security wall, prevent Israelis and Palestinians from crossing over to the other side, discouraging face-to-face interaction on a wide scale. This reality stymies the peace process at the grassroots level. On the Internet, however, borders do not exist. An individual from Ramallah, Gaza City, Nablus or Khan Yunis has free access to the previously nameless, faceless “other” in Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem or Ashdod. Online peace networking organizations such as iPeace and mepeace.org facilitate a safe and respectful forum for much-needed open dialogue between those on opposite sides of the fence, both literally and figuratively.
Additionally, online peace networks provide for a measure of secrecy that circumvents societal stigmas attached to association with the “other.” Dialogue with Palestinians on the part of Israelis is not popular in many circles of Israeli mainstream society. And the same goes for the Palestinian side. An Israeli or Palestinian interested in making contact with the other side may risk ostracisation from his or her peer group and even from family. But, what one does in the privacy of one’s time on the computer enjoys protection from the outside and enables previously, nearly impossible friendships to be forged. Furthermore, online peace forums may be nurturing Israelis and Palestinians who are interested in talking peace, but who don’t have the community support or opportunities to follow through. When a potential peace activist recognizes the numbers of peace talkers online and how to connect with them, he or she may feel emboldened to act.
Anyone can become a member of iPeace, which is a platform actively supporting, advertising, promoting and aiding finance for serious peace initiatives. The creator of the site, David Califa, launched iPeace in September 2008 and already 8,000 members have joined the online peace community. Engaged in over 600 different conversations on peace and currently advertising more than seventy events to support peace in the world, iPeace’s official first real life event, iPeace Day, is scheduled for December 31, 2008, in Amman, Jordan. This festival will bring together people from Palestine, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
Similar in its mission, yet focused on the Middle East, mepeace.org boasts a membership of over 1,200 members and the site itself is translated into sixteen languages. Former yeshiva student and founder of mepeace.org, Eyal Raviv, originally envisioned the site as a platform for connecting Israeli peace activists. A personal encounter with a Palestinian who expressed that Raviv was his first encounter with an Israeli encouraged him to create a site for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community.
The results of these connections and their influence on the quality of Israeli-Palestinian peace may not be felt for years to come. Ideally, however, mepeace.org and iPeace will influence the depth and sincere willingness of Israelis and Palestinians to coexist. Quite simply, true peace and reconciliation cannot be forced from the top down. The people have to be involved in the process for it to be lasting. This requires dialogue between the peoples who are expected to live with each other. Israelis and Palestinians are already in such close proximity to one another, that a cold peace, like that which exists between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, would be undesirable and unsustainable.
While many conversations on iPeace and mepeace.org lead to heated debate and arguments that are not always pleasant and “peaceful,” the requirement for participation on both sites is mutual respect and to remember the common goal of peace always.