Palestinian Internet users have had many choices when it came to staying up with the conflict with Israel on Arab-language news sites. Now there are a growing number of English-language sites that emphasize the Palestinian position, and are carrying that position to a far wider audience.
Online-only news sites such as the Palestine Chronicle and Palestine Monitor provide eyewitness accounts to flare-ups throughout the region. And these news sites give mainly volunteer contributors space for their photos and diaries of events as they unfold. Then there are news portals such as Electronic Intifada that provide even more depth by pointing to a variety of sources online -- combining original commentaries and news with views from other outlets.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of Electronic Intifada and vice president of the Arab-American Action Network. He e-mailed me about the genesis of the EI site. "EI was the culmination of several years experience of using the Internet as a means of disseminating supplementary and alternative news," he said. "We felt that a professionally produced, attractive, independent and edgy news site would greatly increase the opportunities for Palestinians to be heard. Our 'Live from Palestine' diaries provided a direct window into what was happening to Palestinians at the time of the March-April, 2002, Israeli Operation Defensive Shield."
EI does much more than report on the situation in the territories and round up news. The site includes a special section for journalists, including media resources, an e-mail list and journalists' rights organizations. EI also does media criticism -- a growing part of independent Palestinian sites -- pointing to mainstream news stories that might not be balanced in their view. "I am very proud of our section on the role of the media, and our Coverage Trends, which analyze critically mainstream coverage of the issue," Abunimah said. "I think that trying to provide such accountability is a fundamental role of our site."
Palestine Monitor includes a section called Media Watch, while the Palestine Media Watch (PMWatch) site constantly monitors U.S. media coverage of Palestinian issues. PMWatch, an all-volunteer site with 39 "local chapters" in the U.S., issues alerts with explicit instructions on how to lobby the White House and Congress, and send letters to editors.
The Web provides a cheap way to get more perspectives heard, stay in touch across many borders -- Palestinians live around the world -- and organize for activism. However, dependence on the Net also leaves them vulnerable to hackers, spammers and other cyber-attackers.
"The Internet is important because it enables people on the ground to relay directly and unfiltered, and in real time, what is taking place on the ground," said Ahmed Bouzid, an Algerian activist writer and software developer in Philadelphia who founded PMWatch. "It is almost impossible, for instance, to establish an organization such as PMWatch, built on volunteers doing media monitoring and relaying their findings and organizing action, without the Internet."
While many of the more activist sites are aimed at an international audience by providing news and views in English, the basic nitty-gritty local news of the Palestinian territories remains in Arabic from newspapers such as Al-Quds. Ghadeer Shaka'a is a former lecturer at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, outside Jerusalem. She grew up in Nablus, and recently moved to the United Arab Emirates to be with her husband. She told me that the Arabic Al-Quds Web site was still the primary place for local news for Palestinians.
"The most popular news is still the local Al-Quds newspaper," Shaka'a said. "But it was mainly from the PLO perspective, and now the Palestinian Authority's. They don't publish everything they have. The satellite TV channels and the Net are the only way to get news about home. Most of the TV channels are not independent, they have certain points of view, but on the Net you get more opinions, it's more open.
Shaka'a said the Arabic Media Internet Network, or Amin.org, does a better job of running various Palestinian points of view. The site is mainly in Arabic, though some news is in English. She said she gets most of her news through the Al-Awda e-mail list, run by a group that supports Palestinians' right to return to their former homes in Israel. The list points to news from various sources, along with calls to take action.
Despite the heavy rhetoric and media spin on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some sites are trying to achieve some sort of balance. BitterLemons.org provides a weekly point/counterpoint from each perspective; recent topics include removing Israeli settlements and America's role in the crisis. And just six months ago, an American site called the Mideast News Service (MNS) launched to provide a "one-stop shopping" approach to getting news on the conflict.
MNS Senior Editor Phelps Hawkins told me via e-mail that its "tri-partite" approach gives people breaking news from the AP, other top news and views from Western and Arab media, and video journals that reflect "the lives and cultural context of people in the region." The site is still pretty bare-bones, but Hawkins seems to understand the underlying complexity of the region. "We're careful to reinforce that Palestinian and Israeli does *not* reflect the [only] reality of life in Israel," he said. "Since there are Palestinian Christians and Arab Jews and Israeli Muslims."
But for Palestinians of all backgrounds and political beliefs, the Web continues to be a melting pot of information, whether doled up with a point of view, a critique of Western sources or with a call to action. And with so many mainstream Arab media sources beholden to their home governments, the proliferation of independent media online may help Palestinians see a much bigger picture.
Top News Sites Covering Palestinian Issues
former lecturer, Al-Quds University, Ramallah
Al-Quds newspaper site (Arabic)
Arabic Media Internet Network (Amin.org; mostly Arabic)
Al-Awda Media e-mail list
founder, Palestine Media Watch
Al Jazeera (Arab & English)
Palestine Center for Human Rights
co-founder, Electronic Intifada
Senior Editor, Mideast News Service
Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)
former CIA analyst and author, "Perceptions of Palestine"