Sunday, 25 December 2011

Review of Palestine Online, in Al-Akhbar (Lebanese) newspaper

Palestine4Ever: The Internet Identity

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Friday, December 23, 2011

Palestine’s relationship with the internet, as Miriyam Aouragh tells us in Palestine Online: Transnationalism, the Internet and the Construction of Identity (Tauris, 2011), had esoteric beginnings.

In the mid-1990s, a group of middle-class Palestinians formed one of the first Palestinian online networks, “Palesta,” or Palestinian Scientists and Technologists Abroad. The aim of the network was to “harness the scientific and technological knowledge of expatriate professionals for the benefit of development efforts in Palestine.”

Years later, the al-Aqsa Intifada would give Palestine’s connection with the internet an unequivocally different flavor.

“What began in the mid-1990s as an elite means of communication for Palestinians became an infrastructure used by the non-elite masses and by grassroots organizations, transcending territorial and government regulations,” writes Miriyam Aouragh in Palestine Online: Transnationalism, the Internet and the Construction of Identity.

Aouragh’s fieldwork in Palestine and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon looks at Palestine’s relationship with the internet – and its offshoots – in the context of occupation and war. While previous studies of the internet have explored how being online can transcend an individual’s ties to physical space, Aouragh discusses how the physical place of Palestine is incumbent in many Palestinians’ experiences online.

The al-Aqsa Intifada, as well as Arafat’s death in 2004 and the events of 9/11, combined with the development of mobile phone and internet technologies led to a “fusion of space and time,” writes Aouragh. These impactful events led to a boost in Palestinians going online for information, as well as an uptick in the numbers of the Palestinian diaspora wanting to reach out to compatriots on the “inside.” Combined with the daily realities of checkpoints and curfews, immobility and oppression are interwoven with online experiences.

“Palestinians’ online motivation is shaped by experiences of exclusion, isolation and oppression – the need to connect online lies in their desire to meet offline,” writes Aouragh.

Perhaps this is most true in the online interactions of the diaspora and Palestinians “inside.” Aouragh hangs out at internet cafes in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajne camp where many Palestinians spend their time in online forums, chatting under screen names like “Palestine4ever.”

“The first thing many would ask when they came was: ‘Can I chat with Palestine?’” said the owner of an internet café in Beirut in when interviewed by Aouragh.

While “anti-colonial nationalism” might be the dominant sentiment of Palestinian communications online, some just want to hook up.

Online dating became popular with some, and star-crossed relationships formed between the diaspora and their counterparts miles away. “A search for intimacy, to be loved, is partly evidence of loneliness, abandonment and alienation,” writes Aouragh.

“I feel I shouldn’t make the mistake of talking about love, just politics and Palestine, because it’s impossible for us to meet,” said a girl from the Shatila camp in Beirut to Aouragh.

Behind these personal interactions is a complex network of technology, and human interactions, that bring the internet to places like Palestinian camps and occupied towns in the West Bank.

Since Palestinian camps in Lebanon are not permitted telephone or internet licenses, even bringing the internet to the camps is a challenge and involves making use of informal personal networks.

In Palestine, the internet is mediated through Israeli companies. Due to restrictions of the occupation, the infrastructure of the Palestinian IT sector faces numerous limitations. Sabri Saidam, a representative of the Palestinian chapter of the Internet Society, told Aouragh that “the symbolic significance of receiving a [internet] bill with an Israeli logo is clear.”

Though Aouragh's Palestine Online can be dense, it is a pertinent look at the issues that continue to effect Palestine’s relationship with the internet to this day. One of Palestine Online’s strong points is the equal weight given to the political movements and the personal relations that have been fostered alongside the development of the internet. Though some might look to the internet as inhabiting a “timeless time” and a “spaceless space,” Palestine looks to the internet in search of solid ground.