article

12.31.08

The War Hits Facebook

Israel's assault on Gaza has launched an emotional firestorm on Facebook—including violent threats, Nazi slurs, and pleas for reconciliation.

Ever since the first bombs fell on Gaza this week, Tomer Perry’s Facebook page has been “on fire.”

Perry, a 26-year-old Israeli student from Jerusalem, counts dozens of Palestinians among his 700 Facebook friends, and the war has touched off an emotional frenzy that’s splintering his online social network.

One Palestinian friend posts a running tally of those killed in Gaza. Another friend in range of Hamas' rockets updates her page whenever she hears sirens warning of an incoming attack. And contacts on both sides have posted angry slurs and obscenities, ranging from "Turn Gaza into a parking lot" to "Fuck Nazi Israel. Hitler should have finished the job."

Harel-Fisch was shocked when one of his Palestinian friends changed his Facebook picture to a grotesque cartoon depicting Israelis bathing in a swimming pool of blood.

“I've already encountered barriers between me and my closest Palestinian friends,” says Perry. “On Facebook, when you are angry, it's so quick to write an insulting comment without thinking. You don't have to call someone on the phone to tell them what you think…I think some Facebook friendships will survive and some will be ruined.”

In the five days since the bombing began, Facebook has emerged as both a new outlet for hostility—and a rare venue for dialogue. The social networking site is hugely popular in the region, with nearly 500,000 Israeli members and about 44,000 from the West Bank and Gaza. Because travel restrictions limit physical contact between Israelis and Palestinians, the Internet is often the only place the two groups can regularly meet.

"The ironic part is that Israelis and Palestinians use Facebook to communicate as though we are on different continents, the same way we communicate with people in America,” says Lama Mashni, a 25-year-old Palestinian who has largely stopped speaking with her Israeli Facebook friends since the crisis began. “But in fact we are right next to each other on the same land."

Mashni met her Israeli Facebook friends through Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians for group retreats in America. But since the attacks began, she’s been struggling with the complexities of those friendships.

Last week, Mashni changed her Facebook status to a popular slogan, "Stop Israel's genocide in Gaza," triggering a range of responses from her friends.

"One Israeli friend wrote on my wall and said this is the perfect time to speak to each other and show that our friendship works and help each other get through it," Mashni said. "It's nice to know that they are there for me if I want to talk to them, but I'm not sure that right now I feel like hearing what they have to say. Right now I only feel like being angry."

Mattan Harel-Fisch, a 27-year-old Israeli who fought in the 2006 war with Lebanon, met his Palestinian Facebook friends at a peace conference in Japan last August. While their political views were vastly different from his own, he was touched by their stories of suffering under Israeli rule. He in turn gained their respect by presenting a human face to his career defending Israel as a soldier in the army.

"One of the Palestinian girls, Rawan, had terrible stories about things the [Israeli] army had done to her family. It was very difficult for her," he said. "But she told me that after getting to know me, when she sees an Israeli soldier at a roadblock, even though she thinks the roadblocks are cruel and inhumane, she no longer sees the Israeli soldiers standing there as animals, and she understands that they also go through difficult things."

The Israeli and Palestinian participants stayed in touch on Facebook, trading inside jokes and updates on their lives. While their personal relationships were warm, Harel-Fisch was shocked when, chatting with one of his Palestinian friends online after the attacks, he found to find that he had changed his Facebook profile picture to a grotesque cartoon depicting Israelis bathing in a swimming pool of blood labeled "Gaza."

"It's the first time I have seen really anti-Israel stuff on their Facebook pages," Harel-Fisch said.

He and his friend discussed the conflict only briefly that day, each merely describing the scene in their respective location rather than debating its implications.

"There's no point in arguing about the situation...I'm going to say it was necessary because of security and that Hamas had it coming," Harel-Fisch said. "I do understand that civilians are being killed and, whatever the reasons, it's a terrible, terrible thing, so I have a huge amount of sympathy for the Palestinians that I talk to now. I'm not going to talk politics to them right now."

Perry said he kept his messages to Palestinian friends strictly personal, as well, so as not to spark an argument. It's a painful balancing act for Israeli and Palestinian friends, who are reminded that while they have learned to grow close on a personal level, their political divisions are still what drives the conflict.

"It does open a direct channel of communication, which is a good thing, but it doesn't solve problems," Perry said of the online interactions. "It's just a tool, and it can be used as a weapon, as well. Many people are using it for pure propaganda."

Thousands around the world have joined Facebook groups in support of Israel or Gaza, and many pro-Gaza users have changed their profile picture to a red sash over a black background reading "We Are All with Gaza" in Arabic.

Even on venues dedicated to solidarity with either side, however, an animated dialogue—albeit often crude and racist—is emerging as opinionated users crash online discussions with their opposing perspectives. The popular Facebook group "End the Siege in Gaza Now" has seen some Israelis post on its wall. "Hamas launches rockets, and we cannot negotiate with that," one user wrote, drawing sometimes obscene and sometimes well-argued responses from the opposition. One group member even praised the person for adding his voice: "All credit to this [Facebook user] for coming on here. It's what democracy should all be about."

Joel Leyden, an experienced PR consultant in Israel who sometimes lends his services to the government, created a pro-Israel Facebook group, "I Support the Israel Defense Forces In Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza," two hours after the first bombs landed in Gaza to help sway public opinion. He quickly discovered, however, that the group became an impromptu roundtable, with pro-Palestinian users posting along with Israelis. One discussion thread started by an Arab user asked members, "to what extent would you be patient when dealing with the Israelis?" It garnered more than 150 responses.

Leyden said he was encouraged by the turn the group, which had grown to nearly 18,000 members on Tuesday, had taken toward debate and that he was actively moderating some of the discussions, trying to encourage civility between participants.

"[The group is] a creative place to understand one another," Leyden said. "You don't shoot people you know."

One obstacle on Facebook to further dialogue is that users must join a group in order to comment, making casual responses to groups one disagrees with more difficult.

"I mean, there are groups like 'I hate all Muslims.' Obviously I don't want to join that group, but I do want to comment," a Palestinian who lives in Ramallah, Badawi Qawasmi, said.

Qawsami, 29, said that while he appreciated how Facebook helped humanize users by putting a picture and profile to their words, he is skeptical about the impact of his online discussions with the other side.

"The opinions of people in these groups is not going to change by reading someone's comments," he said. "These opinions have been shaped by real life, not virtual reality."

Ethan Perlson is a journalist and screenwriter living in Israel. He has worked as a researcher and producer for NBC News, ABC News, CNBC, and HBO Documentaries.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.