Talking peace was only one of the activities on Thursday at a one-year anniversary event celebrating the achievements of online peace movement YaLa Young Leaders, which has used social media platforms over the past 12 months to overcome some of the barriers to peace in the Middle East.

At the YaLa-Versary – which took place in the virtual world of Shaker, a platform on social networking site Facebook – cartoon-like avatars of thousands of participants from across the region spent “real” time dancing, drinking and schmoozing together.

“We are frustrated by the political games, and we are here to make a new reality,” Haifa resident Ranya Fadel told The Jerusalem Post in one of the virtual chats.

Other participants echoed these words Thursday, saying they were determined to use social media platforms to make peace a reality from the grassroots up, and not from the top down.

According to event’s organizers, throughout the day more than 30,000 individuals clicked into the group’s Facebook page, which has garnered more than 85,000 “likes” over the past year. And those who actually attended the virtual conference came from everywhere in the region, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Iraq and even Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Of course, many of the participants were Israeli and Palestinian.

The atmosphere at the event was light, with the virtual participants “buying” each other “drinks” and dancing to light music, but the discussions were serious as people shared their dreams for a future without violence.

Asked whether they were deterred by regional sentiments that are critical of any normal interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, one participant said those voices were “dangerous” and “radical” and that it was time for the media to focus more attention on those striving for peace.

The stated goal of the movement – founded by the Tel Aviv-based Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine in Ramallah – is to promote dialogue and engagement in order find peace in the region.

Since its founding last May, YaLa has launched a variety of initiatives, the most significant being its Young Leadership Academy.

The online academy, conceived during a similar virtual peace conference last January, aims to prepare future leaders from across the region. At Thursday’s YaLa-Versary, 30 people signed up for courses at the academy.

YaLa has received endorsements from far and wide, with congratulation messages pouring in Thursday from celebrities and dignitaries such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, President Shimon Peres, actress Sharon Stone, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, Facebook Vice President David Fischer and former US special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross.

Thursday’s event also drew some high-profile participants, including Marcello Scalisi, director of Unimed, the largest network of universities of the Mediterranean. Another was Shai Tsur, business development manager at Microsoft Israel’s R&D Center, who answered questions about the Microsoft Accelerator incubator, a project that will allow YaLa members the opportunity to participate in testing and evaluating products from Microsoft accelerator start-ups and to offer ideas for development.

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