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War in the Middle East is being waged not only on the ground, but also in cyberspace.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up on the social networking Web site Facebook, with over 12,000 users participating in the "Palestine" network and 65,000 users engaged in the Israel network as of Tuesday. Both networks are open to users worldwide.
Facebook has aroused international controversy over the issue of whether or not Palestine constitutes a country.
As part of its networking dynamic, Facebook offers its users two options for geographic identification: national affiliation, and social networks such as universities, professional, or social organizations.
Users also have the option of not joining any network at all.
Creator Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in February 2004 as a small networking site among Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale universities. Within the year, the site had expanded to over 800 universities and over two million active users.
Today, Facebook has exploded, with over 45 million active users and more than 55,000 networks, according to its official statistical site.
"Palestine" appeared on the original list of countries from which users could choose when registering for the site, until Facebook "mysteriously took it away" in October 2006. Members of the "Palestine" network were outraged.
"How could Palestine not be a country?" Catherine Batruni, a Lebanese Palestinian, posted on "The Official Petition to get Palestine listed as a Country" message board on October 23, 2006. "Where do they think PALESTINIANS come from?"
One Palestine network member wrote to Facebook, asking what network she should join now that Palestine was no longer an option, and was told to "join the West Bank and Gaza section," according to the "Official Petition" page.
In response to the Palestine option's disappearance and Facebook's alternative suggestion, an official petition was started by Ronald Habash, a University of Illinois student and member of the Palestine network, to have Palestine reinstated as a country.
"I find it extremely offensive that Facebook does not acknowledge Palestine as a nation. Clearly, such acts are deemed anti-Palestinian," Habash opened the petition. "By labeling us under 'the West Bank and Gaza,' you are denying the Palestinians' right to east Jerusalem, including the old walled city of Jerusalem."
Facebook's decision to remove Palestine from the list was also viewed by the 9,000-plus members as a violation of its own policy of prohibiting any content deemed, "defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory ... hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable."
Members such as Shumailla Zareen, a British-Palestinian, had high hopes for the success of the petition. "How unfortunate ... Facebook is interfering in politics ... (just strengthens those so-called 'conspiracy theories' we all love to hate!) Hope this works!" she posted on September 9, 2006.
Other groups appeared, following in the footsteps of "Official Petition": Saif Qadoumi of the United Arab Emirates started "If Palestine is removed from Facebook ... I'm closing my account," and over 16,000 users are members of "Against delisting Palestine from Facebook."
Facebook responded to pressure from Palestinian petitions and letters, and re-added Palestine to the list of countries in early 2007. No press release was ever issued by Facebook regarding either the elimination or the reinstatement of Palestine - an atypical decision by Zuckerberg and his team, who post roughly once a week on their blog of happenings and additions to the site, regularly update the site's "What's new" section and give public access to all press releases about Facebook.
Despite repeated efforts to uncover why the site originally removed Palestine from the list, Facebook did not respond by press time.
One thing is clear, however: Heated debates characterize both the Israel and Palestine networks, with discussion boards and posts from Israeli and Palestinian supporters around the globe on topics such as "Palestine isn't a country" and "Who is chasing who out of their countries?"
Many users on both sites are deflated, pessimistic and saddened by the situation in the Middle East. Facebook has given them an outlet to express these feelings and find others who share their sentiments.
"I live over here ... I know how it is, and I don't put much hope in any changes," wrote Israeli Peter Kaltoft on October 3.
"It seems there is no hope in any political progress. And they talk of 'political horizons'... and it's difficult for me to see any horizons, with the wall blocking the sun," wrote Palestinian Abu Ali on the same day.
Facebook could even become a vital space for international discussion aimed at progress. Of the 500-plus groups and 1,000-plus discussion topics posted, some are already moving toward positive goals.
Haig Vosgueritchian, an Italian-Palestinian, opened a discussion entitled "What do you think we should do to be a better people?" on July 22. To date, 36 comments have been left in response. All of them have positive suggestions.
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