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An international grade school poetry contest quickly deteriorated into an aggressive cyberspace battle for Middle Eastern honor when word got out on the Internet that a nine-year-old Israeli girl had pulled ahead of an Egyptian competitor and threatened to take first prize.
Sharon Livneh, a fourth grader at Ma'aleh Adumim's Sde Hemed elementary school, had no idea when she penned a poem about her sister's bat mitzva that she had set off a chain of events that would lead to a fierce Arab-Israeli confrontation on the Internet.
Livneh was the pride of her school and hometown when she became the only Israeli to be chosen as one of six finalists in a British Council-sponsored poetry contest.
Just a few hundred kilometers south of Livneh's home an Egyptian school boy named Youssef el-Kattan was also celebrating his success.
The two children's poems along with their names and countries of origin appeared on the British Council's Web site. Whoever received the most votes via the Internet would win.
Almost immediately it was clear that Livneh and el-Kattan had attracted a disproportionately large amount of attention on the Web. While most children had received dozens of votes, Livneh and el-Kattan had accrued thousands.
"All along she was in second place," recalled Sharon's mother, Adina. "Youssef from Egypt was in first place.
"But around 2 p.m. on Monday, Sharon pulled ahead with 3,475 votes against his 3,445. I admit that I and Sharon's grandfather were doing some serious campaigning among friends and family.
"All of a sudden they dropped a bomb on us. At 5:40 p.m., Sharon had 4,171 votes, while Youssef had 39,538. Two-and-a-half hours later the results were 4,476 and 43,347."
Sharon's mom and others, suspecting computer hackers had manipulated the results, contacted the British Council to complain. In an e-mail message to The Jerusalem Post, Ellen Miller, a spokesperson for the British Council, responded that "the competition on the Learn English Kids Web site was set up to encourage children worldwide to improve their creative writing. The winner was to be decided by public vote.
"Because there has been some unusual voting activity on the Web site, we have
decided to suspend voting. We are taking this matter very seriously and are investigating the issue."
Sharon's mother said in response that the competition "turned into a mini Six Day War."
"All the campaigning on our side was done in good sportsmanship," she said. "But suddenly the whole thing took an inexplicable turn for the worse. The people on Youssef's side took the competition so seriously. I don't get it. Those kids are not even 10 years old.
"The reason I complained to the British Council was because I did not want them to have the satisfaction of wiping us off the map. Personally, I am totally apolitical. But I feel very strongly about this. I'm willing to fight them fairly, but cheating is wrong."
Before the British Council suspended the voting, Youssef was leading with 70,000 votes to Sharon's 5,000.