Face-to-face on Facebook

Even as the peace process has stalled, Israelis, Palestinians use social media platforms to connect, interact.

Reconciliation on Facebook (photo credit: Screenshot)
Reconciliation on Facebook
(photo credit: Screenshot)
With the peace process stuck in limbo, hope for finding a solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems more elusive than ever. Elusive, that is, unless you consider the rapid growth of formal and informal connections being made between ordinary citizens from both sides of the conflict via social media.
At a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to interact with each other physically – social pressure for Palestinians not to “normalize” with Israelis and physical barriers that prevent the two from meeting face-to-face – Facebook and other online outlets have become an excellent way to keep the channels of communication open.
The potential of these platforms in paving the way to peace from the ground up has not been lost on President Shimon Peres. During a live interview with Facebook in March, the president caused quite a buzz by stating unequivocally that social media are the new way to make peace.
“[U]ntil now, governments negotiated peace,” Peres told interviewers. “I think the best way to achieve peace is when the people negotiate peace directly by talking to each other.”
While it sounded like a nice, catchy line – which was picked up by media across the globe – Peres’ comments were quickly backed up by statistics from Facebook representatives who highlighted a special page on the social networking site that tracks interactions between users in various conflict zones.
According to the page, peace.facebook.com, more than 20,000 Israelis and Palestinians a day are typically interacting with each other as friends on Facebook.
And these virtual friends are just the tips of the olive branch.
In addition to the one-on-one conversations taking place on the Web, there is a growing number of Facebook groups and online platforms that are helping to bring together ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens for discussion, debates and dialogue.
One of the most successful of these platforms is YaLa Young Leaders, an interactive Facebook group that was set up exactly a year ago by the Peres Center for Peace together with the Ramallah-based Yala Palestine in a joint attempt to create dialogue between the two sides.
Now a fully-fledged movement, YaLa – a play on both Hebrew and Arabic phrases – boasts more than 75,000 “likes” on Facebook and received incredible feedback when it held its first virtual conference for Israelis and Arabs on a Facebook platform called Shaker.
This week, to mark its first anniversary, YaLa held another virtual peace conference on Shaker, which allows individuals to create a cartoon-like avatar that can chat with other “participants.” The movement also unveiled plans for an on-line academy that will enable Israelis and Arabs to find common ground in different areas too.
ANOTHER FACEBOOK group, which goes a little deeper by bringing together those who have been directly affected by violence from the conflict, is “.” The group was launched just over a month ago by non-profit organization the Parents’ Circle and has more than 1,600 “likes.”
It provides simultaneous translations of all messages into Hebrew and Arabic, fostering an even closer connection between the two peoples.
Every few weeks another peace-orientated group is started on Facebook. Some aim to provide a platform for dialogue, while others start out with a clear message of peace and solidarity. One such group, which has perhaps garnered the most mainstream media attention in recent months, is “Israel-loves-Iran.”
Started by Tel Avivian Rony Edri on a whim, the group’s anti-war message garnered so much support – today it has nearly 65,000 “likes” – that it is now a fully-fledged movement. Of course, that would not have been possible if the group’s creator had not cleverly harnessed the online fund-raising platform indiegogo, where it raised more than $7,000 via crowd-sourcing methods.
While these groups might seem populist to some and hopeless to others, the impact social media are having on spreading messages of peace has not been lost on the international community.
Late last year, just before the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize were announced, speculation mounted that Facebook or Twitter – two platforms instrumental in propelling the Arab Spring – could be possible winners.
While neither social media platform won Nobel prizes, less than two weeks ago the World Peace Forum paid tribute to these outlets by dedicating a session to examining the impact of Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Google on peace.
Although the conclusion was that social media were not likely provide an immediate solutions to world’s various conflicts, including our own, like Peres, the World Peace Forum noted with enthusiasm the vital role they are playing in helping to promote peace.