Virtual existence

tents settling hatzerim (photo credit: JNF)
tents settling hatzerim
(photo credit: JNF)
When Antony Mitchelin was assigned to prepare a project on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the 16-year old Los Angeles high school student went straight to the Web. On Flickr, a popular image-hosting site, he found photographs of Palestinian women crying over olive trees they believed had been cut down by settlers. On YouTube, a video-sharing site, he watched settlers in Hebron throw rocks at Palestinian children and hurl insults at Palestinian women. When he visited Google Maps and looked up the locations of Jewish settlements, the descriptions which popped up on his screen read: "This settlement has been stealing land from the Palestinians since..." Like many of his generation, Mitchelin gets most of his information on-line. Although he eventually found several articles in favor of the settler movement (through the conservative blog Little Green Footballs), his overwhelming impression from the resources he searched was that the settler movement was a settled question. "I just figured that everyone was against them," he said. "I told my teacher that it was weird that it was all in the news because I didn't understand why they were there." While conservative blogs have grown in recent years, the number of blogs taking a pro-settler position has consistently lagged behind. According to Yossi Gurvitz, from the Friends of George blog, the left-wing, anti-settler movement is overwhelmingly more sophisticated in its use of the Internet. "People who are leftists are generally from a higher socioeconomic stratum, and they got on the Web a bit earlier," he said. "I think there is another problem of the extreme right wing, the religious right wing, in that they close themselves off to the media... they are trying to make it their enemy." Last week, a video posted by B'Tselem on YouTube made international headlines by showing a female settler harassing a Palestinian woman. While the context of the video was unclear, it showed Yifat Alkobi following a Palestinian woman to her home and yelling insults in Arabic at her. "If I were a right-winger from Hebron, I would take a camera and make a movie of my own," said Gurvitz. Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburger, director of the Bezeq International Research Center for Internet Psychology, explained that people are empowered by going on-line. "I would think that if the settlers feel that [the media] is against them, they should use alternate channels such as the Internet. They should be turning to alternative media, I-media, such as YouTube and blogs, and use them even more because they represent alternative power," he said. "I would actually think that after Amona, when they realized the power of the alternative media, they would go in and get more right-wing bloggers." In February 2006, more than 300 people were injured in violent confrontations as police officers and soldiers attempted to evacuate nine buildings in the Amona outpost near Ofra. Settler activists filmed many of the confrontations, and later released a video documenting police brutality which became a central piece of evidence in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's inquiry into the evacuation. Some bloggers feel that the success of the Amona video, and similar videos that were created during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, helped galvanize many pro-settler activists into becoming more active on-line. "I am also hesitant to speak to the foreign press... I started blogging a year and half ago because of the disengagement," said Jameel of Jameel, [his screen name] is Jewish and lives with his family in a West Bank settlement. "I felt that there were a lot of pro-disengagement blogs that were outside of Israel and it bothered me. I didn't think that they adequately understood all the positions. I started blogging to promote Israel. For Mitchelin and many others who are getting their information on-line, part of the problem is the arguments being used to defend the settler movement. "A lot of the stuff I found that did defend the settlements talked about the Bible giving the Jews a right to the land and all that," said Mitchelin. "I couldn't really use that in my report because my teacher is a Buddhist." Gurvitz also said that he feels that the pro-settler blogs often tend to cite religious texts in defending the settlements. "A lot of blogging is about the debate... When someone posts 'I am here because God sent me to live here,' that isn't really something you can argue or debate," said Gurvitz. In the end, Mitchelin said that his father helped him go to the local library and research print articles that had been written in defense of the settler movement. "For me and a lot of my friends, there is this attitude that if it doesn't exist on-line, it doesn't really exist," said Mitchelin. "I mean, if I wasn't doing it for school, I never would have gone to the library to photocopy all that stuff arguing for the settlements."