Arabic-language Israeli Web site aims to sway opinions in the Arab world.
By BRENDA GAZZAR
An Arabic-language "hasbara" Web site edited by a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt offers a sampling of news items and perspectives that many Arabs in the Middle East are rarely served.
As a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Zvi Mazel selects a variety of Western and Israeli news items related to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world, which are translated into Arabic and then posted.
A recent glance at the site features short items centered on Operation Cast Lead.
"Americans sympathize with Israel more than Gaza," states an excerpt of a January 24 Bloomberg article, which cites a CNN poll that found 60 percent of Americans polled sympathized with Israelis while only 17% sympathized with the Palestinians over Israel's military operation.
"A high-ranking official in the European Union puts blame for Gaza War on Hamas," states another recent news item, which cites excerpts from a Reuters article. "The US monitors the entry of Iranian weapons into Gaza," states a third item, which was taken from the UPI news agency.
Mazel, who served as the Israeli ambassador to Egypt from 1996 to 2001, said the 13-month-old Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Web site is meant to allow the Arab public to become familiar with facts and ways of thinking that are not being presented to them by their own media outlets.
"It is true that in the last six or seven years, there has been a kind of a revolution that has happened in the Arabic media," Mazel said Thursday from his Beit Hakerem home.
"You have newspapers published in London like al-Hayat, a-Sharq al-Awsat and others that really give much more information about the world than the traditional Arab press butâ€¦ it's far from being enough. I don't think that they cover 80 to 90% of what is being said about them (in the Western press) and the way they are doing things and human rights."
The Web site also features opinion pieces, such as the one written in Arabic by Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based syndicated columnist entitled "Israel is the Opium of the (Arab) People."
In a January 2 column that spared neither side criticism, Eltahawy argued that "Hamas has given truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza as Hamas rockets meant for Israel fell short, just a day before Israel's bombardment began?"
She added that it was the ultimate dishonor to the memory of Palestinians killed in recent days to call for more violence.
"It has failed to deliver for 60 years," she said.
The Web site, which Mazel said has a limited budget and garners between 2,000 and 3,000 readers a month, also features historical pieces about the Jewish people's historic connection to the land of Israel, such as an article entitled "the Arab village of Aqbara was a Jewish village until the 13th century" and another about a Jewish presence in Acre since the time of the Mishna.
Many of the letters sent by readers from around the Arab world had been positive toward Israel, Mazel said.
A political researcher, who identified himself as an Iraqi Kurd, wrote to Mazel on January 28, saying: "I am among those who love the state of Israel and support what it did against Hamas - while I regret the killing of civilians - and I would like to communicate with you."
Another reader from Morocco, who has a blog in French called "Fundamentalist Zionist Muslims," wrote in French that he loses hope for change in the Arab world "when I see the Arab world reacting in a way that is far from reality concerning what is going on in Gaza."
Some readers from the Arab world have even asked for political asylum or job opportunities in Israel.
But as expected, others have responded to the site by attacking Israel or its foreign policy.
One reader, who identified himself as an Algerian, wrote last month that "Israel will completely cease to exist and we are among those who will remove it from the earth as God promised."
The site is also the frequent recipient of "attacks," or nonsensical or empty responses. One day last November, the site received about 150 such e-mails, which Mazel believes was an unsuccessful attempt to crash the site.
While Mazel admitted that it might be presumptuous to try to influence or change opinions in the Arab world vis a vis Israel, it doesn't appear to deter him from his goal.
It's a way, he said, to counter the government and media propaganda that surrounds the average, intelligent citizen in the Arab world.
"We don't fight through violence; we fight through a war of ideas," Mazel said, acknowledging that many in the Arab world would not have access to his site due to high illiteracy rates and limited Internet access.
"I would like to talk to them but I cannot talk to them. I cannot go to Yemen, to Saudi Arabia and sit with people and talk. So we have now this wonderful took called the Internet and through the Internet, we transmit to them some of these ideas."
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a policy research institute, is headed by Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who has served as a foreign policy adviser to Likud leaders Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu.
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