By Josh Mitnick
Sderot, Israel – It’s a friendship that spans the poles of the Israeli-Palestinian war zone – this southern Israeli border town and a Gaza refugee camp about 10 miles away.
The two men have not seen each other in about a year. But they are now reunited in the blogosphere, writing a joint diary to stave off their own despair and prove that a dialogue is still possible across the divide.
Titled, “Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot,” the pair rants in (uneven) English about the seeming futility about the Hamas-Israeli hostilities, the daily stress of surviving the violence, and the loneliness of optimists.
“Peace man,” an unemployed bachelor who resides in Gaza’s Sajaiya refugee camp, blogs between Gaza’s power outages and complains of insomnia from the constant overflights of Israeli attack helicopters.
“Hope man,” a software programmer whose Sderot house has been buffeted on all sides by Qassam rockets, worries about being away from his kids – who are at school – when the next rockets fall.
“We decided we wanted to come out to the world, and to show that there other types of relationships between Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis in Sderot, not only rockets and violence,” says the Sderot blogger. “Even though things are really awful, it’s to show there can be a true connection.”
On Wednesday, under pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would resume talks with Israel after a suspension earlier this week in protest over the killing of more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza.
On the eve of Ms. Rice’s visit, Hope Man said he had low expectations that her talks would yield a permanent halt to the cross-border violence. “I don’t think anyone has a clue about how to get out of this bind.”
Started in January, the Israeli-Palestinian blog team http://gaza-sderot.blogspot.com/ posts about every other day and they try to steer clear of political debate. The entries include first-person accounts of dodging Qassam rockets, shopping for scarce goods in Gaza’s markets, the frustrating search for like-minded Israelis and Palestinians, and a mantra-like appeal for a stop to the violence.
Afraid their public conversation may be seen as disloyal by their countrymen, they assiduously guard their true identities. The Gaza blogger says in a phone interview that some of his friends who know about the blog have expressed concern for his well-being.
The fighting of the past week, some of the worst in years, has made it almost impossible for Gazans to openly speak of peaceful relations with Israelis, even if it’s only in cyberspace. “They say it’s dangerous and that some groups don’t like this,” says Peace Man. “In Gaza, nothing is clear.”
In Israel, too, where the firing of hundreds of Qassam rockets resulted in one fatality last week, there is hostility toward those who openly talk to Palestinians. “Who’s that traitor that’s writing that damned blog,” Liron Amir, an Israeli sitting at a pizza restaurant in Sderot, replies when asked about the blog. “He should go live with them. We don’t want any connection with them.”
The bloggers met about two years ago through an Israeli-Arab dialogue group sponsored by the Center for Emerging Future in Boise, Idaho, which obtained Israeli army permits for Peace Man to cross into Israel to attend dialogue meetings in Jerusalem and Sderot.
Danny Gal, the Israeli coordinator for the center, said the group encourages Israelis and Palestinians to set up joint peace ventures.
They originally hoped to establish a joint summer camp for kids from Sderot and Gaza, but since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israeli border permits have become very difficult to obtain unless it’s for medical care. Though they continued to speak on the phone frequently, the frustrated pair decided to take their conversation online.
In the same way that blogs have experienced popularity as an alternative to mainstream news reports, a desire to “correct” the portrayal of the conflict in both Israeli and Palestinian media is another purpose of the blog, says the Sderot blogger.
“If you turn on Channel 1 in Israel, you will not see a balanced picture. That’s understandable. I’m not blaming anyone. We’re just trying to represent our reality,” says Hope Man.
“There’s a tendency of the media – especially when there’s an escalation – not to say things that are against the mainstream or the policy of the government. They try to show solidarity with policy.”
Talking by cellphone from his Gaza home, over the background thump of Israeli helicopters, Peace Man says that hope for peace among Gazans has nose-dived ever since Middle East leaders gathered in Annapolis, Md., to announce the resumption of peace negotiations.
Desperate for a respite from the violence, the blogging pair recently started calling for a one-month truce in the fighting, which they say will give a chance for the anger to ease on each side and for leaders to think creatively about searching for a solution.
“We just need a breather,” says Hope Man. “We may be a little naive, but its better than sitting around and waiting for everything to destruct around us.”