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Middle east

Website urges Syrians, Israelis to work for peace online

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2010-05-27

Israel and Syria have officially been at war since 1948. Now for the first time, a website – with contributions from writers in both countries – is examining what each side perceives as the obstacles to peace.

Syrian and Israeli writers and academics have come together in an unprecedented attempt to examine the seemingly intractable issues that place both countries in a state of constant war.

The website, online since May 17, provides something that neither side has ever had before: a public forum where the frustrations felt by ordinary citizens in both countries are laid bare.

Israelis and Syrians have never had a real opportunity to freely and publicly discuss the obstacles to achieving a lasting peace.

Damascus forbids face-to-face discussions between its people and Israelis.

“Before we can get to finding a solution to the conflict, people need first to understand why negotiations have so far always failed,” site founder Camille Otrakji, a Syrian-Canadian blogger, tells FRANCE 24.

Twenty obstacles to peace

Central to the site’s content are two lists of 20 perceived obstacles to peace, one from the Syrian point of view and the other written by Israelis.

Each of these obstacles, in turn, is subjected to counterarguments from contributors on the other side of the issue. Every argument is carefully balanced to highlight people’s concerns and to allow for conflicting opinions to be heard.

Some on the Syrian side argue that “what was taken by force can only be regained by force”, a reference to the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 and has been occupied ever since. Others state their belief that Israel “cannot survive without conflict”.

Israelis charge that Damascus openly supports terrorist organisations. But some of the site’s writers contend that Syria is in a good position to moderate and control those organisations that would be dangerous to regional stability if left to their own devices.

An avalanche of reactions

“We wanted to reflect as faithfully as possible the opinions of both populations,” Otrakji says.

But this is not something that can be achieved overnight.

“It all started in 2007, with an article by Camille Otrakji that appeared in ‘Haaretz’ (Israel’s left-leaning daily newspaper) on the 40 years that Israel has occupied the Golan Heights,” American Middle East expert Joshua Landis told FRANCE 24.

The Haaretz article produced an avalanche of reactions, and bloggers from both countries began to set down their arguments on Landis’ blog, “Syria Comment”.

In September 2009, some of these writers decided there was a need to go further.

“Too many of the comments were unusable, almost violent,” says Otrakji. “We needed to organise the information better.”

So sensitive were the issues that the writers – academics, journalists and bloggers – set about sharing their views on a private, password-protected web forum.

Over an eight-month period they put together the two lists of 20 obstacles to peace.

“These exchanges were very productive,” says Otrakji. “For the first time, Israelis were explaining to Syrians how to communicate with them, and vice versa.”
‘Bad Jews’

The Syrians were wary of how their government would react, while many Israelis worried that they would be seen by their countrymen as being “bad Jews”, Landis said.

The 10 (all exiled) Syrian contributors and 10 Israeli writers remain anonymous.

Spokespeople such as Otrakji and Yoav Stern, formerly of Haaretz, have taken it upon themselves to make the initiative known to a wider audience.

“Obviously we’re going to have problems,” explains Landis, who says that Damascus has frequently tried to shut down his blog.

“Worst-case scenario, the site will be blocked in Syria,” Otrakji says. “But that still leaves us the rest of the world.”

But how successful can a website be in helping resolve the seemingly endless list of disagreements in the Middle East conflict?  

“If it can even slightly change the mindset of opinion formers, we will have won,” Otrakji says.

Landis is less optimistic: “Where we stand right now, none of this has a real impact on negotiations between the two countries.”

But that is no reason to stand back and do nothing at all.


Date created : 2010-05-27


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