Friday, July 28, 2006

In the Midst of War, Bloggers Are Talking Across the Front Line

Online Conversations Go On, Despite the Explosions
July 28, 2006
Page A1

As missiles and hostile rhetoric fly back and forth between Lebanon and Israel, bloggers on both sides are talking to one another.

Lisa Goldman, a 39-year-old Canadian-born Israeli blogger in Tel Aviv, wrote in a recent post, "Will this turn out to be the first time that residents of 'enemy' countries engaged in an ongoing conversation while missiles were falling?"

Bloggers from Lebanon and Israel -- some on the scene, others around the world -- are providing live updates of their experiences, commenting on each other's writing and sometimes linking to blogs across the border.

The dialogue is all the more unusual since the populations of the two countries had few ways to interact even before the fighting began. Lebanese law prohibits Israelis from entering the country, and there are no phone connections between the two states.

Most of the bloggers in this small group are Western-educated. Some attended the same universities but communicated for the first time in a comment thread on one another's blogs. Of course, on a blog, it is hard to tell whether a given contributor is in a bombed-out neighborhood in Beirut or an apartment in the U.S. In recent days, many of the Lebanese bloggers in this small community have fled the country, to Syria or Europe or the U.S.

The future of this odd new cross-border community is being tested by the current conflict. Some bloggers have stopped their exchanges. Others are still talking.

The Internet has made it possible "to have a Beirut-Tel Aviv online IM chat in real time," Ms. Goldman wrote, on her On the Face blog. "That's what happened to me and this blogger a few nights ago. We chatted while he was sitting on the roof of his apartment building in Beirut watching missiles from Israeli planes fall on his city and describing it to me. He was carrying on an online conversation with another Israeli at the same time."

The Lebanese blogger, who runs the Lebanese Political Journal blog, won't disclose his identity because he believes his online chats with Israelis could be considered an act of disloyalty. He says in an email: "Chatting with Israelis from Lebanon during war is very awkward." But, he says, "One remembers that we are still humans regardless of where the borders lie."

About instant messaging during the bombings, he says, "I also saw their fear, the effect of Hezbollah's missile barrage on northern Israel. I learned about public and private bunkers. They learned that we don't have bomb shelters in Lebanon. We take refuge in the stairwells. As explosions reverberated around me, I stayed in my apartment on the top floor of my building in front of paned windows."

Ms. Goldman came into contact with another Lebanese blogger, Raja, months ago after she saw a posting on his blog, The Lebanese Bloggers, about a synagogue that had been destroyed in Beirut. Raja was in Beirut for the start of the war but is now back in Baltimore, where he recently got his master's degree at Johns Hopkins University. On his way out of Lebanon he stopped in Syria: "I freaked out when I was in Syria because I got an email with the subject: 'Hello from Israel,' and I thought 'Oh sh-.'" He stopped checking his emails while in Syria. He requested that his last name not be published because members of his family are temporarily in Syria and he worries that his communication with Israelis could be dangerous for them. "You have to understand that the politically correct way to refer to Israel in Lebanon is, 'the enemy.' "

Ms. Goldman, a freelance journalist who describes her own political views as complicated, hovers over these precarious exchanges like a mother hen. And she is quick to exercise diplomacy. At one point she tells a blogger angry at Israel: "Both the Israelis and the Lebanese are weeping. All of us, OK?

"So when you weep, weep for all of us -- Lebanese and Israelis, the citizens of the only two democracies in the Middle East, as we watch our dream of peace destroyed by insane religious fanatics."

Another blogger shoots back the next day, "The Palestinian Authority is as democratic as Lebanon and Israel." Ms. Goldman swiftly responds; "You are quite right about the PA...It was my oversight."

On her blog, the exchanges can be serpentine, with a Lebanese bloggers' forum linking to her blog, and a pro-Hezbollah chatboard linking to an item on her site, which has a photo of Israel's Channel 10 News coverage, which is in turn being broadcast by Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station.

The conversations range from lengthy policy discussions to quick, petulant back-and-forths. A sample:

Rorok86: "I am not saying what Hezbollah is doing is correct! But again Israel's reaction is not logical to kill all these civilians and tear the country down to nothing...Who is going to rebuild our country?"

Nir: "Look, I'm Israeli...The fact that there are 10 Lebanese casualties for every Israel is completely meaningless when a loved one is hit...Remember, this was all started by Hezbollah's actions. What would you do if you were Israel?"

Ainat: "What would you do if you were Israel? I am Lebanese and let me answer you: I would certainly want to destroy Hezbollah, so I would target Syria and Iran...and I would NOT target civilians, infrastructures, factories, ambulances....there is no army here."

Ms. Goldman started her correspondence with several other Lebanese and Israeli bloggers months ago. She says she met The Perpetual Refugee, a Lebanese executive for a multinational corporation, after he posted a comment on her blog. The two met when he visited Tel Aviv in May, visiting bars and cafes. They later traded postings on their reactions to the World Cup. The Perpetual Refugee was in Beirut the day the bombs started falling. Soon his tone changed. "Welcome to my Lebanese Holocaust," was the title of his post shortly after Israel started bombing Lebanon. "He's made a 180-degree turn since the beginning of the war and has become an Israeli hater," says Ms. Goldman, in an interview.

The Perpetual Refugee, who didn't respond to email requests to speak with him, recently posted a comment responding to an item from Ms. Goldman about the correspondence between Israeli and Lebanese bloggers: "We have united to fight the foreign oppressor. We will deal with internal politics once our sovereignty is guaranteed. That is the unfortunate reality. But it's the reality nonetheless. I hope you remain safe. The world needs more people like you. I still consider you my friend. But I will never return to Israel."

"It was really tragic for me," says Ms. Goldman. "That was one of the things that was the hardest thing about this fighting, because we had this really fragile new community, and we were slowly peeling back the layers of prejudice."

Ms. Goldman says she and her Lebanese counterparts once fantasized about getting together to drive up and down the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Beirut. They are about three hours apart. Now it's different. "Some people have said that they are angry, not at me personally, but how can I expect them to be completely open and moderate when their country is being smashed to smithereens?"

Write to Sarah Ellison at

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