Social media sites are a force to reckon with in the Palestinian territories, says former PA communications minister, adding that if a new uprising erupts, that is where it will begin to brew.
WASHINGTON – Although his father Mamdouh Saidam was one of the founders of Fatah, Dr. Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, entered the political arena at the relatively late age of 34. It was then that he was appointed minister of communications and information technology in the Palestinian government. Today, no longer in government, the former «Mr. Technology» of the Palestinian Authority prefers the hat of researcher and Palestinian Internet guru. He is also one of the activists behind the establishment of the Palestinian domain ps.
«Coming from the IT field, I can tell you honestly that I’ve always felt as if I were carving in stone – getting computers or talking about e-government in Palestine was mission impossible,» he says in an interview with Haaretz. «Now all the politicians are meeting bloggers and talking to them. There was no party interested in these people until the events in Tunisia and Egypt. They were considered to be time-wasters, kids.»
Saidam is in Washington now working with the Aspen Institute to promote entrepreneurship among young Palestinians. «All of a sudden, everybody wants to know and have a private session to talk about Facebook and how they can open an account,» he says.
Half of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have computers, according to Saidam, and about 30 percent are connected to the Internet.
«When the demonstrations started in Tunisia, there were 600,000 Palestinian Facebook users, and 200,000 of them were posting about politics. Each one of these 200,000 Facebook users is influencing five people around him. We’re talking about over a million Palestinians over the age of 18. In terms of population size, that’s 33 percent. In Egypt, that would be 28 million Egyptians, but there it took only 2,890 bloggers and computer activists to do what was done. The moral of the story is that there is a critical mass of Palestinians waiting to see how things are going to swing.»
Saidam believes that all those who stormed Israel’s borders on Nakba Day were simply in rehearsal mode. «Those who have broken the fear barrier, will be willing to do it again,» he says. «Israel focuses on September, but they ought to focus on the 5th of June, the anniversary of the Six-Day War. There are already increased calls to march into the borders again.»
There are two schools of thought on the matter, he says. «There’s one that says: ‘You’ve done it once, thank God there weren’t more casualties, but don’t do it again. Go to the borders, amass as many people as you can, but don’t cross, because Israel has now learned the lesson. They can go and camp for a while, and this camping will send a message to Israel and the world, and it will help the Palestinians to build up pressure as preparations are made for September.’ The other school of thought says: ‘No, let’s break fences and charge.’ There are more supporters of the second approach.»
Saidam says that the PA is beginning to understand the power of the Internet, and many of its members now want to meet with bloggers and open an account. «But there is no Palestinian Wael Ghonim [the young Google marketing executive who became a symbol of the revolution] . . . It’s the issue of getting bored of the fact that they see leaders who existed for dozens of years. They don’t want any leaders.»
The trigger, he says, were the demonstrations held in the West Bank on March 15, when young Palestinians marched and called for an end to the rift between Hamas and Fatah. Abu Mazen then announced that he would be willing to go to Gaza, and an agreement was hammered out. «The young people felt they had some influence on the decision,» says Saidam. «And I am telling my peers that they should not only passively listen but allow young blood to flow into the decision making of the parties.»
Saidam notes that even Abu Mazen has a Facebook account. «He has a page where he posts all his meetings at president.ps. He is interested, but he is overwhelmed. Whenever I talk to him about computers, he is extremely supportive, but he doesn’t have time to surf the Internet. He has a lot on his plate.»
Saidam finds it amusing that a member of Congress recently asked whether the Palestinians use the Internet: «Do Palestinians use the Internet? Who is to blame for this Congressman not knowing whether we use Internet or not? No wonder they gave Netanyahu 29 standing ovations . . . they are totally ignorant. I’ve been in meetings in Congress, and there is a major problem, and it’s a problem of education. If they visit Palestine, it’s usually a courtesy visit of two hours.»
Gaza a Facebook champion
Per capita, says Saidam, the largest number of Facebook users in the world is in Gaza.
«That’s one thing people don’t know,» he says. Per capita, the largest number of video conferencing in the world is also in the Palestinian territories. «The legislative council used to meet through video conferencing in the West Bank and Gaza,» says Saidam.
«There were medical exams conducted over the Internet. My mother, who lives in Gaza, has a heart problem. She comes to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem for treatment. And in so many cases, she was refused permission to go back to Gaza after treatment. That’s one of the reasons I was trying to promote Internet treatment so people wouldn’t have to travel. People takes it for granted because the culture of IT is so embedded in society, but there are economic hardships that prevent people from acquiring technology, even though 94 percent use cell phones.»
Several weeks ago, Saidam launched a project in the territories in which experienced Internet users volunteer to teach parents, especially stay-at-home mothers, to use the computer and to surf the Internet. Every Monday he has a radio program in which he advises listeners about what should not be publicized on Facebook. If they surf in other countries, he tells them, they need to bear in mind that the boss has the ability to surf their page, and in the case of Palestinians, so does the Shin Bet security service.
Another problem he cites is that Palestinians telecommunications services are provided by Israeli companies. «This is a prime source of intelligence for the Shabak [Shin Bet], Mossad and whatever,» he says. «Everybody here publishes his or her beliefs and opinions and pictures and family news – everything. I tell them: You are the owner of the information. Whatever you are hesitant about – don’t release it.»
According to Saidam, Palestinian politicians are afraid of the Internet because they have no control over those who surf it. «But then they came to realize that it’s something that is totally out of the censorship scissors, nobody can gag anybody else, it’s a free world.»
The Third Intifada Facebook page, he notes was created in Lebanon – not in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Facebook, under Jewish pressure, decided to close it. But being controversial is being famous. After Facebook closed it, there were several new pages.»
Saidam says that young Palestinians are more committed than most would believe. «When you have a kid coming to his parents at Yarmouk refugee camp [in Syria], telling them he’s going to have dinner in Jaffa, and they laugh at him and don’t take him seriously. And then he ends up going with Israeli peace activists to Jaffa, has dinner there, gives an interview to Channel 10 and then gives himself up to the Israeli police. I think any Israeli general should worry.
«I lived in Gaza and the West Bank and have seen every adventure you can imagine, but to have this level of commitment, to come all the way to Jaffa, that’s what makes me think that the 5th of May was only a rehearsal. Most young people are not talking about the peace process or the Arab initiative or the 1967 borders. If a new revolution erupts, it will be a revolution led by more sophisticated minds than those in the second intifada.»
Unlike Netanyahu, he says, the Palestinians did not say «no» to everything. But Netanyahu’s speech has, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the possibility that the PA will renege on its plans to ask the United Nations to vote on Palestinian statehood in September. «Our feeling is that Israeli society is dominated by right-wingers,» he says. «I believe Netanyahu is receiving intelligence reports that the Palestinians won’t make any further noise.»
Still, the situation on the ground has changed, he says. The Palestinians have never enjoyed more support and have finally succeeded in building a consensus. The Israeli leadership, he notes, initially said that there was nothing to discuss because there was no unity among the Palestinians, and now it says that there is nothing to discuss because there is unity.
Saidam has the following to say about Hamas: «Nobody wants them to be part of the government, and they know it. Two things they won’t do – they won’t sit in the government, and they won’t conduct the negotiations. And they know there will be a referendum.»
Saidam thinks that Palestinian unity is a good thing. «We had our worst brain drain, not during the 40 plus years of occupation, but during the time of Palestinian disunity. Hamas, despite all the negative things, stands for 1967 borders, for the same political vision as Fatah.»
Saidam lives in Ramallah with his two children. He has a doctorate from a British university but has never considered leaving his home. «My father was the deputy commander of the Palestinian forces in Jordan. He was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away during the conflict in 1971. I was four months old, and I had taken it upon myself that upon concluding my studies, I would go back to Palestine. In December 1995, I went to visit my family in the refugee camps of Gaza. I was encouraged to come back and live in Palestine and fulfill my dream. I have two kids, they are in Ramallah. No matter what happens, we are not leaving. I think even if we get slaughtered in our homes, we will not leave.»
Every Palestinian who has lost a loved one in the conflict has a personal dilemma, he says. «In order to achieve peace with the Israelis, they have to understand our lives on the other side of the fence, how my mother spends 36 hours without electricity in Gaza, how people who need dialysis can’t leave, how civilians are paying the price of the conflict. My oldest son, who is 8 years old, understands the connection. I caught him talking to his mother about the Jewish man on TV. His mother said, ‘It’s a Jewish man’ and he said, ‘This can’t be, don’t all Jews wear military outfits?’ This is all he sees. He sees Israelis only at the checkpoints. He doesn’t see them in my home. He doesn’t go to their homes.»