DEHEISHE REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank – Cooped up in their communities for most of the past three years of fighting, Palestinians have found a way to escape: going online.
Internet use has risen sharply, putting the Palestinians ahead of much of the Arab world. Business people use the Web to place orders with suppliers, university students keep up with lessons and relatives separated by Israeli closures stay in touch through chat rooms.
“People are using the Internet a lot more for practical reasons than their counterparts in other regions,” said Maan Bseiso, owner of Palnet, the dominant Palestinian Internet service provider. “The political issue, as well as security issues in Palestinian areas, make people use the Internet for business and information and news. It’s not a luxury thing. It’s for practical use.”
The Ibdaa Cultural Center, home to Deheishe’s first computer center, typifies this electronic revolution. On a recent afternoon, giggling schoolgirls could be found exchanging notes in electronic chat rooms. Teenage boys surfed the Web, and young children were busy playing games.
Despite the apparent frivolity, the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the youngsters becomes clear at the cultural center, at the entrance of a refugee camp where 11,000 people live in cinderblock homes on less than one square mile near Bethlehem.
In one large mural in a hallway at the cultural center, a young man confronts an Israeli tank. Images of barbed wire and tents abound. A tattered child’s shoe, a reminder of fighting five decades ago, sits in a display case. And in the computer center, a painting of a man cradling a bloody child looks down on the work stations.
The giggling girls, it turns out, were chatting with pals in Chatilla, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon best known as the site of a 1982 massacre by an Israel-allied militia.
“My friend wants to know whether anyone has been arrested or killed,” said 13-year-old Maram Adel.
The male teens were updating Ibdaa’s website with information about life under Israeli occupation. A 10-year-old boy played Project IGI, a violent spy-adventure game that its manufacturer recommends for mature audiences.
“They are a radical generation,” said Ziad Abbas, co-director of Ibdaa. “The children look for shooting. It reflects something inside them.”
Abbas sees that as a problem, but says the children won’t come to the center if he doesn’t let them play the games. His aim is to introduce them to computers, then teach them more useful skills like sending e-mails or surfing the Web.
Ultimately, people use the Internet to keep in touch with relatives in other countries – or even nearby cities – that they cannot easily reach, Abbas said. Two students have recently gone on to study at universities in Germany.
By Western standards, Internet use remains low in the Palestinian areas. The Madar Research Group, a research firm based in Dubai, says about 8 percent of Palestinians were online in June. In comparison, about 40 percent of Israeli households have Internet connections, according to the Ministry of Communications.
Still, the Palestinian numbers are ahead of such countries as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, according to Madar. And the figures are much higher than they were before fighting broke out three years ago.
Mashhour Abudaka, vice chairman of the Palestinian chapter of the global Internet Society, said only 2 percent or 3 percent of Palestinians used the Internet before the uprising.
Although some of the increase was natural it has been spurred by Israeli crackdowns, Abudaka said. He cited surveys with Internet providers showing many Palestinians use the Web to do business or communicate with people in their local areas.
“That’s a strong indication that people have used the Internet to break the siege,” he said.
The Internet also has brought the outside world to the Palestinian areas, he added. He said international news sites, including The New York Times and the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, are popular with Palestinians. “The Internet has made our local media a waste of time,” he said.
Palnet’s Bseiso noted Internet use spikes during the most severe travel clampdowns by Israel.
Ahmad Aweidah, a vice president at the Arab Bank, said the Israeli crackdown has been a factor in the rapid growth of online services. While still a tiny percentage of the overall customer base, the number of online-banking customers has more than quadrupled this year to nearly 7,000, he said.
The online learning program at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank provides one of the most dramatic examples of the importance of the Internet. The program, used by students who couldn’t get to class, was launched in response to an Israeli incursion that followed a deadly suicide bombing in April 2002.
Travel restrictions threatened to cancel an entire semester, said Marwan Tarazi, director of the university’s information technology unit. “The Internet was the way out.”
By the next July, Bir Zeit had installed a rudimentary online learning system allowing students and professors to share notes, assignments and materials over the Internet.
“To get to where we are now would have taken a few years under normal circumstances,” Tarazi said. “Ironically, need is the mother of invention.”