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Many people living outside the Middle East would like to understand the political situation in Israel and Palestine. But the more you read online at blogs and opinion sites, the more you realize that it’s not a simple situation of good vs. evil, or us vs. them. There are many ways to view the highly charged issues in this religious hot spot, where dovish Jews side with less militant Palestinians, and people with the most extreme positions end up in power (i.e. conservative Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Hamas).

Even before political bloggers rose to power in the U.S., the Israeli-Palestinian issues were being dissected in blog-like fashion on two outspoken sites, Electronic Intifada (EI) and Bitterlemons.org.

Both are non-profits and were started in 2001, but they take very different approaches to educating people globally on the issues in the Middle East. EI is more of an online magazine with a slant toward the Palestinian experience, through diaries and eyewitness news stories. Bitterlemons.org includes a weekly editorial from one Palestinian commentator, and one from an Israeli, and the online publication says it is institutionally divided equally between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Its motto is simply “Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire” — but without the angry spittle you’d see on the old CNN TV show.

I was curious what the keepers of these sites thought about the way blogs and other online media have played a role in educating people on Middle East issues, so I contacted Yossi Alpher of Bitterlemons.org and Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada. Abunimah co-founded EI as well as Electronic Iraq and lives in Chicago. Alpher is a writer and political consultant in Israel and has served as special adviser to the prime minister of Israel, concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

I emailed them separate questions, but have edited their responses together here for easier reading. Although I am including an Israeli and Palestinian perspective here, I want to stress that there are many other viewpoints on the issues affecting Israel and Palestine.

What was your motivation to start your website?

Yossi Alpher (Bitterlemons.org): Encouraging mutual understanding and dialogue through the open exchange of ideas. Impacting the way Arabs and Israelis and their supporters worldwide think about one another. Suggesting that conflict can be replaced, or even best served, by dialogue rather than violence.

Ali Abunimah (Electronic Intifada and eIraq): To provide quality news, analysis and opinion to both supplement and challenge what appears in the mainstream media. As far as EI is concerned, our goal is also to provide a fuller picture of Palestinian life beyond the conflict with Israel.

How much time do you spend working on your site?

Alpher: I devote at least 60% of a full work week to Bitterlemons.org, Bitterlemons-International.org and Bitterlemons-Dialogue.org, and to raising funds for these projects.

Abunimah: Two hours a day on average.

Have blogs and online media helped people get more unfiltered information from the Middle East?

Alpher: Without doubt. We chose the medium of Internet because it enables us to bring our message to an unlimited audience.

Abunimah: I do not think of EI as a blog. We predate the blog phenomenon, and we see ourselves as something a lot more comprehensive and complete. I do believe that EI has had a huge impact though. Obviously thousands of people read it, but also because we are there and we are seen as consistent, we get contacted a lot by mainstream media for interviews and opinions. Also, people take our content and reproduce it in print. So EI reaches people through several different routes.

I think blogs in general are overrated. The sheer proliferation of them, for one thing, means that it is very hard to see them as a true alternative. Although a few blogs I have seen are interesting, many are quite dull, and seem to be more interested in point scoring against other blogs.

A blog is good because its content is good. In which case that same content could be delivered in any number of formats. What I say about blogs goes equally for podcasts. The vast majority are disappointing. The best podcasts so far are those produced by traditional broadcasters like the CBC and the BBC. Nevertheless there is in both mediums (blogs and podcasts) a space for talented, interesting people who are not in the mainstream media. The problem is who has the time to separate the wheat from the chaff!

I can say that what EI does, as limited is it is, is difficult and takes a lot of hard work by people who are not paid to do it. If the product is good it is because we work really hard at it with very few resources. So in my experience there is no reason to believe that just because new media like blogs or podcasts are available, all of a sudden everyone will become the new I.F. Stone. People still need to know how to read critically, write and research well and those are things you learn the hard way.

How can people trust what they see on independent websites and blogs online?

Alpher: I’m not in a position to advise on this issue. In the case of the Bitterlemons family of Internet publications, we present opinion pieces, all signed, and we emphasize diversity.

Abunimah: Our message is always that we want people to be active and critical consumers of media, not passive recipients. My motto is to treat everything with skepticism. So on EI we believe that facts and claims need to be well sourced and documented, just like any other medium. The advantage of the web is that you can link directly to sources a lot of the time, which actually means that websites can be more credible, or at least more immediately verifiable than some other kinds of media.

Yossi, now that CNN has killed its “Crossfire” program, do you feel that your format might need to change? Why or why not?

Alpher: I see no need for change. We adopted the term “crossfire” to signal that ours is not a warm and fuzzy consensus, but a serious exchange of views between and among people who disagree. Note that we call BitterLemons-International.org “Middle East roundtable.”

We do not seek to bridge the polarized dialogue, but rather to make it more civil and civilized, and of course to inform.

Abunimah: Bitterlemons is interesting in that it is a space for debate. I do think it is hard to do that well and they have done it fairly well. But again, Bitterlemons is well-funded and closely edited. At the same time, the advantage of the web is that every “side” can have its own space. I believe that pro-Israel opinion is more than adequately presented in the mainstream media, and it is not EI’s goal to reproduce this. We also show that there are more than two sides. We have many articles and contributions on EI by Israelis, for example, but they generally do not fit in to the mainstream stereotype of what an Israeli opinion should be. To me that is a more interesting role.

Other thoughts on the role of blogs and other online media in Arab society?

Abunimah: I think that the vast majority of people in the Arab world still get their information from radio, TV and newspapers. Online stuff is making inroads but it is still fairly small and fairly elite. I do think that people in Arab countries generally are much more used to using and evaluating multiple sources of news, and of treating what they hear with a high degree of skepticism. So in some senses, Arab countries may be ideal places for citizen journalism to take off.

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