First Wikimania report: Achal R. Prabhala’s project: “People are Knowledge”

9 August, 2011 at 10:35 | Posted in Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, knowledge, Web 2.0, Wiki systems, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
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Achal Prabhala speaks to the group

Achal R. Prabhala, image via Wikipedia

It has been a long intensive week of fascinating events and this time,  this enchanted intellectual and social experience landed at home. Well, almost. I’m not a Haifa guy, rather a Tel Aviv one. To be more precise, I’m from a southeastern suburb of Tel Aviv, which makes me a “Tel Aviv wannabe”. Anyway, I came to know Haifa in the past several months and it is a beautiful well organized city. Tel Aviv has a lot to learn from Haifa.

I’m talking of course about Wikimania 2011, the annual Wikimedia conference that ended two days ago. My job at the organizing team was relatively minor, and yet I do feel part of this great success. Luckily there is plenty of pride to share… Pride is often said to be a sin, but in this case we truly worked hard for it, and the fact that people enjoyed and enriched themselves through this conference fuels this pride, so let’s allow it at least for the time being.

This year I served as an organizer, a presenter and a participant. It was way too optimistic and ambitious to think that I can play all these roles in one single conference, so actually I missed many interesting presentations. I gave three rather brief talks about Wikimedia Israel’s cooperation with the Africa Center of the Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, a cooperation that brought offline versions of the French-language Wikipedia to rural regions in Cameroon and Benin, and also about the flaws in the current editing system of Wikipedia and how they came to be (in my opinion). I also had many interesting talks at the conferences’ lounges and during its parties and tours. As for the “formal” schedule, I am waiting to see the video films of the presentations.

I will publish more information about the ideas raised in the conference, especially about issues related to my presentations and the topics I am interested in. In the meantime, I strongly recommend this film by Achal R. Prabhala, a veteran Wikimedian from India. He presented this film during Wikimania 2011, and I admire this initiative of his (and him personally): “People are Knowledge“. You can also read Noam Cohen’s report about Achal’s presentation.

Suska Döpp from Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR, West German Broadcasting) interviewed me about the Israeli-Arab conflict as it reflects on Wikipedia. It is not the first time I am interviewed about this issue, but Suska Döpp did a wonderful job and produced a concise straight-to-the-point report. Unfortunately my German is very basic, so I had to read it with machine translation and some help from German-speaking friends. Other reports about Wikimania and Wikipedia from WDR are available in this link.

Dostor-Wiki – A very modest attempt to “wikify” the Egyptian revolution

1 July, 2011 at 09:53 | Posted in Arab spring, Collaborative work, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics, Web 2.0, Wiki systems | 3 Comments
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The "Dahd" maze on the web

The "Dahd" maze on the web (the "Dahd" letter is a symbol of the Arabic language and its speakers; image via Wikipedia)

The Arabic-language Wikipedia has a mailing list, in which some very interesting information is occasionally exchanged. The mailing list is public, and yet Modern Standard Arabic, despite being the language of some 20 countries, an official UN language, and used by more than 250 million people (at least to some extent), is still considered a “secret language”, unintelligible by people who enjoy rain in August…

By the way, this is an opportunity to warn all of you who carry their umbrellas well into July, that Wikipedia has two Arabic versions – the bigger more established one is ar-wp, which is in Modern Standard Arabic (a.k.a Fuśħa “the purer language”), the other one, arz-wp is written in Egyptian Arabic (a.k.a. Maśri, which is in fact the dialect of Cairo, Alexandria and the surroundings). Egyptian Arabic is the language you would probably hear in dialogs of Arab films and plays, but its use as a written language is still controversial, so many Egyptian Wikipedians prefer to write on ar-wp rather than on arz-wp.

Egyptian Wikipedians to establish Wiki project for collaboratively writing new Egyptian constitution

In a recent thread on the Arabic-Wikipedia mailing list, one of the Wikipedians suggested opening a Wiki project for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. This project is not supposed to be related to Wikimedia, but he tried to recruit people to the mission through the Wikimedia mailing lists (after all, this is where you would find a large group of Wiki-system enthusiasts).

Hello people,

This message has been sent to two mailing lists, that of the working group of the Arab celebrations for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary and that of the Arabic Wikipedia.

I came to know a person who encouraged me to undertake the idea of a Wiki for the Egyptian constitution, so that the Egyptians use the Web for writing a constitution collaboratively. We could bring forth a draft (or drafts) to the Egyptian constitution, as the Egyptians think it should be. I liked this idea a lot and became very enthusiastic about it. I was also encouraged by the fact that the brothers in Tunisia had already started such a Wiki for the Tunisian constitution, about three months ago, and it was very successful.

What do you think? Who should take part?

As this Wikipedian said, the idea is not new. In fact, he himself mentioned the Tunisian Wiki project – destour.org  – last March, which made me curious enough to look at it and report about it in the general mailing list of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The reactions to the idea were very welcoming, and a temporary website was soon set by another veteran Egyptian Wikipedians. A special domain name was later registered – dostorwiki.org – leading to the same temporary website. Dostor or Destour, by the way, is the Arabic word for “constitution”. There is not much to read on this website at this point, even if you can read Arabic (and by the way, it is Modern Standard Arabic, this is a political revolution, not a linguistic one…) And yet, as someone pointed out in a response to my report to the general mailing list, and another person, in a respond to the recent discussion on the Arabic mailing list, Google groups for the purpose of collaboratively drafting the new Egyptian constitution have already been established. These are the two mentioned in the aforementioned mailing-list messages:

http://www.google.com/moderator/?hl=ar#15/e=581e0&t=581e0.40&f=581e0.1501bd

https://groups.google.com/group/dostorna

Some of the debates on these groups seem quite naïve. For example, an article currently brought  to a virtual vote says “Limiting working hours to prevent abuse of workers. Setting a clear system for extra hours, and improving working conditions and salaries. Providing official bodies that would look into complaints within the shortest time”. There is also an invitation to a “real life” meeting about the status of women under the new regime and how it can be improved.

The “good guys” are always a step behind

So, do we witness a real Web 2.00-induced revolution in Egypt? I doubt it. Most of the Egyptians do not have access to this new medium, and it is well reflected in the relatively small number of participants, and the fact that almost all of them come from the same background more or less. And yet, even if the Internet became the new medium of communication of Egypt, and even if we adopt the assumption that Wiki systems and Google groups allow debates which are more democratic than those held in other media, at the end of the day, it is not the medium that makes the revolution. Iran uses the Internet as a main medium of communication, and yet the abundance of Iranian blogs, forums and FaceBook accounts did not make the recent protests there successful. The Iranian regime quickly learned how to control this new medium. Also, what we currently hear and read on Egyptian websites is a lot of antisemitic and anti-Israeli commentaries and conspiracy theories.

The Islamist movement of the Muslim Brothers has been using Media-Wiki systems to spread their propaganda for several years now. Here is one example called in Arabic “The Wikipedia of the Muslim Brothers” or “Ikhwan-Wiki” in English. Jihadist web-forums in Arabic teaching people how to carry out terrorist attacks are also hardly new. The “bad guys” are always one step ahead.

There is an Egyptian FaceBook group called “I am the first volunteer to the Egyptian Army in case of a declaration of war against Israel“. 141,950 people “liked” this group. Surely not all of them fully understand the idea behind this group, but still, comparing this number to the number of participants in those Wiki and Google projects is depressing. There is an Egyptian website which translates reports and articles from the Hebrew press into Arabic and adds harsh anti-Israeli propaganda to them, occasionally also hideous anti-Semitic essays. The talkbacks are always supportive. No criticism is heard below these writings.

So the future does not look too promising. The new medium is there, its use is often inspiring, but those who make positive use of it are still quite scarce. On the other hand, we should seize and encourage every sign of hope, shouldn’t we?

How do you pass an elephant through the eye of a needle? With force of course.

8 November, 2010 at 22:31 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
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If you feel frustrated about the Middle East conflict, you are not the only ones. Well, yes, President Obama seems quite frustrated too, but even more than that, the admins on the English-language Wikipedia feel helpless in face of endless cyberspace wars between pro-Israeli and pro-Arab editors on Wikipedia. The admins have been called to convene on yet another “Project Page”, let off steam and comment on some suggestions about the matter.

The “Arbitration Committee” of the English-language Wikipedia has already addressed this issue in January 2008, and decided that “Wikipedia is a project to create a neutral encyclopedia” and that “Wikipedia users are expected to behave reasonably, calmly, and courteously” and also that “Wikipedia works by building consensus. This is done through the use of polite discussion”. In short, the Arbitration Committee had nothing to say about the matter accept shouting “behave!” at the wayward children. It did, however, provided the admins with new “rules of engagement”, regarding the use of the lethal cyberspace weapons they already possess. Consider the following article in its decision (emphases added).

Any uninvolved administrator may, on his or her own discretion, impose sanctions on any editor working in the area of conflict if, despite being warned, that editor repeatedly or seriously fails to adhere to the purpose of Wikipedia, any expected standards of behavior, or any normal editorial process. The sanctions imposed may include blocks of up to one year in length; bans from editing any page or set of pages within the area of conflict; bans on any editing related to the topic or its closely related topics; restrictions on reverts or other specified behaviors; or any other measures which the imposing administrator believes are reasonably necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the project.

The admins used the weapons handed to them abundantly as can be seen in the log kept for recording the course of events. If you look at the names of the administrators who impose the bans and restrictions, you will notice that there are no longer “uninvolved administrators”. Actually, I am sure there are, but they are unwilling to enter this hot kitchen. Those who are willing, have by now become involved in this cyberspace conflict up to their neck, and it is hard to treat them as impartial at this point.

Looking at their suggestions to lower the ever growing flames, you will see much more of the same. If solving the conflict is as hard as passing an elephant through the eye of a needle, the admins suggest to force the elephant even harder into the tiny hole. Well, admins, take a deep breath and realize that what you have been doing so far is wrong. There are politically motivate editors who have been gaming the system. Show them the door. They do not deserve the benefit of the “assume good faith” principle. Many good editors were blocked, but peculiarly not these ones. Do without the edit war phobia. Edit wars are often a blessing. Let people argue and fight about the right phrasing and the right way to put things. If they act in good faith, this “war” might end with an interesting solution. If you see an edit war, do not look for the person who initiated it. Look at the content and think if you can rewrite it in a way that would solve the problem. A good admin is first and foremost a good editor, not a virtual policeman.

A Tale of a Tub on Wikipedia, or from the Heights of Golan to Wikipedia’s Lowest Point

31 October, 2010 at 16:45 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Some are still left on the Golan Heights, some are being planted on Wikipedia - Beware of the mines. (Image by Randall Niles via Flickr)

Anonymous user introduces changes to the article about the Golan Heights

An anonymous user, known only by his IP, enters the English-language Wikipedia and makes some edits to the article about the Golan Heights (a geographical region of disputed sovereignty that straddles the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria). The changes are not too radical.  The term “occupied”, which entails support to the Syrian position is changed to the more neutral “administered”, the politically-charged term “settlements” is replaced by “post-1967 communities”. The words “Internationally recognized as Syrian territory occupied by Israel” are toned down to “Administered by Israel, claimed by Syria, subject to UN Security Council’s resolutions 242 and 338”. Whether or not you like the new phrasing, the edits are quite in line with Wikipedia’s policy known as “Neutral Point of View”, namely that Wikipedia does not take sides in disputes, and accurately describes the facts on the ground (the Golan Heights are under regular Israeli civil administration since 1981).

An editor fond of controversial topics intervenes and reverts

The edits are naturally contested, some of them maybe rightfully. The term “post-1967 community” does sound a bit enigmatic, and perhaps settlement is the preferable term here. The user who quickly reverts the edits is “Unomi“. Unomi is an interesting figure on the Wikipedian scene. He is relatively new to the English Wikipedia (since March 2009), although he claims to have been using the nickname “Unomi” on Wikimedia projects for several years. He is very much concerned about the ambiguity of Wikipedia’s policies and lack of neutrality, and indeed most of his edits are on controversial topics. He also contributes quite a lot on Middle East-related articles and usually sides the pro-Arab line in the description of the Middle Eastern conflict.

Two pro-Arab advocates end the discussion

Even though “Unomi” is an eloquent mouthpiece of a certain view of the Middle-Eastern conflict, he seems to have found an equal rival. The debate between the user identified by his IP address and Unomi gets longer and longer, several users even support the anonymous user’s edits. “Nableezy” and “Supreme Deliciousness” soon come to the rescue. These two users are Wikipedia’s worst nightmare. They have no interest in free content or free access to knowledge. They sensed the reputation Wikipedia enjoys as being comprehensive and impartial source of information (well, that’s the reputation, you’ll be the judges whether or not it is justified). Both Nableezy and Supreme Deliciousness are political advocates that realized that the introduction of their political perspective into Wikipedia worths thousands of articles in blogs and newspapers. Of course Wikipedia has some mechanism to make their work hard, but they diligently learned how to manipulate the system. When all fails, they resort to blocking. Look at this dialog from RolandR’s talk page (a personal page dedicated for posting messages to a certain editor). RolandR, by the way, is a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist, so he has a common language with “Supreme Deliciousness” and “Nableezy”. The former is an obsessive reader of Israeli sources in English, and he informs RolandR that he was mentioned in some talkback on an Israeli English-language website. Nableezy then raises the issue of how to “eliminate” the anonymous user that makes edits to the Golan Heights article. The solution is easy – alleging that he is a “sock puppet” of yours humbly (DrorK is my username on Wikipedia).

The cabal convenes

You are mentioned

  • Hello, just wanted to make you aware that you were mentioned by the first poster in the comments section in this news article:[1] —Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 09:45, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Thank you. It’s clearly more of the same harassment I have encountered on- and off-Wikipedia for several years now; it doesn’t bother me. These juveniles are wasting their time, but at least this keeps them out of mischief. RolandR (talk) 21:19, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • What harassment have you encountered off-Wikipedia? –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 21:27, 19 August 2010 (UTC)
  • The same person who stalks me on Wikipedia has created an offensive blog about me, and has sent countless comments in my name to loads of internet forums and blogs, trying to smear me as an antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab terrorist with homoerotic and anal fantasies. It says more about him than about me. Most websites (even thoise unsympathetic to my political views) delete them on sight. If you email me, I can tell you more; I don’t want to give more details here. RolandR (talk) 21:43, 19 August 2010 (UTC)

Return of Drork?

  • Hi Roland, I wasnt around when most of the IPs Drork was using were brought to SPI, but what do you think the chances are that this IP is another sock of Drork? nableezy – 06:37, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I don’t think so. The IP is in the same range as several of Drork’s blocked socks; but these seem to be assigned to Bezeq, so many editors in Israel could be usiung them. Drork never edited the Golan article, and the style of argument does not sound like him. It is reminiscent, though, and I will see if I can recall who it reminds me of. RolandR (talk) 11:16, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork edited that article, see here where the same argument over “settlement” is made. Or here where a “retired” Drork edits as an IP and makes the argument that “occupied” cannot possibly be an accurate or neutral description (collapsed section on that page), a continuation of this (also collapsed). nableezy – 12:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Oh, I missed that. You may be right; but the tone and obsessions do not seem the same as Drork’s. Certainly no smoking gun there, as far as I can see. RolandR (talk) 13:00, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Im not sure either. The arguments over “occupied” and “settlement” have a Drork taste to them, but a lot of people are opposed to using those words. Combined with other factors such as a clear familiarity with wiki syntax though this is clearly not a “new” editor. nableezy – 13:14, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • I’m sure of that. But proving it is another matter. RolandR (talk) 13:20, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
  • Drork returned some days ago on wikimedia [2] –Supreme Deliciousness (talk) 17:52, 21 August 2010 (UTC)
Final remarks

All the information given above, including the conversation from RolandR’s talk page, is available to anyone through Wikipedia and its mirror sites. All users I have mentioned could have been great contributors to Wikipedia had they come with a genuine objective to enrich this source of knowledge. In fact, they are all very diligent and possess information and perspective that I, as well as many other people, could benefit from. However, they do not care much about enriching Wikipedia. They have a political battle to fight, and Wikipedia is just another mean to carry on this fight. Such conduct was a threat to Wikipedia from its very beginning. Right now, the project is unable to protect itself from this kind of conduct because there are many rules, but little spirit. When breaking trivial rules like avoiding more than two reverts in 24 hours becomes the most punishable offense, then it means that the basic ideas behind the project are forgotten and the door is open to all kinds of manipulators.

Bus-stops and the Jewish Question

11 October, 2010 at 20:07 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, knowledge, Politics, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Holiday bus

The bustle around the bus (Image by RahelSharon via Flickr)

I can’t have enough of reading this cute article on the English-language Wikipedia: Judaism_Bus stops (now deleted from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism_and_bus_stops).

Naturally, it is not a “real” article, and it will be deleted eventually. It was written in order to prove that any two issues can be associated, like Judaism and bus-stops or Israel and apartheid.

Many thanks to Wikibias (http://wikibias.com/2010/10/judaism-and-bus-stops) for bringing this information, and to follow its recommendation, don’t forget to read the fascinating deletion discussion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Judaism_and_bus_stops

Had Wikipedia been invented only so we could read such discussions, it would have been enough to justify the effort. Complements to User:Chesdovi who has just won my admiration.

By the way, I have just noticed that pro-Palestinian editors on Wikipedia managed to push the limit a bit further, changing “Israel and the apartheid analogy” into “Israel and apartheid”. Of course we have no proof for such allegations, just politically biased sources and some exaggerated rhetorics, but we’ve never said there are any reliable sources, have we? We’ve just said “Israel” and “Apartheid” in the same phrase. Is that a violation of Neutral Point of View? Come on, can’t a person speak freely these days? Just don’t say Afro-American, it’s offensive, you must say African-American. And don’t say Syria violates human rights or that there is persecution against Copts in Egypt. It is hardly civilized to say such things…

Palestinian-made Israeli settlements

1 October, 2010 at 18:12 | Posted in Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment
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Qedumim settlement up close

Qedumim, Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank, near Kafr Qaddum - the settlements are actually built by Palestinians (Image by michaelramallah via Flickr)

The veteran Israeli journalist, Nahum Barnea, went t0 Gush Etzion to see with his own eyes the end of the moratorium on construction works in the Israeli West Bank settlements. He published a report today, on his weekly column in Yedioth Aharonoth‘s weekend supplement (Ha-Musaf Le-Shabbat, 1 Oct 2010 ). Nahum Barnea reveals a phenomenon that should not come as as a surprise to anyone who is acquainted with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories are actually being built by Palestinian Arabs. The Israelis provide the plans, of course, but it is local Palestinian contractors and workers who carry out the building projects. No one can force them to do this job, they come out of their own free will. When asked why, they say it is the only way to make a living. In Nahum Barnea’s report today, the Palestinian contractor says that in Hebron, where he lives, everyone builds his own house, so construction workers are hardly needed. Nahum Barnea points out to new plans for construction of tower blocks in Ramallah, but the Palestinian constructor dismisses these plans as unserious. Nevertheless, he refuses to be photographed saying that the Palestinian Authority “makes troubles” to those who work at the settlements. Barnea explains that the PA plans to forbid the Palestinians who live under its jurisdiction from working at the settlements.

The Palestinians have a simple way to extend the “settlements moratorium” – they can refuse building the settlements. What about the economic damage to Palestinian families? First of all, the Palestinian were willing in the past to launch wide-scale attacks on Israelis. This attacks brought about a serious crisis in the Palestinian economy, and yet the Palestinian deemed these attacks necessary (by their logic). Refusing to build in the settlement seems much less harmful and less damaging to all sides than launching armed attacks. But there is another thing – it is time that the Palestinians stopped relying on either Israel, Arab countries or foreign wealthy nations for economic support. The Palestinian have never been economically independent, not even in the days of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Palestinian economy has always relied on the Jewish Zionist economy (which has later become the Israeli economy), on wealthy Arab countries (most particularly the Gulf countries before the 1991 Gulf War), on UNRWA (the special UN agency for taking care of Palestinian refugees) and on donations from Europe. Considering this situation, it is hardly surprising that most of the Palestinians are poor, and that the Palestinian People cannot establish an independent state of its own.

Barnea’s account also reveals the hypocrisy of pro-Palestinian campaigners in Europe. Flotillas are relatively easy to organize, and they create a lot of fuss. So are demonstrations and calls to boycott Israel. It is much harder to think of ways to help Palestinians reach economic independence. Communication lines are numerous and free these days. Pro-Palestinian organizations could give preference to Palestinian Arabs in various works that can be sent over computer networks. Translations into Arabic are often needed in Europe, and they can be easily sent via email. Programming from a distance is also a possibility. If special courses are needed, they can also be performed online and  in video conferences. European publishers can support Palestinian artists by publishing and distributing them. This are some very basic ideas, I’m sure many more could be found. Perhaps they are not so relevant to construction workers, but their children who might have received better formal education and get along with computers, could make some much needed money in such projects and provide for their families.

I know chanting “boycott Israel” is much more fun, and condemning the end of the settlement moratorium is something one can do without fund raising and without disturbance to his quiet afternoon rest, but there is little help for the Palestinians in such actions. The real help, which, by the way, would also be beneficial for Israelis and other inhabitants of the Middle East, is finding creative ways to help the Palestinian civil economy.

Hanan Ashrawi – from pragmatism to extremism?

27 September, 2010 at 06:50 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics | Leave a comment
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Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)

 

A friend of mine recommended I read a recent interview with the senior Palestinian activist, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Dr. Ashrawi gave this interview to the Israeli Maariv-affiliated local newspaper “Zman Yerushalayim”, issued in Jerusalem in Hebrew. Commenting in English on an interview published in Hebrew might seem a bit unfair, and yet Ashrawi’s statements have been heard in various languages from many Palestinian mouthpieces, and it is important to reveal the acute problems embedded in them.

Dr. Ashrawi is considered one of the most intelligent, eloquent and pragmatic among Palestinian activists. She seems like the ideal person with whom to reach a peaceful settlement and end years of misery. And yet, in this interview, and despite the resumption of direct peace negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, Dr. Ashrawi joins the extremists among Palestinian Arabs. Her eloquent diplomatic language might fool certain people, but for the common Israeli, her words are frustrating and echoes some of the harsh statements of the 1964 Palestinian National Convenant.

“Everything can be worked out”

The interview starts from its end, the interviewer Eli Oshrov says he told Dr. Ashrawi at the end of the interview that the provisions she stipulated throughout the interview would be unacceptable to most Israelis. “Everything can be worked out”, she replies, but to be honest, I don’t see how, unless she was trying to present high Palestinian demands as a kind of tactic. If it is indeed a tactic, it is a dangerous one, and Ashrawi should do without it.

UN GA resolution 194

Dr. Ashrawi starts with the Palestinian demand to let the Palestinian refugees resettle in the Israeli territory, and cites the UN General Assembly resolution 194 from December 1948. Dr. Ashrawi reiterates an old Palestinian claim as if there were an international resolution ordering Israel to accept “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees. There is little truth in this claim. First of all, the resolution is merely a recommendation, not a compelling decision. The resolution does not talk about “right” of return, but merely calls for the repatriation of refugees who wish to live in peace with their neighbors. Needless to say, the Palestinian leadership did not accept the latter condition at the time, and the Jordanian Government ignored many other paragraphs in the resolution, like the call to allow free access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and make them cities under international rule.  Furthermore, in December 1948, the State of Israel was about seven months old. The UN did not recognize it yet, and the resolution still uses the old British Mandate terminology. In 1949 the UN recognized Israel as a sovereign state and UN member, a recognition that makes GA resolution 194 obsolete, at least within the “Green Line” boundaries.

The war between Israel and its neighboring countries was still ongoing in December 1948 (even though it reached its last stages). It seems quite reasonable to call for the repatriation of refugees when a war is still ongoing or has just reached its end. It seems totally unreasonable to do so more than 60 years later, during 40 of which the Palestinian party called for “armed struggle” for the “liberation of Palestine”, contrary to the stipulations of GA resolution 194 that calls for restoring peace and establishing reconciliatory committee.

Ashrawi: Jewish state means racist state

When asked about the demand that the Palestinian leadership recognize the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, Hanan Ashrawi tells the Israelis, “if you insist on being racist and discriminatory, good for you”. She says she struggles for a secular Palestinian state, so she cannot accept a Jewish state. There are two problems here. First of all, Israel is a Jewish secular state. “Jewish” is a polysemy which refers to a nation, an ethnic group and a religion. The name “Israel” was chosen for the Jewish state in order to avoid confusion between the national and religious senses of the term “Jewish” (there were other reason for this choice too). Israel is defined in its basic laws as a Jewish and democratic state, which is exactly the formula which Ashrawi wishes to adopt for the future Palestinian state, while replacing “Jewish” with “Palestinian”. And there is another problem – in the basic laws of the Palestinian National Authority, Palestine is defined as Arab and Muslim. The Palestinian law, according to this document, is inspired by the shari’a, namely the Islamic religious law. So, like it or not, the Palestinian National Authority, of which Dr. Ashrawi is part, is not secular nor egalitarian with regard to Palestinian Christians. The Israeli law, by the way, is based upon secular doctrines, except for matrimonial law, in which religious law applies, but all religions have equal status for this matter.

“Sovereignty is not based upon religion”

When it comes to the issue of Jerusalem, Dr. Ashrawi says “sovereignty is not based upon religion” but rather it is a political issue. Very well, but who says Palestinians have precedence over Israelis when it comes to sovereignty on Jerusalem? Dr. Ashrawi says the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall) should be under Palestinian sovereignty. Why not Israeli? Dr. Ashrawi does not explain. She accuses Israel of behaving like an “occupying force” in Jerusalem, while ignoring the fact that all Palestinian Jerusalemites received permanent resident status in Israel, which means they are entitled to more-or-less the same rights as Israeli citizens (almost all of them refused accepting full citizenship and preferred to keep their Jordanian passports, until Jordan stripped them of their citizenship leaving them stateless). She says “why do you need a guard” at the entrance to the Western Wall site, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of attacks on civilians, particularly suicide bombing, were carried out by Palestinians, even in holy sites and during holidays. She also ignores the fact that Israel respect the status of the Palestinian Muslim Waqf on the Temple Mount, allowing it to administer the place independently. The Israeli police is stationed outside the religious complex and confiscate prayer books from Jews who wish to visit the place. Jewish prayers are considered to be dangerous provocation, hence are strictly forbidden on the Temple Mount by the Israeli authorities. I wonder if the Palestinians showed similar respect to other religious and national groups should they gain control over Jerusalem.

So, Dr. Ashrawi, can we really work things out? Or perhaps someone on the Palestinian side should come up with more reasonable line of thought before making demands from the Israeli side?

Listening to a nightly interview with Shlomi Eldar

21 September, 2010 at 00:50 | Posted in Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment
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Shlomi Eldar, Israeli journalist covering Gaza Strip

Shlomi Eldar, Israeli journalist covering Gaza Strip (Image via Wikipedia)

I am currently listening to a radio interview of Kobi Meidan with Shlomi Eldar on Galei Tzahal. Kobi Meidan is one of the most prominent TV and radio interviewers in Israel, and Shlomi Eldar is one of the best and most appreciated among Israeli Hebrew-speaking journalists. Eldar has been covering the Palestinian Territories, particularly the Gaza Strip, for the Israeli Hebrew-speaking media during the past twenty years or so.

Shlomi Eldar is the perfect journalist – he is very courageous and extremely sensitive both to people as individuals and to public trends. He relies not on official statements or briefings but on information he collects meticulously with his bare hands and from ordinary Palestinians who act as his contact persons. He avoids falling into the trap of taking sides and preaching. He says he tries to capture the complex picture of this delicate Israeli-Palestinian situation, and in his case you can believe it because his reports leave you with clear deep thoughts rather than futile rage or stupid schadenfreude.

The main topic of the interview with Kobi Meidan, to which I currently listen, is Eldar’s new documentary film about a Palestinian baby with serious genetic immunodeficiency who has been treated in Israel after his two brothers lost their lives to the disease shortly after their birth. Eldar says he became emotionally involved with the subjects of his films, to a degree that he made his best efforts to facilitate the treatment. He says he nearly abandoned the project when the baby’s mother said before cameras that she would happily send her child to be a suicide-bomber. Then he realized that he should understand the deep streams that cause this paradox of a woman trying to save her baby and at the same time wishes him to become a suicide-bomber rather than get angry and abandon the scene. Kobi Meidan suggested that the mother tried to be “more Catholic than the pope”, namely that she has to make extremist statements in order not to be suspected with collaboration.

Two very important points I heard in this interview relate to the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit in June 2006 and to “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008. Eldar says he managed to reach the kidnappers of Gilad Schalit through one of his contact persons in Gaza. The contact person did not want to be the courier. “You Israelis are mad”, he said, implying that the Israel Defense Forces might relate him to the kidnapping and kill him. Eldar eventually convinced him. He came back with the following information: The kidnappers are confused and frightened. They want to end this affair as quickly as possible and ask for a low “price” (much lower than the current demands of the Hamas kidnappers, according to Eldar). Eldar further says that when he delivered this message to Israeli military officials they told him to mind his own business. This story reminded me of another report, according to which Israeli military investigators knew almost for sure that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had been killed during Hizbollah’s invasion into northern Israel in July 2006, i.e. Hizbollah kidnapped dead bodies rather than living soldiers, but this crucial information did not reach the higher-rank officials.

Apparently Israel has good intelligence, good professionals and it succeeded in having strong deterrence against its adversaries. This begs the question: why doesn’t Israel make wise use of these assets? Why does it let itself fall into traps set by organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah when it has all the information and measures needed to avoid them? Why does it let an Israeli soldiers remain at the hands of his kidnappers when it can end the affair within a short while? Why isn’t it more prudent about using force when it has the capability to carefully assess the benefit against the damage? In short – the brain is there, the means are there, so how come the decision making is so poor?

Shlomi Eldar went on telling about consequences of the bloodcurdling phone call he received while on air from Dr. Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian Gazan physician who used to work at Tel HaShomer medical center in Israel. Dr. Abu al-Aish told Shlomi Eldar with heart rending cries about the killing of his daughters from an Israeli shell, while Israeli television viewers hear it all live through their TV sets. Eldar says the then-Israeli Prime Minister shed some tears when hearing the broadcast. A ceasefire was declared the next day. Israel had every right to attack Gaza, Eldar says, pointing out to the Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and southern Israel. But at the same time he said Israel used too much force. He says he was condemned for his view during the first days of Operation “Cast Lead”, but not after the phone call from Dr. Abu al-Aish. People like Shlomi Eldar can and should be more common in our society.

Needed urgently – Islamic minority culture

16 September, 2010 at 16:14 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment

London Central Mosque

London Central Mosque (by Tawil via Flickr)

The major problem of Muslims today, especially Sunni Muslims, is lack of minority culture. Minority culture is a set of rules, norms, workarounds and sometimes even philosophies, that enable a relatively small community to live in harmony, or at least in reasonable coexistence, with a surrounding larger community that holds different values and norms. Sunni Islam did not have the opportunity to develop a minority culture because Sunni Muslims became majority within a short period of time from the emergence of Islam. Even in the early days of the Arab Muslim caliphate, when Sunni Muslims did not constitute a statistical majority, they still held the Muslim empire’s governmental posts and populated its political and religious elites. Later on, as the empire’s non-Muslim inhabitants wished to become part of these elites, there were waves of conversion to Islam (and often also adoption of Arab culture), which made the Sunni Muslims a majority also in the numerical sense of the word.

The Shia and the faiths that split from it, like the Druze or Alawite communities, do have minority culture, as they found themselves somewhat isolated within the much larger Sunni community. A famous expression of this minority culture is the principle of taqiya, namely the right, maybe even obligation, of the believer to hide her/his religious affiliation and suspend religious practices in case of tension with the dominant or ruling community. The taqia principle evolved from a mean of survival to a whole philosophy and an essential part of the Shiite, Druze and Alawite faiths.

As for Jews, they have been living in minority communities for centuries until the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, the emergence of the State poses difficult challenges to the Jewish religious community of Israel. Jews accustomed themselves to life as minority to a degree that they lack cultural tools to handle religious, ethical and practical issues when they form the majority. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz addressed many issues of this kind in his book “Judaism, Jewish People and the State of Israel” (1975). He harshly criticized religious Jews who treat secular Jews in Israel as “gentiles”. He said, for example, that a religious policeman cannot switch shifts with a secular colleague in order to avoid working on Sabbath, because from the religious point of view, all Jews must observe the Sabbath on Saturday, while non-Jews, and only non-Jews, may chose to follow other customs. In practice, however, religious Jews in Israel do treat secular Jews in the same manner Jews in Europe or America treat the non-Jews, because the Jewish law is simply not built to cope with Jews being a  majority.

Christians live in various environments. The Eastern churches have rich minority culture, because they were indeed minority for many centuries, and some of them still are. But Christians as a whole, even in Western Europe were they have been a majority for a long time, have minority culture that dates back to the early days of Christianity. Furthermore, in modern times, religious Christian communities had to deal with European secularism that has made religious communities a minority within larger secular communities. In places where Christians turned from majority to minority, either due to vast secularism or due to demographic changes, they could borrow elements of minority culture from their ancient history or from Eastern Christian communities (despite the controversy over dogmas).

Sunni Muslims are the mirror image of the Jews. They are very comfortable in the majority position, and feel like a fish out of water when they are minority. After all, they held this position of majority throughout the history of Islam until recently. The phenomenon of Sunni Muslim minorities in Western Europe and the Americas has become widespread during the 1900s, giving rise to an urgent need of Muslim minority culture. This is a challenge not properly addressed by Muslim leaders, in my opinion, and this is a major reason for ongoing violent conflicts between Muslims and their surrounding communities in places like France, Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, not to mention Israel. In Israel, the situation is especially delicate because Muslims see it as part of the “Islamic land”, even though Jews and Western peoples have equally important attachment to this territory.

Sunni Islam is currently in a position every faith would deem a success. It has hundreds of millions of believers, it control its holy places, including Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Muslim waqf de facto controls Al-Haram A-Sharif (The Temple Mount), despite the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Muslims cannot expect being the dominant faith and culture everywhere. In fact, a good Sunni Muslim should say, “We, believers, have done everything we can according to our faith. The rest is for God to take care of”. Then again, such a statement can come only from the mouth of a believer that learned to act as part of a minority.

Exploring basic bias on Wikipedia

13 September, 2010 at 07:02 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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An interesting way to examine the basic bias of editors in different Wikipedias toward a certain subject is to look at the initial edits of articles dealing with disputed issues. The first sentences of a new article resemble, in a way, a game of association. The initiator of the article tends to write the first things coming to he/his mind when he thinks about the subject. It is also interesting to see how long it takes before balancing information, or balancing changes to the phrasing, are introduced and how they are welcomed. In many cases

kineret

Sea of Galilee. Image by mprivoro via Flickr

such balancing information or edits are never introduced, and in some cases a fairly balanced text turns into biased one.

The followings are examples of initial edits of articles about certain subjects related to the Middle-East conflict from the Arabic Hebrew and English Wikipedia (all translated into English). Note – These are all obsolete versions currently found only in the “history” of the articles.

Jerusalem
Arabic Al-Quds is one of the biggest cities in Palestine, named Urshalim in the ancient scripts of the New Testament and the Torah. Its oldest remains go back to 3,000 before the Birth. Al-Quds is the most common name for Jerusalem among Arabic speakers. The use of Palestine could indicate non-recognition in Israel, but not necessarily.
Hebrew Yerushalayim is the capital of the State of Israel. It is one of the oldest cities in the world. The holiest city for Jews and Christians and third in sacredness to Muslims after Mecca and Medina. Yerushalayim is the Hebrew name for Jerusalem. The article seems to open with a political statement, though Jerusalem is indeed the Israeli seat of government. The remark about the status of Jerusalem in Islam might be an allusion to the Israeli-Arab conflict, but not necessarily.
English Jerusalem is a city straddling the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Prior to the 1967 War, Jerusalem was divided, with the Western half in Israel and the Eastern half in the West Bank. East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, and then in 1981 Israel declared the whole of Jerusalem to be its “eternal capital” and annexed East Jerusalem to Israel. This act however has not been recognized by the international community; therefore most countries have their diplomatic missions to Israel in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. The English text seems to be the most neutral; however it deals almost entirely with the political aspects of Jerusalem, rather than its geography or population, i.e. Jerusalem is perceived more as a “political problem” than an actual city.
Golan Heights
Arabic A Syrian land on the southwest part of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Israeli military managed to capture it and control it since the War of 1967. Israelis see great importance in controlling Hadbat al-Jawlan for its advantage in overlooking the State of Israel. It does not require more than standing on the edge of the plateau to cover the Israeli city of Tel Aviv with a naked eye, due to its height advantage. Hadbat al-Jawlan is the normal name for this region among Arabic speakers. The text includes an error – Tel Aviv is too distant from the Golan Heights to be seen from there in any way. Only political and military aspects are mentioned.
Hebrew Ramat Ha-Golan is a flat plateau located on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli part of the plateau was captured from the Syrians in the Six Day War, then recaptured in the Yom Kippur War. Geographically speaking, the plateau is delineated in the west by a 1700m fall to the edge of the Kinneret and River Yarden. All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.
Shabaa Farms
Arabic Shabaa Farms is a region at the southmost edge of Lebanon, within the official borders of Lebanon. The Zionist army refrained from handing it over to the government and state of Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal from the south. The issue of the Shabaa Farms still triggers problems, opinions and discussions regarding the legitimacy of its occupation, while the Lebanese Arabs reject its remaining occupied and Hizbullah keeps public confrontation to liberate it. The official Lebanese-Syrian position is presented. There is no reference to the backstage conflict between Syria and Lebanon or to the UN position. The terms used when referring to Israel indicate non-recognition. The area itself and its population are not mentioned or described.
Hebrew The Shabaa Farms are at the border junction of Syria, Israel and Lebanon, between the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and the Lebanese village of Shabaa. The region stretches on 25 sq km, 14 km long and 2.5 wide in average. The region’s height is 150-1880m. The land in this region is fertile and well-watered, and it used to include 14 farms growing barley, vegetables and fruits. The region is today under Israeli control, as it captured it from the Syrians in the Six Day War. The region was annexed to Israel in 1981 as part of the application of the Israeli law on the Golan Heights. The dispute over the region started in 2000 with the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the UN declaration that Israel had withdrawn completely from Lebanon. Hizbullah claimed that the Farms are Lebanese soil and saw them as a pretext to continue its attacks on Israel, despite the complete withdrawal.  Many international bodies asked Syria and Lebanon to All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.
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