Palestinians find a state in cyberspace

World Wide Web: Less-developed countries are seeing Internet's potential more readily than the British
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There are two things Joharah Tahboud loves best about the Internet: one is to "surf the Web" and find out about the world outside her home town of Ramallah. The other is to get into on-line dialogues with Israelis.

"I've never talked to Israelis, except soldiers," confided the 17-year- old Palestinian perched in front of the computer screen. "It's fascinating to find out what they think. And when I'm on-line with an Israeli in Tel Aviv or wherever, they can't believe that I'm in Ramallah - they want to know everything about it."

Ms Tahboub surfs the Web at K5M, the first and only Internet cafe in the West Bank. It was opened two months ago by Major Totah, an affable United States-trained engineer who came home to manage the family restaurant. He had the idea while browsing the Web for recipes: he hooked up with Internet cafes around the world, and thought, if ever there was an audience for such a venture, it was among Palestinians.

"People here feel hemmed in and they crave this connection to the outside world," he explained. "Plus, every Palestinian family has one member in America or Kuwait or something far away ... This is a great way for people to keep in touch."

During the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, communication was a serious problem for Palestinians. There was a waiting list of about nine years for a telephone line. In 1989, Israel outlawed the sending of faxes and electronic mail on Palestinian phone lines. And after the 1993 peace accord, matters did not improve. The Israeli phone company refuses to service the autonomous West Bank cities, but the nascent Palestinian Telecommunications Co is gearing up to meet the demand.

Similarly, it was always difficult for Palestinians to get permission to travel from the West Bank or Gaza. In 1993, Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, requiring Palestinians to get permits to get out of the territories. With the major West Bank towns now under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), many are even more cut off. But for some, the Internet offers a way across the borders.

"We have access to the whole Arab world now," enthuses health researcher Ibrahim Deides. "There is all kinds of information from Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt ... it's a matter of minutes, and we are communicating with people."

PA ministers now have on-line staff meetings, because workers can rarely get permits from Israel to travel between the West Bank and Gaza. Many businesses are doing the same, while West Bank universities are beginning to offer on-line courses for students stuck in Gaza.

There are 81 Palestinian World Wide Web sites - newspapers, human rights organisations, businesses, universities, medicine, technology and something called markaba (hello), a big virtual yearbook.

As Palestinians grow increasingly wary of the dictatorial practices of the PA, the Internet has brought a new freedom. None of the local Arabic press dares to report incidents of torture by the PA police, but the news is posted on the sites of a half-dozen local human rights organisations. When journalist Daoud Kuttab was arrested by the PA recently ,twice-daily updates about his imprisonment and hunger strike were sent out on the Internet.

There has been no reaction from Israel, or indeed the PA, which can be none too happy about the criticisms of its rule that go out on the Internet - and it is certainly aware of the power of the medium. The PA has several Web sites of its own, reportedly created after President Yasser Arafat was impressed by the homepage of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.

The PA sites include that famous flag, a homage to "Jerusalem, Our Capital". The Web sites of Birzeit University in the West Bank, on the other hand, offer a vast array of information about the current state of life in the Palestinian territories. During clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stonethrowers in April, the site had more than 7,000 visitors.

"Palestinians have always believed that if people knew what was happening here ... things would be different," said Marwan Tarazi, who is in charge of information technology at the university. "Once, we were completely isolated out here. But not any more."

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