Arabs, Israelis form friendly bridge with Internet cafe

FUREIDIS, Israel — Three years ago, Guy Poran, 47, still believed that the gate to the "New Middle East" was right next door.

Poran, a resident of the town of Maccabim, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, finally was ready to open a restaurant right on the "Green Line" between the West Bank and Israel proper — a joint venture with an Arab friend from the village of Beit Sira, just across the line in the West Bank.

Every Israeli dreams of wiping clean a plate of hummus with a piece of pita bread in a picturesque restaurant in the middle of an olive orchard. To Poran, a successful high-tech entrepreneur who invested $50,000 in the project, it seemed to be a business venture that couldn't go wrong — as well as a solid contribution to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

The opening ceremony was scheduled for Sept. 30, 2000, the weekend of Rosh Hashanah. No one could have predicted that would be the weekend the Palestinian intifada would break out.

Several thousand Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in the months since — as have most dreams of coexistence.

For two and a half years, Poran shared the frustration felt by so many Israelis and Palestinians. He was particularly disturbed by the deteriorating relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

However, last weekend he could finally smile — and raise a toast to a joint partnership with a young Arab — a project that could help heal many wounds.

In the village of Fureidis, just down the road from Zichron Ya'acov, Poran and Rami Mahamid opened the village's first Internet cafe. Dozens of kids and adults who can't afford to buy a computer finally had been introduced to the world of the Web.

"Recently, a lot of my energy went to encouraging Amram Mitzna to continue heading the Labor Party," Poran said. "Now that he has quit, I feel like an empty bottle. I realize that this is but a drop in the ocean, but you can't say, 'I will not add this drop just because it's a drop.'"

On the face of it, the business partners seem worlds apart. Poran is a typical Israeli high-tech wizard, the son of the late Brig. Gen. Ephraim Poran, who was military adjutant to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Poran is the owner of Pixel Software Technologies, a developer of multiplayer games for interactive television and cellular networks, and he knew how to play his digital cards against the odds of a high-tech crisis.

Mahamid, 24, studied computer planning and computerized graphics, but had to settle for occasional jobs. The partners' ways would not have crossed had they not sought common ground.

They happened to meet last January at a seminar of the Peacemaker Circle, an American organization that aims to interlock circles of peace activists throughout the world.

The Israeli branch of the group is run by Iris Elhanani, 47, owner of a Tel Aviv marketing firm who, due to Israel's economic crisis, turned to marketing peace. She introduced Mahamid to Poran.

"Rami started talking about his interest in doing something practical that would contribute to the community," Poran recalled as he sat in the Fureidis Internet cafe just hours before the festive opening.

Mahamid came up with the idea of the cafe, a place in the middle of the village that would offer local customers computer time, coffee and cake.

"This was exactly what I wanted," Poran said. "I had no interest in a business venture; I am busy enough with my business as it is."

The new cafe — called Click — already is humming with the happy clicking of children. The cafe charges $2 an hour, which is no small sum for the residents of Fureidis, but Mahamid and Poran are determined to make a little profit.

"My village really has very little to offer its residents," Mahamid said. "Although we have quite a number of businessmen, all they have come up with were a number of coffee houses. They will invest millions in building a hotel in Haifa, but will not invest in their own community. It's not the money that counts in Guy's investment, it's the intention to change things."

"I'm glad we started with the Internet," Poran said. "The Internet opens eyes. Local kids are now exposed to the same Web sites as my kids in Maccabim, or for that matter in any Jewish community. The Internet cafe of Fureidis is a real bridge. We need many such bridges.''