Facebook emerges as venue for Israel/Palestine debate

War in the Middle East is being waged not only on the ground, but also in cyberspace.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up on the social networking Web site Facebook, with more than 13,000 users participating in the Palestine network and nearly 80,000 users engaged in the Israel network. Both networks are open to users worldwide.

Facebook has aroused international controversy over the issue of whether or not Palestine constitutes a country.

As part of its networking dynamic, the Palo Alto-based site offers its users two options for geographic identification: regional or national affiliation, or social networks such as universities, companies or social organizations. Users also have the option of not joining any network at all.

Creator Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in February 2004 as a small networking site among Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale universities. Within a year, the site had expanded to more than 800 universities and over 2 million active users.

Today, Facebook has exploded, with over 45 million active users and more than 55,000 networks, according to its official statistical site.

“Palestine” appeared on the original list of countries users could choose from when registering for the site, until Facebook “mysteriously took it away” in October 2006. Members of the Palestine network were outraged.

“How could Palestine not be a country?” a Lebanese Palestinian posted on the message board for the “Official Petition to Get Palestine Listed As a Country” group on Oct. 23, 2006. “Where do they think PALESTINIANS come from?”

One Palestine network member wrote to Facebook, asking what network she should join now that Palestine was no longer an option, and was told to “join the West Bank and Gaza section,” according to the Official Petition page.

In response to the Palestine option’s disappearance and Facebook’s alternative suggestion, the petition group was started by Ronald Habash, a University of Illinois student and member of the Palestine network, to have Palestine reinstated as a country.

“I find it extremely offensive that Facebook does not acknowledge Palestine as a nation. Clearly, such acts are deemed anti-Palestinian,” Habash said in the petition. “By labeling us under ‘the West Bank and Gaza,’ you are denying the Palestinians’ right to east Jerusalem, including the old walled city of Jerusalem.”

Facebook’s decision to remove Palestine from the list was also viewed by the 9,000-plus members as a violation of its own policy of prohibiting any content deemed “defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory … hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.”

Other groups soon appeared, following in the footsteps of “Official Petition”: Saif Qadoumi of the United Arab Emirates started “If Palestine is Removed From Facebook … I’m Closing My Account,” and more than 16,000 users are members of “Against Delisting Palestine From Facebook.”

Facebook responded to pressure from Palestinian petitions and letters, and re-added to the list of countries in early 2007. No press release was ever issued by Facebook regarding either the elimination or the reinstatement of Palestine — an atypical decision by Zuckerberg and his team, who post roughly once a week on their blog of happenings and additions to the site, regularly update the site’s “What’s new” section and give public access to all press releases about Facebook.

Despite repeated efforts to uncover why the site originally removed Palestine from the list, Facebook did not respond by press time.

One thing is clear: Heated debates characterize both the Israel and Palestine networks, with discussion boards and posts from Israeli and Palestinian supporters around the globe on topics such as “Palestine isn’t a country” and “Who is chasing who out of their countries?”

Many users on both sites are deflated, pessimistic and saddened by the situation in the Middle East. Facebook has given them an outlet to express these feelings and find others who share their sentiments.

“I live over here … I know how it is, and I don’t put much hope in any changes,” wrote Israeli Peter Kaltoft on Oct. 3.

“It seems there is no hope in any political progress. And they talk of ‘political horizons’ … it’s difficult for me to see any horizons, with the wall blocking the sun,” wrote Palestinian Abu Ali the same day.

Facebook could even become a vital space for international discussion aimed at progress. Of the 500-plus groups and 1,000-plus discussion topics posted, some are already moving toward positive goals.

Haig Vosgueritchian, an Italian Palestinian, opened a discussion called “What do you think we should do to be a better people?” on July 22. To date, 36 comments have been left in response, all of them positive.