Most writers to the site are merely expressing interest, but there are also those who ask for help.An email message arrived to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.
“Message from Libyan intelligence, please read this,” wrote the writer, who signed his name along with 20 Libyan intelligence operatives. “We are officers in the Libyan army who are interested in cooperating with the Israeli defense headquarters in the realms of collecting information, plans, and strategic military camps and outposts. We are prepared for this task, and request your support for us. We ask for a quick response, especially since we are joining you as a collaborating element. We seek freedom for the Libyan people. Please respond by e-mail.”
This is not the only message from an Arab country that has reached Jerusalem lately. A surfer from Yemen asked for information on conversion and asked if he too could convert. A Palestinian complained that Druze soldiers had cursed him at a roadblock, a Moroccan surfer gave his condolences to the “peace loving” people in Israel for the victims of terror. An Algerian surfer wrote that he wants to meet Israeli girls. A Lebanese called upon the US army to take Hizbullah out of Lebanon, and an Iraqi from Mosul wished to know when an Israeli embassy would open in Iraq.
All these messages are received at the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language web site, named Al-Tawasul (www.altawasul.net), an Arabic word meaning interaction. The site was launched in January 2004, and since then has begun to serve as an address for intensive messaging from all Arab countries. The site supplies the Arab surfer with information about the structure of the government in Israel, Israeli figures, some history, academic, economic and social information, and presents translations of articles from the Israeli press. In the future, the operators of the site intend to add Israeli songs, quizzes and surveys, independent interviews with Israeli figures and a service for businesspeople.
The initiator of the idea, Amir Weissbrod, former spokesperson of the Israeli embassy in Jordan, was working in his office in Amman on the development of the site for two years before it was built. He conceived the idea after noticing that there is a severe lack of reliable information about Israel in the Arab world, and the site could serve as a working tool for businesspeople.
“The immediate reactions were very interesting,” he recalls. “A surfer from Egypt requested a tape of singer Dudu Yasmin, a Palestinian journalist asked for a government press card. A surfer from Egypt wrote to Minister Shalom: ‘I would respectfully request that you do everything possible to strengthen the reception of Israel Radio’s Arabic service, which has weakened in the past two years. The station enjoys the admiration of all Arabs.'”
The site is reaching upwards of a few hundred hits a day. There are nearly no curses and profanity, most writers are merely expressing interest, but there are also those who ask for help. N., a female student from Morocco, asked for information about Israel’s position in the peace process for the purpose of preparing a seminar paper.
“I started to work for her,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Lior Ben-David, who operates the site. “This site is the State of Israel’s virtual embassy. There is potential here for dialogue with the Arab world, and we find that there is thirst for this on the other side. The dialogue is made with citizens, with the people itself, not with administrations, using the discreetness that the Internet provides. The project is still in its infancy.”
Ben-Dor, 36, former spokesperson of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, officially serves as deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Arab Media. The department, headed by Amira Oron, formerly Israel’s economic attache in Egypt, was established by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in order to strengthen the connection with the press in the Arab world. The department provides reactions and information to the Arab media, primarily the popular satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabia and leading newspapers, which are well represented by correspondents in Israel.
Ben-Dor devotes some of his time as the ministry’s spokesperson in Arabic to operating the web site, and he appears to enjoy every moment.
“Egyptian citizens who ask for information about Israel are afraid to visit the Israeli embassy in Cairo, because immediately afterwards they will be summoned for questioning,” says Ben-Dor. “The site provides them with an option. They can write to it freely, without fear, and ask whatever they want.”
Ben-Dor says that the purpose of the contact is to create dialogue, listen to opinions and learn how the other side thinks. In recent months, Ben-Dor has begun to appeal to Arab writers from around the world.
“I look for them in liberal Arabic-language web sites, and there are several well-known such sites. If a person writes an article with an interesting or progressive opinion, I write to him,” he says. “I do not conceal my identity or the place where I work, I contact them and propose to stay in touch. Sometimes there are reservations, but usually they respond favorably. There is no official body in the State of Israel that maintains such contacts with Arab citizens. The rest of the state organizations that have contact with Arabs only encounter their negative side. This is initial, open and very direct contact. It is very clear to everyone who we are.”
Several weeks ago, a young Iraqi journalist living in Denmark published an article condemning the ‘new Nazis,’ as he called the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. He immediately received a response from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
“I was surprised by the political body you represent,” he replied to Ben-Dor. In the next e-mail he already sent him his picture, and added: “I have notified many of my friends, Iraqi intellectuals, of the contact with you. They are very glad and propose to form a joint Iraqi-Israeli cultural association.”
A Moroccan citizen, an evangelist Christian, turned to the site with a request to meet Israelis. An Egyptian physician proposed joint activity for peace. Ben-Dor turned of his own initiative to a Syrian from the city of Latakia, who dared to publish an article criticizing Syrian diplomacy in the crisis with the United States. He invited him to visit the site, and offered to stay in contact and even speak on the phone.
“I have no moral problem being in contact, but not over the phone,” replied the Syrian. “I have seen your site, and I wish you success and hope it will be in a democratic and non-Zionist spirit.”
A Moslem Iraqi journalist living in Hamburg, asked for special help. He related that his grandmother is Jewish, and is named Samiha Hano, daughter to one of the most well-known families in Basra. “She has two brothers and a sister,” he related, “Maggi, Morris and Naji, who was one of the founders of the Iraqi communist party. My grandmother died in the Gulf War in 1991 between my arms. Her last words were: “Look for my brothers and sister. Please help me obtain information that will enable my grandmother to rest in peace.”
According to Amira Oron, Al-Tawasul is one of the Foreign Ministry’s primary means of appealing to the Arab world and laying the ground for the future peace.
(Reprinted from Ma’ariv)