When you think of Gaza, many images come to mind: poverty, Muslim fundamentalism, frustration, unemployment, Facebook. Facebook? Yes, the Palestinians in Gaza, for all their challenges, are online and connecting.
Dr. Sabri Saidam, a former member of the Palestinian Authority government began getting involved in politics at the not so young age of 34. He was immediately appointed minister of communications and information technology and became known as “Mr. Technology.”
“Coming from the IT field, I can tell you honestly that I’ve always felt as if I were carving in stone – getting computers or talking about e-government in Palestine was mission impossible,” he says in an interview with Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. “Now all the politicians are meeting bloggers and talking to them. There was no party interested in these people until the events in Tunisia and Egypt. They were considered to be time-wasters, kids.”
Saidam now works in Washington for the Aspen Institute where he continues to promote entrepreneurship among young Palestinians. “All of a sudden, everybody wants to know and have a private session to talk about Facebook and how they can open an account,” he says.
Saidam estimates that half of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have computers and about 30% are connected to the Internet. As we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, however, this does not include cell phone connectivity.
“When the demonstrations started in Tunisia, there were 600,000 Palestinian Facebook users, and 200,000 of them were posting about politics. Each one of these 200,000 Facebook users is influencing five people around him. We’re talking about over a million Palestinians over the age of 18. In terms of population size, that’s 33 percent. In Egypt, that would be 28 million Egyptians, but there it took only 2,890 bloggers and computer activists to do what was done. The moral of the story is that there is a critical mass of Palestinians waiting to see how things are going to swing.”
Saidam believes that access to a wider discussion group and opinions will broaden the political debate within Gaza and include the younger generation, who make up the majority of the population in Gaza. “But there is no Palestinian Wael Ghonim [the young Google marketing executive who became a symbol of the revolution] . . . It’s the issue of getting bored of the fact that they see leaders who existed for dozens of years. They don’t want any leaders.”
It was the younger generation of Palestinians who marched on March 15 demanding an end to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. This prompted President Abbas to decide he would go to Gaza and flesh out the subsequent agreement.
“The young people felt they had some influence on the decision,” says Saidam. “And I am telling my peers that they should not only passively listen but allow young blood to flow into the decision making of the parties.”
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).