Sderot, Israel — With a friendship confined to opposite poles of the Israel-Palestinian war zone — this southern border town and a Gaza refugee camp — the two men have not seen each other in about a year because of an escalating cycle of violence.
But they have been reunited in the blogosphere, writing a joint diary to stave off their own despair and prove that a dialogue is still possible across their bloody divide.
Entitled “Life Must Go on in Gaza and Sderot,” the two rant in uneven English about the seeming futility of the Hamas-Israeli hostilities, the daily stress of surviving the violence, and the solitude of optimism amid misery.
“Peace Man,” a 30-year-old unemployed bachelor who resides in Gaza’s Sajaiya refugee camp, blogs in between Gaza’s power outages and complains of insomnia from the constant buzzing of Israeli attack helicopters above his building.
“Hope Man,” a 42-year-old software programmer whose Sderot house has been buffeted on all sides by Kassam rockets, worries about being far from his kids when the missiles fall.
Their blog entries (gaza-sderot.blogspot.com.), which began in January and average about one every other day, are sometimes poignant, despite the fact that they are not writing in their native languages. They sometimes blog that while they are talking on the phone they are often able to hear the same explosions on one side of the border or the other.
“We decided we wanted to come out to the world, and to show that there are other types of relationships between Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis in Sderot, not only rockets and violence,” said the Sderot blogger. “Even though things are really awful, it’s to show there can be a true connection.”
But the two, afraid their public conversation may be seen as disloyal in the eyes of some of their countrymen, assiduously guard their true identities. The Gaza blogger said that some of the friends who he has told about the blog have expressed concern for his well-being.
The intensifying fighting of the last week, which left more than 100 Palestinians dead, including more than half non-combatants according to human rights groups, has made it virtually impossible for Gazans to openly speak of peaceful relations with Israelis, even if only in cyberspace.
“People are saying, ‘Stop, don’t talk about this,’” said Peace Man. “They say it’s dangerous and that some groups don’t like this. In Gaza, nothing is clear.”
But even in Israel, the hundreds of Kassam rockets that have fallen on Sderot have spurred plenty of pent-up hostility toward those who openly talk to Palestinians.
“Who’s that traitor that’s writing that damned blog?” asked Liron Amir, who sat at a nondescript empty pizza restaurant in the center of Sderot when asked about the blog. “He should go live with them. We don’t want any connection with them.”
Pointing to a newspaper headline that said that half of Sderot’s population suffers from trauma, he added, “That’s something to talk about.”
The two bloggers met about two years ago through an Israeli-Arab dialogue group sponsored by the Center for Emerging Future, a Boise, Idaho-based group that obtained army permits for Peace Man to cross into Israel to attend dialogue meetings in Jerusalem and even Sderot.
The Center originally hoped to establish a joint summer camp with children from Sderot and Gaza, but since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israeli border permits have become virtually impossible to obtain unless they are for a medical purposes. Though the two bloggers continued to speak on the phone frequently, the frustrated men decided to take their conversation online.
In the same way that blogs have sprung up elsewhere as an alternative to establishment news reporting outlets, the pair’s online diary is an attempt to “correct” the portrayal of the conflict in both Israeli and Palestinian media, said the Sderot blogger.
“If you turn on Channel 1 in Israel you will not see a balanced picture, that’s understandable. I’m not blaming anyone. We’re just trying to represent our reality,” said Hope Man.
“There’s a tendency of the media — especially when there’s escalation — not to say things that are against the mainstream or the policy of the government,” Hope Man continued. “They try to show solidarity with policy. Usually the main reporting would be biased toward the government’s policy.”
Talking by mobile phone from his home over the buzz of Israeli helicopters, Peace Man said that hope for peace among Gazans has nose-dived ever since the leaders of the Middle East gathered in Annapolis, Md., in November to announce the resumption of negotiations.
Even though many Gazans are still in contact with Israeli work colleagues, who would like to see an end to the fighting, the recent weeks of conflict have raised their suspicions of the Israeli government.
“Israel didn’t give [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas anything and now people are saying Israel doesn’t want peace,” the Gaza blogger said.
Back in Sderot, Hope Man said he actually had little optimism that this week’s visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would produce any halt to the cross-border violence.
“I don’t think anyone has a clue about how to get out of this bind.”
The blogging pair, for their part, are calling for a one-month truce in the fighting, which will give a chance for the anger on each side to ease and for leaders to think creatively about searching for a solution.
“We just need a breather,” said Hope Man. “We may be a little naïve, but it’s better than sitting around and waiting for everything to destruct around us.”