War breaks online ties between Israelis and Lebanese

In a small apartment above Jerusalem's Machne Yehuda market, a group of bloggers debate two subjects relevant to the violence between Israel and Lebanon: the deaths of Lebanese civilians in Qana – and the tastiness of hummus.

The grainy chickpea spread is one of the most important things that Lebanese and Israelis have in common, says David Abitbol, one of the founders of Jewlicious.com, a conglomerate website of more than a dozen writers.

Lebanese state law forbids its citizens from having contact with Israelis, and anyone with an Israeli stamp on his or her passport – or actual Israelis – cannot enter Lebanon. But in the past few years, Internet "bridges" have sprung up between the two nations – hundreds of blogs, message boards, and chat rooms. Sadly, these virtual bridges, like their actual counterparts, are becoming casualties of the current conflict.

"What we write [about] – whether it's our music, our food, or our opinion on the war – is a way for us to get to know each other on a more real level," says Mr. Abitbol. "Culturally, we and the Lebanese have a lot in common.... Their cities look like our cities, their hummus tastes like our hummus, their lives sound like our lives."

It's easy to forget those similarities in the fog of war, he adds.

"This community existed for some time before the war began. We have tons of things in common," says Lisa Goldman, who has used her blog, ontheface. blogware.com, to publicize Israeli-Lebanese blogging since the violence broke out. "We come from two of the most liberal, educated countries in the Middle East. Many of us received a Western education. We have talked, written, and dreamed about open borders between our countries. Many of those bridges that we had started to build have been felled by the growing tensions over the war."

Before the war broke out, Jewlicious had no regular visitors from Lebanon. During the third week of the war, however, 718 computers in Lebanon visited the site.

"Right now, though, I think there is too much anger; people are still hiding in the shelters, still scared for their life," says Laya Millman, another Jewlicious founder. "Most of the people who come to our site are angry, they just want to vent their anger here."

Both in Israel and Lebanon, bloggers reported a spike of nearly 200 percent in their readership since the conflict began a month ago, leading many to call the conflict "the most blogged about war ever." It was also the first time that new blogs and chat rooms were specially created to allow dialogue between the two groups.

Ms. Goldman recalled how one night, during the first week of the violence, she sat in her Tel Aviv home and exchanged messages online with a blogger in Beirut who was watching bombs fall on his city. "It was surreal," she recalls. "Both of us felt that we were experiencing something very special and important."

But that type of dialogue, she says, has all but ceased as the bombs have continued to fall. "As the days turned to weeks, many of the relationships became bitter," says Goldman. "There are too many emotions, too much blame."

One blogger from PerpetualRefugee.blogspot.com has cataloged his changing attitude toward Israelis: "I know them. I worked with them. I made friends amongst them," he wrote in a recent post. "We had built a fragile bridge between our two cultures. Yet, as with every other bridge built over the years, it was cruelly destroyed by barbarism. Only this was with my blessing. This is one bridge I don't want to rebuild."

In Lebanon, many bloggers who were criticized for communicating with their Israeli counterparts in the first week of the conflict have since stopped. "One can't really cover up chatting with Israeli bloggers during wartime," writes one anonymous blogger of lebop. blogspot.com. "It's very difficult being moderate. I'm battered for fraternizing with Israelis. I'm assaulted for having friends who actively support Hizbullah."

In Jerusalem, the bloggers of Jewlicious remain hopeful that after the war, the connections between the two online communities can be rebuilt.

Only a two-hour drive from the fighting up north, the comforting smells of hummus and bread from the street below drift up to the apartment as the bloggers debate what it must be like to be reading their words from Lebanon.

"Maybe some of our posts seem insensitive, especially since a lot of what we write about is everyday life going on," says Abitbol. "But when their everyday life returns, I can only hope our connections are resumed."

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