Young activists go online to promote Middle East peace

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Jewish and Arab activists on Monday held the first day of a two-day virtual peace conference to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The event is hosted by YaLa-Young Leaders, an online group of around 40,000 that uses social media technology to promote peace and development in the region.

A Palestinian organizing volunteer, Mohammad AlQadi, speaking in an online chat session with a reporter, said of the group, "We believe in peace and being together. We believe in a two-state solution" — meaning an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — "and respect to all. We are human."

YaLa volunteer Tom Dolev of Tel Aviv, said in an online chat with a reporter that he hopes the conference creates "fruitful connections between members, increases member base and ... implements projects for the economic well-being of the young generation of the region."

He added that what YaLa calls the Peace and Economic Cooperation Conference will be a chance "to forward our agenda for the future to world leaders."

Young Israelis and Palestinians created YaLa last year as a Facebook group. They use this and other social network sites to message one another and share ideas, photos and videos in the hopes of building a greater understanding between the groups.

In just eight months, the YaLa group has grown to more than 40,000 members, mainly from the Middle East.

Dolev said the group had participated informally in research and development with Microsoft to create a game that allowed players to cooperatively "build the Middle East" and had held a photography contest, but that the virtual peace conference was its first official action.

Leaders such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres taped speeches for the conference.

Clinton praised the eight-month-old YaLa group and evoked the wider Arab Spring movement, saying in the video, "Armed with conviction and aided by technology, you pushed forward the political, economic and social changes that are now pulsing across the region."

Peres hoped that the social technology YaLa employed could re-energize peace negotiations. "You live in a new age, where you can communicate freely, without censorship, without prejudices, without hatred, over all borders, all distances and all subjects. We don't have to repeat the past," he said in his videotaped speech.

Zvika Krieger, the senior vice president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, couldn't speak specifically about the conference but praised grass-roots efforts to find solutions in the Middle East.

While peace will come only when the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president reach an agreement, he said, grass-roots movements such as the conference are vital to show leaders that their people want them to work toward peace.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, with many countries in the region becoming more democratic, "these grass-roots movements can have a significant effect," Krieger added.

Only when "both leaders believe that there is an urgency and demand from the public" will there be progress, he said.

In addition to speeches and a streamed musical performance, the conference included planning for an online academy, offering classes in governance, business, cultural studies and communication leadership.

The conference, which continues Tuesday, also featured a "Projectbook," designed to allow conference participants to work together on various interactive online projects and games, including the one that allows players to build a virtual Middle East.

Organizers said they hoped that these virtual projects would serve as the basis for brick-and-mortar progress in the region.

ON THE WEB

YaLa-Young Leaders on Facebook

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