x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Facebook turns into a goodwill forum for Iranians and Israelis

A Facebook post by an Israeli who is against a war with Iran has inspired an online peace campaign by people of both countries.

TEL AVIV // What started as a Facebook post by an Israeli graphic designer aiming to prevent a war between Israel and Iran has turned into an increasingly popular online campaign.

Ronny Edry, a Tel Aviv-based father of two, last weekend posted a photo of himself in a white shirt holding his five-year-old ponytailed daughter waving a small Israeli flag, with a banner below them reading: "Iranians. We love you. We will never bomb your country."

His message to Israel's archenemy sparked a deluge of mutual goodwill in cyberspace between Israelis and Iranians that is smashing stereotypes and offering evidence that some opposition exists in both countries against the headline-grabbing rhetoric of their leaders.

A page that Mr Edry initiated on the social-networking site Facebook titled "Israel-Loves-Iran" has already drawn almost 15,000 "Likes". Another page that he says was started by Iranians and is called "Iran-Loves-Israel" has spurred nearly 3,000 "Like" button clicks.

The campaign has spurred a swap of photos between Israelis and Iranians that are plastered with the words: "We Love You."

Mr Edry said he has received supporting messages from thousands of people worldwide, including from Iran and Arab countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Many sending greetings from inside Iran have done so anonymously, keenly aware that contact with the Jewish state and even using social media sites - which the Iranian authorities try to block - could get them into serious trouble. While the Israeli photos feature people looking straight into the camera, Iranians appear wary of showing their faces.

One image shows a man donning sunglasses and with the bottom half of his face covered by a banner saying: "Israelis, we don't hate you, we don't like bombs, love [heart] peace" while another showed a Jewish shrine in Iran.

One anonymous posting from Iran on the Facebook page reads: "I wanted to let you know that your message of love and peace has come through. Looking at all the photos on your wall brought tears to my eyes. Let us not allow our governments hold us back from knowing each other…TO PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: WE LOVE YOU TOO!"

Another anonymous Iranian message says: "Your words are reaching us despite the censorship."

Mr Edry said such messages may surprise some Israelis.

"Israelis think of Iranians as crazy people who want to bomb them," Mr Edry said in an interview with The National. "I wanted to reach the other side and show that they are people just like us - mothers and fathers who want the best for their children."

His outreach comes in the midst of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions and escalating speculation over the likelihood that Israel would attack Iran's nuclear sites in coming months. Some analysts have said an Israeli strike could spark a regional war.

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he was "not afraid" to confront Iran's nuclear threat, a remark some Israeli commentators said indicated he is preparing for an attack. Iranian officials have made similar threats in the past few days, including by warning any counter-attack may include US targets.

Mr Edry's campaign appears to reflect that Israelis would not easily back a strike against Iran. A poll broadcast by Israel's Channel 10 TV on Wednesday showed that 56 per cent of Israelis would oppose military action against Tehran's nuclear sites.

Mr Edry said he was driven to action after hearing Mr Netanyahu tell the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in Washington this month that Israel cannot "afford to wait much longer" on Iran.

"I thought - this is actually happening," Mr Edry said. "They're heading towards a nuclear war and we are standing by and watching."

The reactions from Iranians appear enthusiastic.

Some posted Facebook messages reminding readers that Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, freed the Jews and other people held captive in Babylon in 539 BC. Others pointed to Abdol-Hossein Sardari, an aristocrat who served as an Iranian diplomat in Paris during World War II. He saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied France from becoming Holocaust victims by issuing them blank Iranian passports.

Israelis have also showed support but some have expressed scepticism, and parodies of the campaign have appeared online, Mr Edry said.

One showed a white Persian cat in the background of a banner reading: "Israeli Cats We Love You, Persian Cats Against War."

Another parody, using the hit video game Angry Birds, where birds destroy egg-stealing pigs, showed three birds atop a banner reading: "PIGS, we will never bomb your country, we [heart] you."

Mr Edry said he had high hopes for the growing online movement. His apartment, he added, has become a makeshift campaign headquarters in which friends arrive in shifts with their laptops to reply to supporters. He plans to raise funds to buy advertising spots on television channels worldwide as well as on a Times Square billboard in New York City.

"I want a million 'likes' on Facebook," he said. "I want this message to be so big that decision-makers will take us common people into account before making any move."