x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Palestinian conflict hits cyberspace

Facebook anger over Palestine and Israel and sparks of fury over bid to include 'Jerusalem, Israel' in Monopoly.

When Hasbro announced it was planning a global edition and would allow people to vote online for their favourite cities, it unwittingly kicked off a worldwide effort to have
When Hasbro announced it was planning a global edition and would allow people to vote online for their favourite cities, it unwittingly kicked off a worldwide effort to have "Jerusalem, Israel" included.

RAMALLAH // What do the world's most popular board game and most popular online social networking site have in common? Both have run into trouble over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Facebook, the ubiquitous networking site that has both users and employers scrambling to learn as much as possible about people's personal lives, recently angered Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank when they found that Facebook located their settlements in "Palestine".

And when Hasbro, the company behind the Monopoly board game, in February announced it was planning a global edition and would allow people to vote online for their favourite cities, it unwittingly kicked off a worldwide effort to have "Jerusalem, Israel" included. While the two companies took different approaches to resolving what threatened to become public relations disasters, their dilemmas illustrated what some consider a new era in the battle between Israelis and Palestinians. Last week, right-wing Israeli hackers embedded the Israeli flag, the Israeli national anthem and the symbol of the Kach Movement, an ultra rightist Israeli movement that advocates the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from all of lands once known as Palestine, on three websites associated with Palestinian rights.

"These are symbolic struggles that mimic the fundamental basis of the larger struggle - one over legitimacy: what you call the land and how you write the history," said Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada website. In both cases, pro-Israel activists took a leading role, though in the instant online world of Facebook, a Palestinian response was quick in coming. Jewish settlers first protested to Facebook over their settlements being located in "Palestine", accusing the company of having a "political agenda", even though the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal according to international law.

Faced with the possibility of "Palestine" being removed as a designation, however, Palestinian activists hit back, organising a Facebook group that threatened to quit the site. The company was equally swift in acting, and true to its utilitarian nature decided to sidestep the whole issue by giving users the choice of where to locate their homes. People residing in Hebron for example, home to 150,000 Palestinians and about 400 Jewish settlers, can now choose to say if they live in "Palestine" or "Israel".

Hasbro, rooted in the real world where words are printed on cardboard and cannot be changed according to user preference, faced a different prospect. One Jerusalem, an Israeli pressure group whose sole objective is to maintain the city as the "undivided capital of Israel", organised an e-mail and letter campaign to encourage supporters from all over the world to cast their vote for "Jerusalem, Israel" on Hasbro's website. Yehiel Leiter, One Jerusalem's director, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that the campaign "puts Jerusalem on the table".

"It has people not avoid Jerusalem because it's contested." Initially, it was successful. "Jerusalem, Israel" rose to fourth place on the website's rankings, right behind "Paris, France", and out of 22 available locations looked to be assured a place on the board. But somewhere down the line, someone at Hasbro realised that this might be problematic. According to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory and Palestinians are claiming it as their capital for any future state. While Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem immediately after its occupation in 1967, no country has recognised the annexation and the city's legal status awaits final determination in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Faced with this legal quagmire, Hasbro dropped the country code from "Jerusalem, Israel" outraging Israeli activists and sparking protests by Israeli officials to Hasbro, forcing the company to apologise. Belatedly, Palestinian campaigners got in on the act, but were stunned to see that all the towns and cities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza on Hasbro's pull down menu of possible choices were described as part of Israel.

"It's rather sadly appropriate that the ultimate capitalist game should treat Palestinians this way," said Basil Ayyash, a Palestinian activist. "After all, we have been a playground for colonialists since the Christian West rediscovered the Holy Land in the 19th century." Voting on Hasbro's website ended on Feb 29. Before that the company had removed the link to city rankings and it will not release the final results until August, when it is set to release "Monopoly: The World Edition".

But having apologised to Israel, the company nevertheless found a way out of the mess. Rather than reinstate "Israel" after Jerusalem, Hasbro chose to drop all country tags from all cities, trusting that players will know that Abu Dhabi, if it makes it onto the board, is in the UAE without further explanation. A company spokesman said that "it was never our intention" to include country designations. Undoubtedly, Hasbro will hope that the dust will have settled by the time the game hits the shops in August. It wants to collect its $200 for passing GO, after all.

Meanwhile, a stalemate seems to have been reached between the battling online Palestinian and Israeli activists, the significance of which is open to question. "I think these battles are mostly significant for people who participate in them, and can be publicity opportunities [or nightmares] for the companies targeted," said Mr Abunimah. "[But] the real battle is for power on the ground. These symbolic struggles reflect that, but they cannot supplant it."

@email:okarmi@thenational.ae