Swarm Factor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Giles Trendle
Global Profile - 3D Analysis for Business
July 16th 2002
Although Israel is one of the most computer-literate
societies in the world - with more Internet connections than in
all 22 Arab countries combined - the advantage of the Internet revolution,
in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, could well lie with the Palestinians.
Within cyberspace there is a growing network of individuals and
groups coalescing around the key demands for an end to Israeli occupation
of Arab territories and the creation of a Palestinian state. This
network constitutes a swarm, an Internet-related term
referring to a global mass of people with a common cause using the
Internet to share information, mobilise support and coordinate direct
action online and, at times, on the streets.
A swarm does not exist in any one place but is a transnational
network of individuals. It arises from the power of the Internet
that allows people to share experiences and ideas and discover that
others throughout the world are identifying the same issues. Interacting
via the Internet with those others, wherever they may be, means
the individual is no longer an isolated voice but part of a social
network of like-minded people - a swarm.
The Seattle protests in 1999 which brought the World Trade Organisation
to a halt demonstrated the ability of the swarm to converge on one
place at a given time, take action - with dramatic impact - and
then disperse, ready to reconverge again later. This converge-attack-disperse
strategy is used by another type of swarm, Al-Qaeda group of Osama
While pro-Israeli activists may be attempting to mobilise their
own swarm in order to defend and enforce the existing balance of
power in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the potential size and power
of a pro-Palestinian swarm is worth considering.
The vast majority of the 280 million Arabs would be likely members
of a pro-Palestinian swarm. Even though only 0.6% of the Arab world
uses the Internet and only 1.2% have personal computers, according
to a recent Economist survey, the Arab swarm need not
rely on Internet connectivity as word can spread via the mosque,
the media, the souq, and within families. The problem for an Arab
swarm is that grassroots social activism not officially "approved"
is uncommon in the Arab world. Arab governments may well fear the
phenomenon of the swarm which cannot, by its amorphous nature, be
manipulated and controlled.
The pro-Palestinian swarm takes on greater potential when other
facts are considered. For example, Islam is the fastest growing
religion in the world and, interestingly, in the USA where there
are 10 million Muslims (compared to 6 million Jews). Also, the Palestinian
cause is today a central issue for trade unionists, students, human
rights advocates, environmentalists, peace activists and other lobby
movements in the West. Even some Jews are included in this swarm
such as the liberal peace activists of Gush Shalom (www.gush-shalom.org)
and those orthodox rabbis who renounce the modern-day state of Israel
This swarm may still be in its nascent stages and its impact may
still appear negligible, yet modern information and communication
technology has galvanised the potential of grassroots activism.
The underlying belief of such activism is that the ultimate source
of power resides not in the command of those at the top but in the
acquiescence of those at the bottom. It is all about individuals
throughout the world raising their voices, making personal choices
as world citizens, voters and consumers, and withdrawing their consent
from an existing world order (read US hegemony) that provides Israel
with unrivalled political, financial and military support as it
continues to occupy land and build settlements in contravention
of international law.
A swarm is a key element in a new type of strategy of struggle
and resistance against established power. The first element of this
new strategy is in using the Internet as a tool for disseminating
information to advocate a message and point of view to the existing
swarm and onlookers.
Individuals are setting up self-run websites as alternative media
sources to provide expanded and focused coverage on the Middle East.
Such sites cherry-pick what they believe are the best reports from
the glut of information in the world media. The information is posted
on the website to raise the awareness - and even the indignation
- of the swarm with an alternative to the reality presented
on the TV news bulletins.
Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net) is one such site
which claims to challenge the "myth, distortion and spin in
the media". The Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace (www.ccmep.org)
is another, showing how some of the most active campaigners in the
swarm are American citizens opposed to their countrys Middle
Websites can provide an inexpensive and yet pervasive medium by
which to address a global public with more direct control over the
message. "Its our belief that the internet will have
a major impact on the franchise of the media monopolies," says
Ahmed Amr, editor of www.NileMedia.com, an independently operated
cyber magazine aimed at redressing what it sees as a pro-Israeli
slant in the mainstream media. "Economies of scale no longer
apply to disseminating information. The economics of distributing
information have been changed for ever."
The Internet has also proved a boon for groups otherwise vilified
by the Western media. Hezballah, the militant Islamic group in Lebanon,
runs 11 websites (www.hizbollah.org). The groups webmaster,
Ali Ayoub, told this writer that its websites are an "information
resource" in its propaganda struggle against Israel. This is
an effort to turn the balance of information and knowledge in its
favour, given that the balance of conventional military forces is
It is not essential to run a website to be involved in disseminating
information globally. Individuals can do as much on their personal
computers. Abu Moujahed is a Palestinian in the Shatila refugee
camp in Beirut who runs a youth centre and organises visits to the
camp by foreign students. He contributes to the Palestinian cause
by forwarding to his network of 200-plus contacts throughout the
world regular e-mails which are sent to him by a Palestinian NGO
in the West Bank (www.rapprochement.org). The e-mails consist of
on-the-ground reports from peace activists, eye-witnesses and journalists
in the occupied territories. From the squalor of Shatila camp, Abu
Moujahed represents one of the countless nodes in the
global swarm network and highlights the viral nature
by which information can be received and passed on endlessly throughout
A second element in todays new IT-enabled strategy of struggle
and resistance is in using the Internet to mobilise and coordinate
the swarm into various forms of direct action on the streets. The
Palestine Solidarity Campaign website (www.palestinecampaign.org)
encourages supporters to attend demonstrations, talks and benefit
concerts in the UK, besides petitioning Members of Parliament on
Middle-East related issues.
Pro-Palestinian websites not only muster parts of the swarm in
local cities, but actively encourage supporters to turn up at the
frontline itself. Individual activists are now travelling to the
occupied territories to participate in direct action campaigns of
non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Coordinating with
local Palestinian NGOs, these internationals,
as they call themselves, are following the tactics of civil disobedience
advocated by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Besides
protesting at Israeli army checkpoints, helping Palestinians repair
bulldozed houses and escorting farmers and medical workers, the
activists - Americans, Canadians and Europeans among others - also
act as eye-witnesses and report their daily experiences at the barricades
on websites and via e-mails which are fed back to the global swarm.
Direct action is not only about dramatic zealotry. The Boycott
Israeli Goods (www.boycottisraeligoods.org) urges the swarm to boycott
businesses and shops accused of doing business with Israel. This
tactic aims at tarnishing the corporate brand image and threatening
the companys commercial profits in order to force it to divest
UK high-street retailer Selfridges is one of the corporate targets
because it sells products originating from the internationally-proscribed
Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.
"By stocking such products, Selfridges is in effect assisting
settlement expansion through subsidising the settler economy,"
explains the Innovative Minds (www.inminds.co.uk)
website which runs a "Boycott Zionism" page.
Beyond the economic boycott, a cultural boycott is also slowly
assembling with calls from university professors in the UK and abroad
for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration
with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opens serious
The true effectiveness of the swarms boycott campaign - and
indeed its whole activism campaign in general - remains difficult
to calculate. Yet the proliferation of websites and the increase
in demonstrations, boycott calls and civil disobedience in support
of the Palestinians points to a growing momentum. At the recent
May Day rally in London, placards supporting the Palestinian cause
were much in evidence, pointing to the ideological affiliations
being made with the anti-globalisation swarm.
As an heterogeneous network, the swarm is bound to contain ideological
differences. Peace activists do not share the same extreme militancy
as the suicide bombers, while for their part the militant Palestinian
factions remain sceptical about the implications non-violent activism
might have for their own armed resistance. Disagreement would also
arise over whether the term Israeli occupation refers
to land seized by Israel in the 1967 war or, as militant Palestinian
groups such as Hamas would argue, to the whole of Israel proper.
For now however, the swarm is focusing on the common ground of opposing
the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Such global activism may at first seem dispersed, indistinct and
insubstantial. Yet in todays information revolution, in which
everyone has the ability to know what is happening in minute detail
around the world - and in which there appears to be an increasing
tendency to care about it - the swarm factor may yet come to play
an important part in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Giles Trendle is a former Middle East war correspondent who today
writes and speaks on information & communication strategies
and the Arab-Israeli conflict.