Sunday, August 31, 2008
Gazan phone squad champions Obama
Jerusalem Post Newspaper By FELICE FRIEDSON/THE MEDIA LINE NEWS AGENCY "Hello, I'm calling from Gaza. I want some of your time. We are supporting Barack Obama..." Gaza squad champions Obama Group phones random numbers in US, urging vote for Obama (The Media Line). For the past seven months, a group of 24 students and young professionals have gathered in the Gaza Strip nightly to phone random telephone numbers in the United States, urging the voices at the other end to "vote for Barack Obama." Although only American citizens can actually cast a ballot in the election, this Gaza-based effort is a forceful demonstration of how Internet technology opens the door for anyone, anywhere to take an active role in US politics. Even if they have never even been to the USA. Far from utilizing a state-ofthe art call-center of the sort that have become a mainstay of American political marketing, the Gaza callers are amateur volunteers who meet in a local Internet café or in a stark room at a local youth center equipped with little more than desks, chairs and outlets for the personal computers through which they will make their calls. That - and the desire to see Barack Obama become president of the United States. The bare-bones décor belies the fervor with which the callers go about their task. Organized and led by Ibrahim Abu Jayyeb, a 23-year old student of media at Al Aqsa University, the group's effort has taken on the flavor of a wellorganized campaign - complete with title: "All This for Peace." Ibrahim is a self-described political junkie who says he has been following events closely and hopes that Obama will win the presidency. He says he finds the Illinois senator "the kind of person who, when he says 'I will change America,' will do what he says." Ibrahim relies on his colleagues and friends to make the actual phone calls because he feels his own command of English is not up to the task. His knowledge of technology, however, very much is. Utilizing Voip (voice over internet protocol) and Skype, Ibrahim has crafted a system of politicking that runs at almost no cost in dollars (or shekels), but requires a great deal of patience and persistence. According to Ibrahim, 19 out every 20 calls his group makes ends with an unceremonious "hang-up." Ibrahim told The Media Line that during the past seven months his group had reached between 5,000 and 6,000 Americans. If his assertion of 1-out-of-20 completed calls is accurate, 120,000 calls have been placed. Asked how he could weather such mass rejection, he replied, "It's worth it." When pressed about how a politician five thousand miles away who was relatively unknown to his own constituency before the campaign began is able to evoke such monumental dedication among people who can't even vote in the election, Ibrahim replies simply that, "I believe that Barack Obama will achieve peace in the area, in the Middle East and Palestine, between us, the Palestinian people, and the Jewish people." Without exception, the Gaza phone-callers insisted that their efforts were "independent, without ties to any organization or government." Ibrahim insists that "Barack Obama is definitely not a Muslim. It had never even crossed my mind to support him because of his Muslim background - which I doubt even exists." The callers said the Obama campaign has never contacted them, and they have not contacted the Obama organization. Sources in the Obama campaign confirmed to The Media Line that the group is unknown to them and that "no such group has been authorized to solicit on behalf of the campaign." Adv. Sheldon Schorer, who is counsel to Democrats Abroad, Israel, said, "The fact that Obama is acceptable to people on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides should be seen as a positive sign to vote for him. I think that's good." Schorer stressed that he was speaking as an individual Democrat because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Obama campaign. Moatz Twael, a Gaza pharmacist who makes phone calls with Ibrahim's group says that although he had never visited America, he had "visited Israel many times before 2001," and harbors no optimism on reconciliation between the two sides in the conflict. "Some people don't believe in peace," Twael contends. "But these are the same people who are preventing it." He says that listening to Obama persuaded him to encourage Americans to vote for the Senator. "He's a good man to achieve the goal [of bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians]." Like all of Ibrahim's telephone volunteers, Moatz claims no affiliation with any Palestinian faction in Gaza. "We don't want to live in war, in siege. Many want peace," he said. "I think people in the world don't understand Gaza very well. They think that all the people here are terrorists; not educated. We want to persuade them that we can live like any other people in the world." Twael claims that listening to English channels and watching American films is the basis of his love of the English language. It's also the reason that he is involved in Ibrahim's campaign to enlist voter support for Senator Obama. "From television and film, I learned to love democratic life," he said Despite Twael's own involvement with American culture and democracy, he doubts there are many others like him who are able or inclined to become involved in the American campaign on either side. When asked whether there are Gazans who would do the same for Republican John McCain, Twael was quick to reply that, "If Gazans don't know about Barack Obama - and most Gazans don't know - how would they know about McCain?" Asked whether he believed race was an issue in the American campaign, Twael was upfront about what attracted him to Obama. "He's black. And he's better than [President George W.] Bush." Ibrahim also sees a historic imperative inherent in American politics. He said, "Historically, it was the Democrats who achieved peace between [Palestinians] and the Israelis," citing the Oslo Accords as his proof. Despite the group's exercise in democracy, the specter of Hamas - which the US considers to be a terrorist organization and which rules the Gaza Strip with an iron fist - hangs over the callers' activities. Asked whether he worries that Hamas might put a stop to his efforts on behalf of Obama, Ibrahim replied, "Personally, I fear some about this."