Sites Flourish as War Looms

War, sadly, can be good business for some companies. And that includes news Web sites. The fighting in the Middle East between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians has boosted traffic for independent Arab and Israeli sites covering the clashes.

News junkies from around the world are increasingly turning to them to get an up-to-the minute, local take on the violence in the streets to set beside official government and religious versions which dominate the more traditional media.

The unrest is now causing Internet news firms to boost their services. Al Bawaba, an online news site based in Jordan, announced last week that it was bringing forward the launch of its mobile phone WAP news site to take advantage of the heavy traffic.

Another outfit benefitting from the unrest is Arabia Online, a five-year-old site widely considered to be the biggest Web portal in the Arab-speaking countries. Khaldoon Tabaza, the co-founder, reports traffic is up 50 per cent since violence broke out in late September. "It has added a positive business dimension: many people have been introduced to our Web site," said Tabaza.

It was too early to say whether the upsurge in traffic will result in more advertisers, he said, but potential business partners were telephoning. "I wouldn't say that we here at Arabia Online look forward to such things happening in the region," Tabaza said. "We are as stressed as much as everybody else and hope for peace. But the same thing has happened with other media -- CNN made it big in the Gulf War and CNBC makes it big every time the stock market crashes."

Haaretzdaily.com, the site for the 81-year-old Tel Aviv newspaper of the same name, is also having a good month. Or Kashti, deputy news editor for Haaretzdaily.com, said traffic has doubled since violence broke out in Israel's West Bank and Gaza Strip. The liberal daily's journalists have been on the front lines covering clashes between Arabs and Israelis since they began in the middle of the last century. Kashti said the company is treating the latest uprising, or intifada, as "business as usual".

"I don't think we think of the business opportunities at this moment. Not at all," he said. "We are glad, of course, that the traffic is greater and the interest is high. But the main objective is to do our jobs. We are journalists."

Of course, nobody would be crazy enough to think the threat of all-out war is going to jumpstart Internet businesses in the region. On the contrary, many believe the political instability of the region will, in the long term, have detrimental effects on the tech communities in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But for nascent news operations this is boom time, with Net users from around the world flocking to the sites to read about the events as they happen, or to find editorial commentary that is not influenced by politicians or holy leaders. For example, in late October, Palestinian Television repeatedly broadcast a fiery sermon from a mosque in Gaza. The Middle East Media Research Institute, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC, translated the sermon and posted it on its site to give outsiders an idea of the type of news churned out by Palestine's state-run media.

"The terrorists are the Jews, who have butchered our children, orphaned them, widowed our women and desecrated our holy places and sacred sites," the sermon on the MEMRI site read.

Meanwhile, the Net has also become the battleground for a new kind of propaganda war -- for both institutions and angry individuals. The official Web site of Hezbollah -- the Islamic militant movement -- and some official Israeli government sites have been sabotaged by hackers.

The attacks began two weeks ago, when suspected pro-Israeli Net users employed a denial-of-service tactic to knock out Hezbollah.org. This is a crude but effective method of shutting down a Web site by bogging down its servers with repeated requests for information.

Hezbollah officials were forced to take the site down, but not before it suffered the ultimate indignity: hackers infiltrated the site and posted a photo of the Israeli flag, accompanied by the country's national anthem. Then in retaliation, hackers ostensibly loyal to the Palestinians sabotaged a number of Israeli government sites, including those run by the ministry of foreign affairs, the Israeli parliament and the military.

Leaders from both sides have labelled the attacks as acts of "cyberwar". Meir Shlomo, a spokesman for the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, could not explain why the ministry's Web site was targeted. The site, which contains fairly innocuous facts about Israel, is visited primarily by students doing research papers on the country. "It's a good thing this happened in a way -- in a twisted way -- I guess. At least [it shows] people know about it. If they had never heard of it they wouldn't have attacked it," he said.

Meanwhile, the independent news sites reported no breakdowns, proving once again that in war the victims are easy to spot. In the Internet age, they're the ones with sabotaged Web sites.

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