Facebook gets caught in Golan Heights dispute
Logging onto Facebook as a resident in the Golan Heights, should you enter Syria or Israel as your home country?
Facebook now has 300 million users — almost as many as the population of the United States.
Decades of war and occupation have not provided an answer to that question — but the social networking Web site now permits both options, sparking fears about an anti-Facebook cyber-war.
The Golan Heights is Syrian territory that was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Since then it has been internationally classified as Israeli-occupied territory.
Up until recently, Facebook fans in the Golan Heights could only choose Syria as their country of origin or else leave it blank. Pro-Israel Web site honestreporting.com sought to change that, starting a group called “Facebook, Golan residents live in Israel, not Syria.”
Alex Margolin says the campaign was never political. “It was never a question of the future of Golan… it’s totally possible that at some time in the future the Golan will change hands and go to Syria.”
“We have enabled users in Golan Heights to choose either Syria or Israel in the listings,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN. “We currently have the same dual-listing options for the West Bank settlement, which is listed in both Palestine and Israel.
“We deal with the listings for disputed territories on a case-by-case basis, and with Golan Heights we decided a dual listing made sense in this instance.”
Eighteen-year old Ofri Bazaz is delighted she can finally change her profile to Israel, squealing with delight as she tries it for the first time. She said: “It’s very important on the Internet when somebody comes to my profile on Facebook they will see Israel and not Syria. I’m not Syrian.”
But a 20-minute drive away in the Druze town of Majdal Shams, the reaction is very different. Facebook users here consider themselves Syrian and refuse to accept the change, as they fear it undermines their peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Shopkeeper Sakar abu Sabit said: “Even if it’s just on the computer, I want people to always recognize me in the Golan Heights as a Syrian citizen.”
Reaction from Syria is likely to be muted according to Syrian scholar, Ammar Abdulhamid. He told CNN that Facebook and other social networking sites have already been banned in Syria. “The Syrian government has really taken a strong stance on Internet activism and social networking sites,” he said.
The real reason is nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s because these sites are very popular with Syrian activists.”
But with 300 million users worldwide and an estimated 120 million logging in every single day according to Facebook, there will inevitably be fears about a backlash against the site that now finds itself at the center of a 40-year-old conflict.