The main motivation for starting Across Borders came from considering one of the major problems facing Palestinians today—the issue of freedom of movement. Although we could easily move in and out of the Occuppied Territories, for Palestinians this is very difficult. Each day that we visited Dheisheh, for instance, we had a short and easy commute from where we were staying in East Jerusalem. Residents of Dheisheh, on the other hand, cannot visit Jerusalem. For them, even visiting another part of the West Bank may require special arrangements. Visiting friends and relatives in refugee camps outside of the West Bank or Gaza is almost impossible. Communication too, is difficult.
Internet access gives camp residents a communication channel not just with other Palestinians in the West Bank but throughout the world.
At a time when the refugee Palestinians are being disassociated from the peace process, the hope is that the Across Borders project will help to increase the visibility and confidence of the refugee community. As Adam puts it, "Analysts of Palestinian society have identified the increasing division of the community along regional lines and the consequent narrowing of political vision. The project aims to re-assert the refugee community as a central axis of Palestinian society."
Traditionally, the Israseli government has imposed strict censorship on the information flow into the Occuppied Territories. Surprisingly, Across Borders has not encountered any hurdles regarding censorship in establishing the first computer center. Information now flows freely in and out of Dheisheh. The hurdles that Across Borders has faced are technical in nature and in overcoming the restrictions on movement between Bir Zeit and the camp.
In addition to providing internet access from the camps, the project is setting up training classes and initiating development of camp websites. At Dheisheh, course offerings have been quite popular—especially with children. The new website is up and running and new content is added on a regular basis. A BBS (bulletin board system) has been installed for use as a forum about issues specific to the refugees' situation.
Perhaps most important are the site's sections containing personal stories, news and a photo gallery—maintaining a "shared memory" is crucial for any displaced and disparate community.
While the folks at Bir Zeit establish the centers, provide training and oversee the project, the aim is that the centers become self-supporting and self-administering after a period of time. Users of the computer center pay a small hourly fee and there is a charge for courses. But, in the case of Dheisheh, these charges are kept artificially low and thus don't provide nearly enough revenue to keep the center afloat. Alternative sources of revenue are being sought—both through donations and business opportunities.
Our visit to Dheisheh was most welcome and appreciated. We were quite productive and encourage other travellers with web related skills to consider helping out with the project. It is hoped that each camp will have a webmaster who will be fluent in English. The next camp scheduled to get a computer center will be in the Gaza Strip—probably Khan Yunis.