At 3 am, in the shadow of the ongoing fighting, a giant blast shook Allah al-Shawa's Internet cafe in Gaza. The owner, who rushed to his business in order to examine the damage, found one computer in working order in the rubble and decided to check his e-mail.
A surprise awaited him: An e-mail message from a group calling itself "Islamic Swords of Justice" explained that the cafe was blown up because it and those of its type "divert the attention of an entire generation to other issues that are not Jihad or worship." In other words, the e-mail charged that his Internet cafe was used for distributing abomination and pornography
Al-Shawa is not alone. Since December, in the framework of the anarchy that has taken root in the Gaza Strip, various radical groups have blown up dozens of Internet cafes alongside attacks on Christian bookstores and other sites associated with Western culture, such as music shops and pool halls.
The groups, which intelligence investigators have loosely connected to al-Qaeda, are methodically eliminating the almost sole means of communication that Gaza's 1.4 million residents have with the outside world. Students at the al-Zahar University use the Internet cafes for their studies, along with academicians and civilians just interested in maintaining contacts with their relatives, corresponding with colleagues, and generally maintaining a life of creation and prolific thought of the type that is safely available to almost anyone in the Western hemisphere.
As opposed to regimes such as Iran and Syria, which engage in censorship through government orders and technological monitoring means reminiscent of the Orwellian throught police, marginal groups such as the "Swords of Justice" utilize much simpler censorship means: Dynamite sticks. Yet there is a common pattern to the dark regimes and no less fundamentalist explosive cells: Sowing fear, horror, and restraint among citizens. Terror is the quickest way to a monopoly in the market of ideas.
The poor pay heaviest price
The irony inherent in this absurd situation is doubly bitter: Those who consume pornography online usually do it in the privacy of their own homes and not in the public space of a cafe because of the shame and the religious code that condemns such conduct. Therefore, those who really suffer from the attacks are the people who cannot afford a computer or regular Internet connection at their home - that is, students and other poor segments of society.
During both the recent Lebanon war and within the walls of the besieged Gaza Strip, in recent years we saw bloggers and brave Internet activists with a thirst for dialogue with the other side, who did not shy away from criticizing even those who control their Internet connection. They, the supporters of globalization, indeed constitute a threat to reactionary Islamic forces, which would go to any length in order to silence these opponents.
The second irony is the paradox inherent in the approach of Islamic zealots to the Internet, a tool they widely utilize in order to issue religious edicts, produce video broadcasts from al-Qaeda headquarters, and communicate among terror activists.
For example, the "Tawhid and Jihad Brigades" sent an e-mail where it claimed to have executed BBC report Alan Johnston, abducted in Gaza about two months ago. Al-Shawa explains this theater of the absurd: "They use the Internet in order to spread their message, yet assume that everyone else uses the Internet to get porn."
This attack on the virtual space is not only limited to or undermines the livelihood of al-Shawa and his colleagues, who make a living from operating Internet cafes. The Cutting of a modern line of communication such as the Internet is no less severe than hitting other basic infrastructure such as electricity or water.
West must not remain silent
The potent outcome of such attacks is immense: The cutting off of the main pipeline that brings ideas of freedom and equality into the besieged Strip prevents the population from opening its eyes and aspiring for such values. Instead, it is fed by ongoing ideological calls for Jihad against Western infidels.
The Western world must not remain silent in the face of such basic attack on freedom of expression. We, citizens of the liberal world, tend to forget this, but freedom of expression is also freedom of thought and the freedom to listen to new ideas - a basic liberty that religious zealots have wrested away from Gaza residents.
We too, as Israelis, have a clear interest in maintaining Gaza's virtual space. The rubble of Internet cafes, just like Gaza's rubble in general, does not bring us closer to a time of calm.
This happens while the moderates and brave figures on the other side are met with a wall of disconnection from that same space that could have allowed for dialogue. Without advancing the principles of freedom and equality, and without the free distribution of ideas and information through a robust communication infrastructure, there is certainly no hope for moderate voices of sanity.
Niv Lilian is the deputy editor of Ynet's Computers and Internet channel
Nir Boms is vice president of the Centre for Freedom in the Middle East