Eleven out of the 12 Palestinians invited to the Tunis meeting had their visas rejected by the Tunisian authorities.
TUNIS – As influential bloggers from across the Middle East and North Africa gather in the country where the Arab Spring began to share ideas and tactics, the absence of 11 Palestinians has served as a reminder that even if borders have faded in the online world, they remain a reality in the physical one.
Over 100 delegates from at least 15 different countries are meeting in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, for the Third Arab Bloggers meeting.
Unlike the bloggers and journalists from every other country, 11 out of the 12 Palestinians invited to the meeting had their visas rejected by the Tunisian authorities.
“It’s not a good feeling to me, why am I the only one here?” Saed Karzoun, who lives in Ramallah in the West Bank, told Al Jazeera.
Karzoun, who blogs at http://blog.amin.org/saedkarzour/, does not know why his visa was the only one accepted. It could be because his profession is listed as “musician” or because he has travelled to Europe several times, he speculated.
Some of the other Palestinian bloggers spoke to the attendees over Skype on Tuesday afternoon. Despite this attempt to include the online activists, the virtual connection was not enough to allow the Palestinians to participate fully in workshops on skills, including how to present data in hard-hitting infographics and best practice for activists on Twitter.
Speaking to his compatriots back in Ramallah, Karzoun promised that he and the other attendees would demand answers from the country’s interior ministry.
Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the co-founders of the Tunisian dissident blog-turned-NGO Nawaat, said that it was unclear who had made the decision to refuse the visas – the embassy in Ramallah or the Tunisian interior ministry – and why they had done so.
The initial reason given by the embassy was that Nawaat was not a legal entity. Gharbia said this was not true, as they had registered Nawaat as an NGO in Tunisia, and in any case, all the other participants had been granted visas.
“It’s a huge debate, Tunisians are shocked and ashamed that their country is treating Palestinians this way, because Tunisians have never had a problem with Palestine,” Gharbia said.
The interior ministry was unavailable for comment.
Long tradition of solidarity
The Heinrich Boell Foundation, Global Voices Online and the Nawaat Association, which co-sponsored the event, issued a joint statement condemning the decision to refuse the visa requests.
“We demand an explanation from the Tunisian interior ministry and seek clarification as to why Palestinian participants were denied,” it read.
“An Arab Bloggers Meeting without participation from Palestinians is an offense to the long tradition of solidarity between Tunisia and Palestine, and deprives participants of a key contingent of the Arab blogging community.”
It has provoked discussion at the conference about the wider issue of difficulties Palestinians faced travelling in the Arab world.
An online petition against the decision was launched along with a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #VISArejected.
Razan Ghazzawi, a Syrian blogger participating in the meeting, tapped a sign on her back that read “OK, Pals denied entry. Let’s not just tweet about it.”
Amra, a Palestinian-American activist based in Ramallah, said that the Palestinians were being discriminated against because of their identity.
“We must ask ourselves, why the Palestinian participants were prevented. Is it a threat, and if so, to who?” she said in an emailed interview.
Joachim Paul, head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Ramallah branch, said that it was important that Palestinian bloggers should have the chance to come to such events so that they could be part of the Arab blogging community.
“So many of the issues are also common issues, despite the differences,” Paul said.
Ali Shaath, who runs the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, said that the refusal was nothing new, but that it was disappointing that the Tunisian authorities appeared to be going against the spirit of the Arab Spring.
“It’s obviously a political decision,” he said.
Organising events has long been difficult because of such barriers on travel, he said.
“Now with the Arab Spring, we think that this is a popular movement and it should open up borders within the Arab world,” he said.
“Maybe a no-visa policy within the Arab world is something that has to be lobbied for.”
The rejected bloggers come from the Occupied West Bank, Gaza, within Israel and a Palestinian living in Egypt.
On the first day of the meeting, some were still hoping that the bloggers would still make it.
“It would be an honour to meet such amazing people who have created change,” Dalia Othman, one of those stuck in Ramallah, wrote on her blog.
“Here’s hoping the Tunisian government would change their mind and grant us a visa!”
With only two days left of the conference and no sign of a change of heart from the Tunisian authorities, it appears Othman and the rest of the bloggers will have to wait until the next meeting.