For the past eight months, Denny Cormier has hunkered down in the Gaza Strip, working on a project called 1,000 Voices for Gaza. As part of the project, Cormier, a 68-year-old retired American businessman, holds seminars and consults with Palestinian activists on how to best leverage the power of social media - both to raise awareness about the plight of Gaza residents and to make human connections with people around the world. His work is self-funded, with some help from local NGOs.
Cormier remained in Gaza during this summer's 51-day war, spending 12-hour shifts at the al-Shifa Hospital to act as a "human shield". The hospital was a potential target for Israeli airstrikes, and by remaining there at all times, activists aimed to protect it. Cormier also shared daily news updates of the war's traumatic consequences via social media.
Cormier spoke to Al Jazeera about the impetus for his 1,000 Voices project, along with his broader hopes for Gaza.
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Al Jazeera: What initially drew you to Gaza?
Denny Cormier: I was involved in the Occupy movement in the United States in 2011 and 2012, and I got very used to the streaming technology that was being used during that small American revolution of sorts. I was on Twitter one night and I noticed a post about bombs being dropped on Gaza; I went looking for a live stream and there was one operating that night from a young journalist in Gaza City. I started watching the video, and it was compelling because I could hear the bombs dropping and I could hear the drones in the background. I ended up watching that broadcast pretty much round the clock for eight days. From what I was seeing and hearing, I knew that something was wrong. From that broadcast I really started looking closely at what was being reported in the news, what was happening over there.
If people here become more familiar with the technology, they can report immediately what the media is not reporting.
AJ: What prompted you to start the 1,000 Voices for Gaza project, and what does it entail?
DC: For a very long time I've believed that the Palestinians are the best people to tell their stories. Many Palestinians use Facebook; with the young population it's probably 90% or more. They use it for social reasons, but I saw this as a great opportunity. I developed this project with my friend Nader Abd el-Naby, a student at the Islamic University in Gaza. The idea was to come here and to empower university students primarily, but anyone, to use the internet for resistance - a cyber militia, if you will, because the Israeli students were doing it very well. The Israelis had a phenomenal public-relations machine and that did not exist in Gaza.
Americans have a way of coming into a country on their white horse and saying I can fix this for you. I don't come from that approach. I spent many weeks discussing this with students over coffee, and tea, and lunch, and we have now developed some classes. A seminar that I did recently at al-Aqsa University was on this very subject: How can you use the internet to do what the media is not doing for you? How do you expand your connections in the virtual world? It's very difficult to think of your friend as a terrorist when you spend a year talking with him 7,000 miles away, you exchange photographs, you meet their kids. That is one of the magic elements in finally breaking a cultural siege.
1,000 Voices, the number came to me, because 10,000 would be better but even 15 voices is better than no voices. There are people who have been using social media in Gaza for quite some time but I am trying to help people to move into story-telling - to tell not just of the suffering, but what is it like to go to school? What is it like to get married here? Show pictures of their families. Many cities are destroyed, many villages are wiped out, but there is still a vibrant culture here. The idea is to bring that understanding that this is a human issue, to let people know that there are real people living here. We have a massive student population supporting Palestine in the United States and people in Palestine are virtually unaware of them. A lot of this project is to try to make connections.
AJ: As far as you can tell, has there been a change in recent months or years in terms of how social media is being used in Gaza?
This is not going to end quickly and it's not going to end because I Tweet and post, or 1,000 more people do it. Those are just things that can help.
I think it's being used more and more, to be honest. More than I saw in 2012 when I first started, when only a few Palestinians were Tweeting or using Facebook or Google Plus. Now I go to Twitter and 10 seconds after something happens - offshore a fishing boat is being shelled, I hear that myself because I live on the sea - but somebody has Tweeted about it who lives here. There is more and more of this network being built; it's growing.
I believe it has an important role because there are people who want to know and will want to know more over time. If people here become more familiar with the technology, they can report immediately what the media is not reporting.
AJ: From what you're seeing first-hand, what makes this conflict so intractable and so enduring?
DC: It's been going on so long, that there is lots of anger and fear that's been developed over time. Although these are very peaceful people, a lot of brothers and cousins and fathers and children have been killed. There is such a high rate of unemployment in Gaza that it becomes really problematic for a normal life. From the Israeli point of view there are the security issues, and I see the need for security, but there are two people trying to live on the same land who don't trust each other, who don't know each other. There's an information gap, a cultural gap. When somebody says to me, "Why don't they just stop firing the rockets?" I have to say, "Why don't they open the borders?" There are fair issues on both sides.
AJ: How optimistic are you for the future of Gaza?
DC: I am optimistic because I am surrounded by Palestinians who are optimistic, but it's going to be a very difficult task. With the United States fully supporting Israel, it's going to be very difficult. America holds a lot of influence in what happens in the future of this country. I think Americans are becoming more aware of what's happening, but it's a slow process.
I think the unity government here is going to try its best to get a ceasefire situation going, but as the situation continues with closed borders, both with Israel and with Egypt, it's not going to get better - it's going to get worse. Things have to change here.
I wake up every morning to the sound of shelling on the fishermen just offshore. The farmers in this area trying to farm land near the buffer zone are being shot at. This is not going to end quickly and it's not going to end because I Tweet and post, or 1,000 more people do it. Those are just things that can help.
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Source: Al Jazeera