Government orders TV channel closed for links to Palestinian Authority, while Israel’s culture minister vows to ‘censor’ critics
NAZARETH, Israel - The Israeli government has declared war on a Palestinian TV channel that launched last month from a mobile studio-truck near the city of Nazareth in Israel.
The station, which broadcasts six hours a day to Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian Arab citizens, focuses on news, arts, food and celebrities, as well as offering children’s programmes and quiz shows.
Despite the channel’s modest budget and ambitions, however, Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, ordered its closure last week, describing its operations as a “breach of Israel’s sovereignty”.
The satellite channel – called Palestine ’48 – is the first to serve Israel’s Palestinian minority that is funded by the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas’ government-in-waiting in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli officials have claimed that the channel is being used by the PA to “gain a foothold” in Israel to promote misinformation and incitement.
But critics say the crackdown on the station is part of a much wider assault being led by the new culture minister, Miri Regev, on the cultural life of Palestinians in Israel, who make up a fifth of the population.
Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, recently told the news website Ynet: “Regev acts towards Arab artists as Israeli policemen act towards the Arab protester – as an enemy that must be eliminated.”
Connecting to Arab world
The launch of Palestine ’48 has generated special excitement, according to Makbula Nassar, a presenter with the commercial station Radio Ashams in Nazareth, because Israel’s Palestinian minority has lacked the resources to develop its own vigorous media.
“It has been like a prison here in terms of the media,” she told Middle East Eye. “For a long time we had access to few sources of information apart from those provided by the state, which totally ignored the needs of our community.
“Now there is at least the hope that we can develop a TV station that offers new ideas and perspectives free of Israeli propaganda. We are part of the Arab world and we have to break free of our isolation and connect to it.”
The PA’s communications minister, Riad Hassan, stated that the channel’s goal was to offer a platform for Israel’s Palestinian minority to “expose to the Arab world everything they must go through, regarding their social, cultural and economic difficulties”.
Yet Netanyahu, who is communications minister in addition to being prime minister, appears to have other ideas.
He ordered officials to find a way to close the new channel after its launch last month was timed to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, when TV viewing figures are high across the Arab world.
Israeli Minister of Sports and Culture Miri Regev (R) gestures upon arriving to a theatre awards ceremony in Tel Aviv, on 19 June (AFP)
Last week Erdan accused the PA of violating the 1994 Oslo accords, claiming that a clause forbids Palestinian funding of activities on Israeli soil.
Palestine ‘48 has countered that it is simply buying in programming from Israeli TV companies, while the signal is broadcast not from Israel but from the West Bank city of Ramallah, via an Egyptian satellite. As a result, the station’s officials argue, it does not need an Israeli licence.
“There is no legal basis to the order,” Jafar Farah, a member of Palestine ‘48’s advisory board, told MEE. “This is a purely political move by the right wing in a competition to show who can be more extreme in silencing the Arab minority.”
So far the channel has managed to keep broadcasting, despite the order.
Arab culture starved of government funds
Palestinian leaders in Israel warn that under Regev’s stewardship the culture ministry is mounting a much wider assault on Arab arts and culture.
A former Israeli army spokeswoman and military censor, Regev took on her new role in May. She soon announced to Israel’s arts establishment: “If it is necessary to censor, I will censor.”
Regev’s combative stance comes in the wake of an official report showing that Palestinian communities in Israel receive only a tiny fraction of the state’s budget for culture.
Under pressure from the courts, the ministry of culture was recently forced to produce data showing that only 3 percent of its budget went to the Palestinian minority in Israel.
According to official figures, four-fifths of Palestinian communities received no ministry funds at all. In 83 per cent of the communities, there were no musical activities. Half had no festivals or children’s shows, and a third lacked a library. Not one Palestinian community had a theatre or arts centre that met government standards.
Jafar Farah, who also heads the Mossawa advocacy centre for Palestinians in Israel which went to court to demand the spending figures, said Arab culture in Israel was being starved of funds.
“The government is doing its best to prevent its Arab citizens from getting a fair allocation of the budget,” he said. “It wants to silence critics of its policies, especially about the occupation and human rights violations.”
Cultural landscape reinvented
In recent weeks Regev has threatened the state funding of two prominent havens for Arab culture: Israel’s only Arab national theatre, and a Jewish-Arab children’s theatre.
The government recently pulled funding from Haifa’s Al-Midan theatre, after complaints that it had produced a play in Arabic about the experiences of political prisoners in Israeli jails.
Actors perform in 'A Parallel Time' at the Al-Midan theatre in Haifa (Oren Ziv)
Israel’s liberal Haaretz daily called Regev’s move “ugly”, “Stalinist” and designed to “delegitimize” Al-Midan, adding: “The culture ministry is turning into the censorship ministry with dizzying speed.”
Al-Midan’s manager, Adnan Tarabash, has since resigned but, with the theatre in financial crisis, its officials are reported to be considering appealing to the European Union for help.
Regev also hit the headlines last month when she threatened to scratch promised funding for the Elmina children’s theatre in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, one of the few artistic projects promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence.
She said the theatre would be punished after it emerged that actor Norman Issa, the theatre’s Palestinian co-founder along with his Jewish wife, had refused to perform in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Regev reversed her decision only after Issa agreed to take part in the touring production.
Ala Hlehel, an award-winning Palestinian author living in Acre, said Netanyahu’s government was punishing Palestinian artists first because they presented “an easy target”.
“This is just the beginning,” he told MEE. “The right wing feels there are no constraints on it now and intends to reinvent the whole cultural landscape to get rid of dissidents and critics of the government, whether they are Arabs or Jews.
“Arabs are easy to attack first because they lack wider support in Israel. But what the right really wants is to dominate public opinion by controlling the media and cultural discourse.”
Films must be ‘Israeli’
The Israeli government has insisted that all film-makers receiving state funding must commit to identifying their movies as “Israeli”.
Other high-profile Palestinian film-makers in Israel, such as Hany Abu Assad, have tried to find ways to bypass Israeli controls. His film Omar, nominated last year for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, became the first to be financed exclusively by Palestinian funders.
Nassar, of Radio Ashams, said Israel’s goal was to make life as hard as possible for Palestinian artists in Israel. “The message to them is that writers, journalists, intellectuals must keep their heads down, not rock the boat, if they want to survive.
“My fear is that, without jobs or opportunities to create, our artists will emigrate. And that will further threaten our identity as Palestinians.”