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Court reverses Israeli attempt to silence Palestinian radio

The Ministry of Communication’s attempt to silence Israel’s only commercial radio raises questions about a 'Jewish State' on Yom Kippur
Ultra-orthodox Jews returning from Yom Kippur prayers in the Western Wall walk past Palestinian Muslims on their way to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the Eid al-Adha prayers, on 4 October

Haifa - Last week, Radio Shams, the only commercial Arabic radio station operating inside present-day Israel, faced fines and other punishment if it were to broadcast on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that halts all activities for approximately 25 hours once a year.

“It was 9 pm yesterday [Wednesday, October 1] when we found out the Broadcasting Authority would not give us an answer,” Sawsan Zaher, acting General Director of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said, visibly exhausted. “I stayed up until 2 am writing the petition.”

During the “Day of Atonement,” all businesses, even the airport, are closed, and if a vehicle is seen on the road it risks being met with stones thrown by members of the Orthodox religious Jewish community. The occupied West Bank was also under military closure, with Palestinians only able to enter Israel under “extraordinary humanitarian circumstances.”

The call for closure is a new development in the station’s 11 year history. It wasn’t until Israel passed legislation creating the Second Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1990 that private entities were able to compete for tenders and gain licenses for commercial broadcasts. Radio Shams gained its license in 2003.

Until 2013, the station broadcasted on Yom Kippur without issue. Then, after a change in leadership of the board of the IBA, the station was ordered to cease operations on the Jewish holiday.

When this happened, Radio Shams joined with Adalah and other rights groups to ensure that they would be able to broadcast during the next Day of Atonement.

Speaking about the circumstances that led to the decision to request the Supreme Court to act, Zaher said that the board of the IBA had promised a definitive answer for months. As Yom Kippur approached, they were left without an answer.

“So we filed the petition,” she said. “This shouldn’t have happened, it is the responsibility of the individuals on the board to provide a timely response to these issues,” the lawyer continued.

Religious Coercion

This year, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday that features festive public celebrations, coincided for the first time in more than three decades. “We can’t, as Arabs, allow our station to close on Eid al-Adha,” Suhel Karram, owner and director of Radio Shams, told Middle East Eye via telephone.

Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Communication, responded that it does not agree to allow the registration to broadcast on Yom Kippur. When asked about the controversy surrounding the station’s broadcast, the Minister delivered a brief comment to MEE: “I regret any discussion that hurts the feelings of many Israeli citizens, [lacks] mutual respect, or [damages] the Jewish character of the state.”

The Supreme Court decided to allow Radio Shams to broadcast on Friday, 3 October, hours before Yom Kippur began. However, the issue is not resolved. The court’s order was temporary, a stop-gap that does not solve the issue entirely, and it stated that a hearing would take place at a future, undetermined date.

Part of the reasoning behind the decision was the fact that the requirement to close on Yom Kippur has no foundation in Israeli law. According to Zaher, it is a regulation instituted and enforced by the IBA.

The move to silence Radio Shams on Yom Kippur raised serious questions about the notion of a “Jewish State.” In many cases, the steps necessary to maintain Jewish character lead to severe discrimination.

“Here you have something that is a continuation of a policy that has existed for years. We are talking about a state where the legal status of the Palestinian minority is considered inferior in many fields. This is illustrated in many laws,” Zaher said, referring to the dozens of Israeli laws that systematically discriminate against the estimated 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. “This time, it [was] forcing a religious day on the Palestinian minority.”

Though the station was allowed to continue operations this year, the people and institutions that tried to close it remain. Zaher considers their efforts an attempt to alienate Palestinians from their own culture and compel them to follow Israeli customs.

“We’re talking about the political relation between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority,” she said. “When you tell the Arabic population that they can’t listen to their radio in their own language, on their own religious day, you are telling them that they are inferior. When you do this, you are violating their constitutional right to dignity. You’re telling them their needs are not visible.”

Karram expressed that the current religious supremacy in Israel was not compatible with the notion of a democracy. “Our goal is to change this, to be part of a society where another religion doesn’t push you aside,” he said. “We need to live in a country where every religion can feel free.”

Muting dissent

Some view the move as part of a larger campaign to silence Palestinian dissent expressed through radio, television and even social media.

Since Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s third assault on the besieged Gaza Strip since 2008 that resulted in the death of more than 2,100 mostly non-combatant civilians, began this past July, Israeli authorities and right-wing groups have launched a crackdown on voices speaking out against the occupation.

“The [attempt] to impose this regulation is part of a broader wave of attempts to limit the freedom of expression in Israeli society in general and the Arab community [specifically],” Dr. Amal Jamal, General Director of I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, said from his office in Nazareth. “Wherever government agencies are able to limit, damage, or control freedom of expression or the right of information of the Arab community, they do,” he continued.

Mousa Riwani, director of MADA, The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, said that Israel had increased the efforts to limit Palestinian speech “because they don’t want the world to know the truth, they want to hide their crimes against the Palestinian people.” Speaking about Israeli coverage, she said that “Israeli media are [only quoting] the Israeli army spokesman.”

Jamal went on to highlight that the closure of the radio station would not have served the Jewish community. “It [wouldn’t] do the Jewish community any good. To me, it seems like an illogical decision to punish, rather than a logical or rational decision,” he concluded.

Israel has a long history of committing press violations against Palestinians in present-day Israel, the occupied West Bank, and the besieged Gaza Strip. According to a 2014 report published by Reporters Without Borders, Israel ranked 96th from 180 countries measured for press freedoms.

According to Karram, owner of Radio Shams, the attempt to close his radio on Yom Kippur highlights Israel’s policy of marginalizing the Palestinian minority in Israel. “As a radio, we work for all of Arab society, we belong to our own society,” he said, referring to the many religions - Muslim, Druze, Christian - that comprise the Palestinian community of Israel. “We accept them, why can’t they accept us?”