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Morocco: Opening of Israeli news channel sparks backlash

Moroccan government has facilitated the opening of the Israel-based channel, sources tell Middle East Eye, but local journalists are not happy
Frank Melloul, CEO of I24, poses for a photo at the news channel's headquarters in the Israeli port city of Jaffa, 15 July 2021 (AFP)
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Rabat

When i24News opened its two offices in Rabat and Casablanca, it became the first Israeli media company to operate in Morocco

The move has triggered widespread anger among Moroccan media workers who see it as yet another step towards normalisation of relations between Israel and Morocco, part of a wider drive for rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries since 2020.

For both the owner and director of the channel, who have Moroccan roots, the move was more of "a reunion" than a sign of "normalisation" between Israel and Morocco.

The father of Franck Melloul, the French CEO of i24News, is Moroccan, while the owner of the channel, Patrick Drahi, was born in Casablanca before moving to France at the age of 15.

On 30 May, Drahi joined some 500 journalists, artists, diplomats, and businessmen from Israel and Morocco at a gala evening in Rabat to launch the channel.

The event was held in the archaeological site of Chellah, one of the most iconic places in the Moroccan capital. It brought together public figures from the two countries, including royal adviser Andre Azoulay, Minister of Culture Mehdi Bensaid, and Minister of Habitat Fatima Zahra Mansouri.

According to two Moroccan sources who spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity, the opening of i24 was facilitated largely thanks to the support of the Moroccan culture minister, who had also helped the channel rent the Chellah site to celebrate its launch.

The channel first went live on 17 July 2013 from its headquarters in the Israeli port city of Jaffa. It provides 24-hour news coverage in French, English and Arabic. It has offices in France, the US and more recently the United Arab Emirates. 

'Reunion' between Israel and Morocco

Melloul avoids the characterisation of a deal signed between Morocco and Israel in 2020 as "normalisation," preferring to call it a "reunion".

"These reunions are celebrated for the simple and good reason that in Israel we don't know what an Emirati is, but we know what a Moroccan is," he said in a media interview on the occasion of the launch.

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"This knowledge of Morocco, from this Moroccan culture which is already very significant in Israeli society, arouses an expectation commensurate with this emotion that there is between the two peoples."

According to the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry, nearly one million Israeli Jews are Moroccan or of Moroccan descent, making them the second-largest community in the country. 

Now, after succeeding in forming its administrative and editorial teams, the managers of i24News are seeking partnerships with local private and state-owned Moroccan channels, the two sources told MEE.

This is a model already tested in the United Arab Emirates, where the Israeli channel had established partnerships with the two state-owned groups Abu Dhabi Media and Dubai Media before extending its collaboration with private media.

According to the two sources, discussions are underway with several potential partners on topics of interest to the Israeli media in Morocco, including diplomacy, geostrategy, history and culture.

It would not be the first time that the media of the two countries have sealed a partnership. On 22 December 2020, the Moroccan magazine L'Observateur announced in a press release a "strategic partnership agreement" with The Jerusalem Post, consisting "of a syndication, resulting in an exchange of content".

Shireen Abu Akleh wound ‘still raw’ 

The latest i24 opening came less than a month after the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on 11 May by an Israeli soldier while covering an Israeli incursion into occupied Palestinian territories. 

For many Moroccan journalists, the timing could not have been worse.

It came "at a time when the wound is still raw from the assassination in cold blood and in front of the eyes of the world of our fellow journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the [Israeli] occupation army," 80 Moroccan journalists said in a joint letter on 13 June.

In a statement widely shared on social networks, the group said it followed "with great concern the dangerous path of normalisation pursued by the Moroccan State, since December 2020, through several agreements and decisions that allow the institutions of the Zionist occupation to desecrate our country".

Morocco was the fourth Arab nation to sign a normalisation agreement with Israel in 2020, after the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. 

The two countries have since strengthened cooperation in various areas, even going so far as signing an unprecedented security cooperation agreement during a visit described as historic by the Israeli Minister of Defence Benny Gantz in Rabat in November 2021.

*This article was originally published in French