Saudi-funded MBC's removal of Palestinian show raises questions over normalisation with Israel
Saudi-funded TV channel MBC temporarily removed an acclaimed historical drama about Palestine from its streaming service, in a move that has been described as "gasping towards normalisation" with Israel.
On Monday, social media users noticed that al-Taghreba al-Falastenya (The Palestinian Exodus) had been removed from Shahid.net, the on-demand video streaming service for Saudi-funded and UAE-based media network MBC Group.
Translation: MBC's Shahid.net is removing the series The Palestinian Exodus. Is that loyalty?
The 31-episode drama, which aired throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2004, was filmed entirely in Syria and produced by Syrian Art Production International.
The series followed one Palestinian family and their struggle for survival across four decades, beginning during the British Mandate over Palestine in the 1930s. It goes on to depict the 1936-39 Arab revolt against the British; the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 when over 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced and 15,000 killed during the creation of the state of Israel; and the 1967 war, which resulted in Israel occupying all of historic Palestine.
The Palestinian Exodus is considered to be one of the most famous and critically acclaimed Arabic-language dramas about the Palestinian cause ever made.
It won multiple awards at the 2005 Cairo Arab Film Festival, including best screenwriter for the show's Palestinian-Jordanian creator Walid Saif, and the best male and female actor prizes for Syrian star Jamal Sulaiman and Jordan’s Juliette Awwad.
‘Does the word Palestine scare you?’
Awwad was among those outraged at MBC’s decision to remove the programme.
"My question to Shahid.net is, why did you delete al-Taghreba? Does the word 'Palestine' or 'truth' scare you?" the actress said in a video address.
“The Jordanian people support the Palestinian cause, and if no one remained to defend Palestine, we would continue to say Palestine is a right and an Arab state from the river to the sea, and we are with the resistance until we return to Palestine."
Translation: Jordanian actress Juliette Awwad talks about MBC's deletion of the Palestinian Exodus series
Ramy Abdu, a law professor and human rights advocate born in the Gaza Strip, denounced the show’s removal as a “new phase” in the process of normalising relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states while “demonising the Palestinians and their cause” in the process.
Another Palestinian Twitter user said that this was the latest example of “TV channels, newspapers and websites … preparing the ground for normalisation with the Zionist enemy and a complete coup against the Palestinian cause”.
The incident came amid a string of recent erasures of Palestinian issues from Arab television programmes, coming on the heels of recent agreements signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain - with other states, including Saudi Arabia, believed to likely follow suit.
On Sunday, Egyptian TV channel DMC appeared to remove a segment from an interview in which actor Ahmed el-Sakka sang about the protection of Palestine, when asked what his favourite song was. The omission was met with widespread anger on social media.
In late September, UAE-owned Sky News Arabia edited a poster on the wall of an interviewee which read “Visit Palestine” to read “Visit Lebanon”. Beirut-based organisation Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture accused Sky News of lacking “the basic ethics of professional journalism”.
The latest move by MBC prompted a social media campaign, coordinated by satirical Palestinian account Meshhek, to bombard Shahid.net with negative comments and ratings on its Facebook page and its Google Play and Apple Store applications.
Translation: Ok guys… after we ruined the Shahid.net page on Facebook with negative ratings, our second and largest attack will be on their application on Google Play and App Store … All of you enter and give it one star, and write that they fight Palestine and its cause by deleting Palestinian content and deleting the Palestinian Exodus series.
The backlash eventually resulted in The Palestinian Exodus being reinstated to Shahid.net's website.
In a reply to a comment criticising the streaming site, Shahid’s Facebook account wrote: “Please note that the series The Palestine Exodus has ended on our platform, and because we respect our contractual obligations, the series has been automatically and electronically excluded.”
It said that in appreciation of comments and interests from social media users, it had “requested an extension of the series’ broadcast period from the production company".
Controversy over normalisation
The criticism of MBC comes after months of souring relations between Saudi Arabia and Palestine, as Riyadh's informal relations with Israel over recent years have led many Palestinians to believe it too will join fellow Gulf countries in signing formal agreements with Tel Aviv.
Earlier this year, a Palestinian cartoonist's caricature, which was perceived to be mocking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sparked a bitter row on social media about whether Saudis supported the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation.
Last month, following the official normalisation of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, a sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, was interpreted by some as a prelude to Saudi following suit.
Riyadh does not have official diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, and Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said in September that his government’s position in support of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital had not changed.
However, Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow the first flight between Israel and the UAE to cross its airspace was hailed as a “tremendous breakthrough” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Top Saudi royal Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz also sparked outrage last week after he launched a stinging attack against Palestinian leadership during a televised interview.
The former spy chief and ambassador to the US made the comments on Saudi channel Al-Arabiya, which is also part of the MBC network.
Saudi activist Turki Shalboub said: “Shahid.net deleted the series The Palestinian Exodus less than a week after Bandar bin Sultan’s attack against the Palestinian cause.
“Israel's tools in the region are working with remarkable acceleration every day to remove facts about Palestine from the minds of the public. This is what gasping towards normalisation is.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.