By Yoav Stern
A Moment Magazine Special Series Israel’s Arab Citizens
Israel’s Arab citizens consume both Arabic and Hebrew newspapers, radio and television. But when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, there can be a stark difference in news coverage. Are two media good for one country?
Night is closing in on the building that houses Radio Shams on the outskirts of Nazareth. Usually at this hour on Friday—right before Shabbat and the country’s weekly day off—Israel’s only privately owned Arabic station broadcasts music. But this Friday in mid-September is different. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known to his people as Abu Mazen, is about to deliver a speech before the UN General Assembly in New York, calling for recognition of a Palestinian state.
In the studio, Jack Khoury leans into the microphone to welcome his listeners. Khoury, 38, is one of the best-known reporters and news anchors in the Arab media in Israel, and like his fellow 1.5 million or so Arab citizens in Israel, he is eagerly waiting to hear how the Palestinian leader will refer to them. As a lead-up, Khoury plays a 30-second-long recording of Yasser Arafat’s historic 1974 speech to the UN, in which he offered the world, and Israel, a choice between peace and war, saying, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Then Abbas is on the air. He recounts a litany of the sufferings of the Palestinian people including those in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. Only once does he mention the Palestinians who are also citizens of Israel: When referring to the demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas says: “We now face the imposition of new conditions not previously raised, conditions that will transform the raging conflict in our inflamed region into a religious conflict and a threat to the future of a million and a half Christian and Muslim Palestinians, citizens of Israel, a matter which we reject…”
This brief mention brings tears to the eyes of Radio Shams staff members. For Khoury, the speech stirs so many emotions that he cannot trust himself to speak. After Abbas finishes, he cuts to a song by the Lebanese singer, Marcel Khalife, “I am Joseph, O Father,” written by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Then he switches to a rally in Ramallah so his audience can hear “real Palestinians” celebrating this moment of recognition.
“Every Palestinian could find a little corner for himself in his speech,” says Khoury, a father of three from the Galilean Catholic village of Fassouta. “It is true that our corner is quite small. But we are used to Netanyahu getting applause for everything he says in the Congress, and here you have the Palestinian leader getting the applause of all the countries in the world. They applauded us, those who are usually screwed over.”
Across Israel, other Arabic-language media covered the Abbas speech in much the same manner. Headlines of popular Arabic newspapers such as As-Sennara Weekly, based in Nazareth, and Panorama, based in Taybe in the Triangle, lauded Abbas. The headline of the popular weekly Kul Al-Arab, based in Nazareth, blared: “Abu Mazen to Obama: I Shall Not Recognize a Jewish State Because This Will Harm the Palestinians in Israel and the Refugees.”
There was little or no mention of another head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, who also addressed the UN General Assembly that day. But if the Arab media passed over this detail, the Hebrew media made much of it. Left-leaning Haaretz exclaimed: “The Battle of Speeches Today in the UN Assembly.” Right-wing Yisrael Hayom, one of the most popular Hebrew dailies, based in Tel Aviv, wrote: “Netanyahu: I Extend My Hand in the Name of the People of Israel.” Across the board, the Hebrew media had a very different take on the same event, including concerns about possible violence that could threaten Israel’s security. The centrist Yedioth Ahronoth’s headline read: “Top Alert,” referring to warnings that clashes might occur in Arab towns and villages.
The divergence in the coverage of Abbas’s UN appearance is a classic example of the difference between Arabic and Hebrew media in Israel: Arabic outlets largely adopt the Palestinian narrative while the Hebrew media generally follow the official Israeli stance. Even Haaretz always stays firmly in the government camp when the Israeli establishment thinks violence could erupt, says Khoury, who also works as a correspondent covering Arab affairs and the Western Galilee for Haaretz. “At Haaretz I bring the positions of the Israeli Arabs, but more as reactions, to fill in gaps,” he says. “After Abbas’s speech, I was asked to answer the question if the Israeli Arabs will go out to the streets, not what they are thinking or feeling about the situation.” Khoury, who says that no violence occurred as a result of Abbas’s speech, is unusual in that he works for two organizations that often hold separate views of reality.
Israelis, Hebrew- and Arabic-speakers alike, devour information voraciously. As a result, the nation has a robust array of papers, radio stations, television channels and websites—expressing many varying political viewpoints. The typical Jewish citizen of Israel watches channels 1, 2 or 10—and listens to local and radio national stations, such as Reshet B and Galei Zahal, the Israel Defense Force station. He or she reads Yedioth Ahronoth, Yisrael Hayom or perhaps Maariv or Haaretz. Israel’s Jews also get news from global sources, cable and otherwise, such as BBC International and CNN International.
There are also vibrant Arabic language media: Commercial newspapers abound, including Kul Al-Arab and As-Sennara, the former expressing positions extremely critical of the Israeli government and the latter offering a more tolerant view. Also popular are Panorama and the official daily of the Israeli Communist Party, Al-Ittihad, based in Haifa. Radio Shams and the government-run Sawt Israel are two of the most-listened-to radio stations. The Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) provides Arabic TV programming on channel 33 but Arabic speakers also watch international channels, most commonly Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, and Al Arabiya, the Saudi owned station that operates from Dubai.
The Arab media flies under the radar of most Jews. “It’s unfortunate and mostly a result of the language barrier,” says Elhanan Miller, Arab Affairs reporter for the Times of Israel, who writes a daily round-up of stories from Arabic media in English. “This would be an opportunity to learn more about the culture of Arab Israelis—but this is really a result of the education system that never really forced Arabic as a language.”
In contrast, Arab Israelis, most of them fluent in Hebrew, regularly follow Hebrew media. “For an Arab-Palestinian who lives here, Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 2 TV are part of life,” says Kholod Massalha of the I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, who is also co-editor-in-chief of Bokra, a popular website. “We must know what’s going on in Israeli political life. Al Jazeera tells us what’s going on in the Arab world, and the Arab media [in Israel] deals with what happens to us, ‘the 48-er’s.’”
Khoury agrees. “The Arab citizen is zapping,” he says using the Hebrew word for channel surfing—l’zapzep. “He keeps his hand on the remote control all the time. There isn’t one source that gives him all he needs.”
Prior to 1948, daily Arabic papers were published in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, all with a strong editorial stance against the Zionist movement. With the exception of the Communist Al-Ittihad, they mostly disappeared after Israel’s founding. Flooded with talented young Jews from Arab states, the new country launched new newspapers printed in Arabic that were affiliated with the different Zionist political parties. “These were ‘communications by,’ not ‘communications for,’” says Mustafa Kabha, professor of history at the Open University in Israel and author of The Palestinian Arab In/Outsiders: Media and Conflict in Israel. “They tried to lead the population in a certain way.”
The same was true of radio and TV, which were under government control in all languages until the late 1980s. In 1958, Kol Yisrael began its Arabic broadcasts and the IBA followed suit in the late 1960s with Arabic television programming. Not until the 1980s, did the privately owned Arabic tabloids appear, and in the 1990s, papers affiliated with the Islamic movement, such as The Palestinians of ’48 and Sawt Al-Haq Wal-Huriya, became important sources of information for those both inside and outside the movement.
The terminology used in Israel’s Arabic media stands in contrast to that in the Hebrew one. On Radio Shams, for example, “The Israel Defense Forces” is always “The Israeli Army” and “Palestinian terrorists” become “armed Palestinians.” Even the term “Palestine” (Filastin in Arabic) is much easier to use on Radio Shams, says Khoury, than in the Hebrew media, where it is practically absent. When it comes to Jerusalem, Radio Shams also has a different policy from most media organizations in Israel. “We always say East Jerusalem, not Eastern Jerusalem, and West Jerusalem, not Western Jerusalem. There isn’t one Jerusalem, there are two,” says Khoury. However Radio Shams and other Israel Arab media rarely produce anything too inflammatory as they have no wish to come under the scrutiny of the Israeli government. Times of Israel’s Miller says that the Arab Israeli media “displays much more nuanced and sophisticated reports” toward the Arab-Israeli conflict than journalism in the rest of the Arab world.
The arrival of Arab satellite TV channels such as Al Jazeera in the 1990s and Al Arabiya in 2003 plus the Internet were revolutions in Israeli Arab media, says Kabha. They led to two things: new local media developed, to compensate for the exclusion Arabs suffer from the Hebrew media,” he says. “The second thing is that it allowed them to reconnect with the Arab media sphere around them, from Morocco to the Gulf, taking part in the Arab identity-shaping processes.”
Arab satellite channels routinely take the Arab side when it comes to the Arab-Israel conflict. One of the starkest examples of this in recent years occurred during Operation “Cast Lead,” Israel’s incursion into Gaza late in 2008, when Arabs and Jews essentially watched two different wars unfold. For the pan-Arab satellite channels, “Cast Lead” was a brutal attack of an army with almost unlimited arsenal against helpless people, while the violent acts of Hamas were nearly non-existent or even were portrayed as self-defense. A click away, the Hebrew media presented the military action as a just campaign against terrorists activists who continually attempt to kill Israeli civilians.
Alarmed, in 2008 the Israeli foreign ministry launched an embargo against Al Jazeera for what it believed was biased coverage favoring Hamas. “These reports are untrustworthy and they hurt us, and they arouse people to terrorist activities,” Deputy Foreign Minister Majali Wahabe told Army Radio that year. Months later in 2009 the government announced it would deny visas to Al Jazeera employees and that it would limit the channel’s access to Israeli officials.
Kabha says the polarization between Jews and Arabs in Israel peaks at times of nationalistic disputes, particularly when violence breaks out. “At times of conflict each medium runs away to its nationalistic camp and hides deeper behind walls of nationalism,” says Kabha. “For the Arab citizens of Israel, it means becoming more Palestinian at the expense of civil affiliation to the state of Israel.”
Does the existence of Arabic media deepen the chasm between Jews and Arabs in Israel? Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says the situation is not black and white. “Different reality?” asks Baum. “No. Different emphasis? Yes. That difference in emphasis can be important. A lot of politics is about framing…. Arab citizens of Israel could form a different perspective from watching satellite—just as if Americans watched the international channel.”
Others see the Arab perspective as a symptom of a larger problem. “There really are two societies living in the same state,” says Oren Kessler, Middle East Affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post and author of “The Two Faces of Al Jazeera” in the winter issue of the Middle East Quarterly. “These societies are really quite different from one another. Certainly there is a factor of discrimination, but when you talk to Israeli Arabs, there really is a prevailing sentiment of just wanting to be left alone. There is no push to join mainstream Israeli society.”
Like their Hebrew-speaking counterparts, Israel’s Arabs—especially the younger ones—spend much of their time online. Some popular websites such as Panet and As-Sennara are associated with newspapers; Al Arabiya is connected to the satellite channel, and Arabs ‘48 is affiliated with Balad, an Arab National party. One well-known site, receiving 38,000 hits a day, is Bokra.
With a staff of 15, the six-year-old website provides general news and entertainment. “Surfers look for sites that combine news with entertainment and items on health, family life and economics. In other words, we are a portal,” says Kholod Massalha, Bokra’s co-editor-in-chief, as we sit in a branch of the popular Café Café coffee shop chain in Nazareth’s new outdoor shopping mall. “This is what we are trying to do, and this does not exist elsewhere.”
Massalha, 33 and a graduate of the Hebrew University in communication and political science, was born in the Arab village Daburiya in the Jezreel Valley but now lives and works in Nazareth. She is conflicted about where the Arabs of Israel fit on the political and media spectrum. “We are stuck on a ladder,” she says. “We can’t be Israeli but we can’t be Palestinian. I sometimes wonder, what am I? I am a Palestinian, but in Israel. In the media we can easily criticize [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman but at the same time support the Home Front Command of the Israeli Army because they also defend us in times of war.”
Bokra and Israel’s other Arabic language websites are popular with Arabs in Egypt, as well as those in neighboring countries where Israel is an official enemy. One reason is that their mix of entertainment and news is unique in the Middle East, says Massalha. In addition, Arabic websites in Israel can broadcast songs and films without paying copyright fees: They know that Arab film and production companies will never sue in Israeli courts.
While some sites attract visitors by reaching out, others gain readers by tuning into their own communities. Based in the northern town of Baka Al-Gharbiya—not far from the city of Hadera—Loblab is one of many competing hyperlocal sites that have sprung up all around the Arab sector. Providing news about local elections, town and regional events, school activities and local sports, such sites are particularly suited to the insular nature of Arab towns and villages in Israel.
Loblab recently made news by hosting four mayoral candidates from Baka for an election debate. Ubiquitous in American elections, candidate debates are rare in Israel and rarer still in the Arab sector, and its moderator, Mohammad Khairy Majadle, was thrilled with the outcome. The sound quality was poor, there was only one camera and in TV terms it ran too long (nearly two hours). But “it was a very unique debate,” says Majadle, who is 25 and a part-time student at the American Arab University near Jenin, in the northern part of the West Bank. “Thousands of people watched it over the Internet in the course of a few days. It showed that Loblab.com was steering the conversation in the local media.” The debate went on to be discussed in the Arab media throughout the country, from north to south.
Although pleased that local websites help promote democracy, Majadle is not satisfied with the level of journalism. “These places are not professional,” he says. “The people who run these sites are not journalists but businessmen.” Rather than hire real reporters, they publish press releases verbatim and run short posts about events with dozens of photographs. “The owners don’t want to invest anything in the cost of producing a news item,” explains Majadle, who helped found two local websites in Baka, his hometown, then moved on to work for Bokra, The Palestinians of ‘48, Al Jazeera and newspapers from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Majadle believes that the Israeli Arab public is not media-savvy enough to be critical of the quality of journalism. “The Arab minority doesn’t have enough awareness,” he says. “The readers accept the printed words without criticism. They don’t understand how much we need powerful media, especially in these times.”
Any day now, Israel’s first privately owned Arab television channel, Hala TV, is due to go live. For the first time, a commercial Arabic channel will compete with the IBA for the eyes of Israel’s Arabic-speaking TV audience in Israel. Already on TV screens in Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa and other Arab communities, the battle has begun. Promos of Hala TV are being played everywhere.
The battle, however, is not limited to commercials. Recently Maariv published an article in which, based on the promos, the head of the IBA accused Hala TV of propagating extremist views, and describing Jewish cities in Israel such as Netanya and Caesarea as settlements, that is, illegitimate. Ami Hollander, a well-known attorney from Tel Aviv who is one of the investors behind the channel, dismisses fears that Hala TV will make Israel’s Arabs more radical. “I think that a TV channel that reflects the local Arab Palestinian narrative will not encourage polarity,” says Hollander, 53, who recently opened a law firm in Nazareth with a younger partner, Hussein Abu Ayyash. “When things are suppressed and there is not real, honest, public discussion, it is just like a water heater with no pressure valve. It may explode. The Hebrew media doesn’t deal with the Arab frustration, with the discrimination in the labor market, the security checks in the airports and many other subjects. A public discussion is much healthier to the Arabs and to the Israeli society.”
Hollander is convinced Israeli society needs to be tolerant of the views of its Arab citizens, as this is the essence of democracy. “If Israel wants to live long, it needs to learn how to contain the claims, the criticism, the different concept and narrative,” he says. “One should hope that the synthesis will be beneficial to both sides and that none will lose. The alternative is a very bad place, an act of violence, and the last reminder was in the year 2000.”
Anat Saragusti, a long-time journalist at Channel 2, and currently the director general of Agenda—Israeli Center for Strategic Communications, a media-focused think tank—is concerned that the Arab media feeds the growing gap between Israel’s Arabs and Jews. “The differences we witness between the two sides mean that we have here two parallel worlds that do not meet except by force,” she says. “There is no one society today, and the existence of two societies is proved by the two different narratives. This is very dangerous, because it can disintegrate the enterprise of the state of Israel.”
Saragusti, who, like the vast majority of Jewish citizens of Israel doesn’t speak Arabic, would like to see stronger bonds between the two peoples who share the same identification cards, economy and public sphere. “The Arab citizens will have to process their positions on things,” she says. “They should distinguish themselves from the citizens of the future Palestinian state or from the citizens of Jordan and Syria, because they live a different reality.”
Like Hollander, Jack Khoury believes fears of the Arabic media are overstated. At Radio Shams, Khoury can pretty much dictate the editorial line, but as one of the few Arabs who work in Hebrew media, at Haaretz he follows his editors’ decisions. “I don’t live in agony,” he says. “Usually I like the editorial line of the paper, it allows me to air out things that only Haaretz can allow.” Also, when it comes to issues of national importance, he believes that it is important for him to try to create change from within. “I always say the newspaper is wrong when it adopts the point of view of the army and the security apparatus.”
He insists that the fact that Arab media was so supportive of Abbas’s speech doesn’t mean much politically. “We never said we want to be part of the Palestinian state,” he says. “We are like the American Jews. They don’t want the United States to become the state of the Jewish nation, right? But deep inside, they are calm because Israel exists. They live in another place far away, and there are Jewish communities like them all around the world,” he says. “The same goes for the Arabs in Israel. When a Palestinian state is established, we will not move there.”
This is the fifth installment of Moment’s series on Israel’s Arab citizens. The first traced the evolution of one family’s identity from Arab to Palestinian-Israeli. The second examined the separate and unequal education of Israel’s Arab children. The third delved into the economic disparities between Israel’s Arabs and Jews. The fourth focused on politics.
Read the previous installments here: