Telling Visions: Pictures from Palestine

By Daoud Kuttab

bethlehem-diary-antonia-caccia.jpgBethlehem Diary, dir. Antonia Caccia, 2001

To screen and screen again: against the incursions on hope

In April Israeli soldiers destroyed almost 50 Palestinian TV and radio stations – levelling an independent broadcasting base which was unique in the Middle East.

I remember the day early in March 1997 when I was handed a piece of paper issued by the Palestinian Authority allowing us at Al-Quds University’s Institute of Modern Media to establish a local television station in Ramallah. With lots of energy and almost no resources we began the process of setting up Al-Quds Educational Television. We wanted an independent TV station that was neither a governmental mouthpiece nor a commercial station that lives by game shows and shampoo.

Five years after launching our first broadcast using a 40 Watt transmitter and screening a gold fish in a glass bowl swimming to the sounds of Beethoven, our dreams have been shattered. Our station, which had grown in size, audience and program output, has been arbitrarily closed. Our equipment has been destroyed and Israeli soldiers used our offices, studios and equipment as their bowling alley. No order was issued for this closure. We didn’t violate any law. The destruction was an act of unprovoked aggression.

gaza-protest-against-arrest.jpgGaza, Protest against Arrest, Prisoner Day © Jenny Matthews 

From early on the going was tough, but our existence until now was never in doubt. We tried to stay independent as the best means of serving our people. We received little help. The major international donors preferred to help the state-run television as a means to boost the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, with help from Palestinian foundations like the Welfare Association, and international organisations like the Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation we were able to create a Palestinian TV station of public service programming.

At the start, senior leaders in the Palestinian Authority were critical. When we started broadcasting live sessions of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, Palestine TV started jamming us. When we aired a session that dealt with corruption in the Palestinian Authority I was arrested and held in a Palestinian jail for seven days. My release as a result of local and international pressure helped secure our station’s continuity and progress. Since that time, and despite some programming critical of the Palestinian Authority, we have been left alone. We have dealt with issues ranging from the problems of early marriage among young Palestinian women to the physical and sexual abuse of children to our society’s lack of respect for individuals with disabilities. We tackled the environment, public health and family planning. We stood for freedom of expression and diverse opinions on social, economic and political issues.

gaza-unhcr-skills-class.jpgGaza, UNHCR skills class - hairdressing © Jenny Matthews

Despite many pressures, we were excited about our efforts. We felt that we were not only building up a TV station but contributing to laying the basis for a cohesive, progressive society that would be the foundation of an independent state.

As part of the vision of the President of Al-Quds University, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, we embarked on an ambitious television co-production; a Palestinian-Israeli version of Sesame Street. The program was produced with the aim of teaching all our children mutual respect and tolerance. Although the program was aired on our own and other local Palestinian television stations, the harsh realities on the ground made our job much more difficult. The Netanyahu administration had dashed all previous hopes for peace and it was clear that the situation had not changed enough to allow our children to consider giving serious attention to the program’s educational goals of tolerance and mutual respect.

The children were not the only ones disappointed with the lack of progress in ending the Israeli occupation. We were all unhappy with the continued Israeli delay in delivering our right to freedom from basic controls like checkpoints and travel permits, let alone the continued, illegal settlement activities. Yet we kept hoping. For so long we kept on hoping, refusing to give-in to despair.

When this latest Israeli incursion occurred we tried our best to keep our calm despite the near impossible mission of running an educational television station in such times. Tanks were rolling around our city, our staff was under curfew and we were cut off from each other except for telephone contacts. The fact that our station was on the edge of town spared us in the first days. We stayed on air with a mix of public service messages (phone numbers for medical care etc.) and other programming including the repeated broadcast of a series of 13 Public Service messages, produced with UNICEF to help parents and children deal with the trauma of violence.

gaza-school-of-the-deaf.jpgGaza, School for the Deaf © Jenny Matthews

But the honeymoon didn’t last. At 6:30 on April 2, Israeli soldiers came to the four-storey, Medical Professions college building where we were located, and began destroying our dream. Every office in this educational facility was broken into, equipment was destroyed and the invading soldiers settled in. Our two remaining staff members, manning the broadcast, were arrested and held for four hours in the cold before being released. Moments before their arrest they had turned off the transmitter for fear that Israeli soldiers would repeat the violation they committed at a local commercial station a few days earlier. When they occupied Watan TV, they kicked out its staff, and started to broadcast pornographic material.

Whilst being held, our two staff and the University’s guard witnessed the destruction of our building. Television cameras and invaluable video archives were thrown from the fourth floor where our equipment and studio are located. Neighbours saw at least five Israeli tanks roll in to the space where professors and television staff used to park. The entire building’s offices were lit until the late hours when a number of our viewers called to find out what was happening. Israeli soldiers answered the phones as if this was their private residence.

I am fortunate that my family and our staff have not been physically hurt. When compared to the fate of others we must be grateful. However, it has been devastating to see the destruction of projects I have been working for all my life. It will be difficult to pick up the pieces having experienced the brutality and lack of respect for individuals who no doubt bring shame to their own nation and religion. Nevertheless, our dream cannot be shattered by such actions.

Our TV station had espoused a mission of democracy, moderation and tolerance and was actively involved in peaceful projects with the Israelis. I have no doubt that we will rebuild it, and re-ignite the hope that we had five years ago. I am also confident that, with the support of the international community, our people will rise again and build the foundation of a viable state that can live in peace with its neighbours.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He runs Al-Quds Educational Television and in May 2001, won an award from the International Press Institute for his services to freedom of the press.