In the summer of 1996, I was excited to hear the good news. The Palestinian Ministry of Information had agreed to a request to grant us a license for an educational television station to broadcast in Ramallah. With little funding and tremendous passion we began building up the station with trained staff, equipment and production capacity.
Having grown up in the U.S., I tried to run the new Palestinian station as a hybrid between PBS and C-Span. In April 1997 we launched the first season ever of Shara'a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street. It was a humble production with 20 15-minute episodes, but for us it was huge.
That summer I tried something that I thought was much more mundane: broadcasting live sessions of the newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council. This proved to be extremely dangerous to the Palestinian leadership. After broadcasting a session of the newly elected legislature talking about corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA), I was called in and incarcerated by the Palestinian police. My arrest, reportedly on orders from senior Palestinian leaders lasted a week, but brought significant publicity to our nascent station, Al Quds Educational Television.
In 2002 our station was once again in the news. As part of Israel's reoccupation of Ramallah during the second intifada, the Israeli army's engineering corps decided that the structure housing our station would make a convenient temporary headquarters. Nineteen days later we were allowed back to our looted and destroyed building. Expensive camera and computer mother boards were stolen and several monitors had bullet holes in them.
This week Al Quds Educational Television and another local station, Wattan TV, were raided. Israeli troops sneaked into the city overnight, barged into the two stations and confiscated the stations' transmitters. Israeli officials defended their actions deep in areas supposedly under Palestinian sovereign control by asserting that the stations were "operating without a license on frequencies that could disrupt communications with planes taking off and landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport." Later, and under scrutiny of a reporter, officials dropped the interference with the airport justification and issued a statement by an army spokesman that " the raid followed numerous requests by the Communications Ministry that the stations cease broadcasting because of interference with Israeli broadcasting signals." Israel has made no claim about the content of what is broadcast on these two stations.
Palestinian Ministry of Communications officials vehemently denied that Israel ever complained about these two stations' frequencies. Suleiman Zuheiri, Undersecretary of Telecommunications, called the airport interference claim false. "Airport range is very different from the range used by TV stations." Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited the stations and called the Israeli action a "clear aggression."
The Oslo Accords signed in 1993 state that a joint committee of technical experts representing both Israelis and Palestinians should address such issues. But Israel essentially vetoed its work by refusing to hold meetings. Palestinians were left with no choice but to issue licenses for local broadcasters. The two stations' frequencies were officially submitted with the International Telecommunications Union in 2004 when the PA was invited as a member.
Some argue that the latest act against a Palestinian broadcaster was an attempt to appease Jewish settlers and right-wing Israelis. The international community (and the Israeli High Court) has been pressing the Israeli government to dismantle settler outposts built without licenses, though international law regards as illegal all settlements built in areas occupied in 1967. Settlers, however, have demanded that the Israeli army first demolish Palestinian homes built without a license issued by the occupation authority. Recently, Israeli military forces accompanied by bulldozers demolished seven Palestinian houses and five animal pens near the town of Zaheria, south of Hebron in the West Bank. More than 100 Palestinians lived in these houses, which Israel says were not licensed. The bulldozed units are close to the Jewish settlement of "Tina" which is located on the periphery of Zaheria.
The latest raid on two small television stations illustrates the arrogance of the Israeli occupiers and their inference in every aspect of Palestinian life. The unilateral nature of the raid also highlights the absence of communication between Israelis and Palestinians. No attempt was even made through Israel's American allies or the office of Tony Blair, the international community's peace envoy.
As the U.S. busies itself with elections, Israel is creating facts on the ground and in the air. Palestinian aspirations to be free of foreign military occupation and to live in peace and independence alongside the state of Israel are being severely challenged. Diplomacy and nonviolent struggle remain the keys to advancing Palestinian freedom. But with the U.S. focused elsewhere and the Israeli government plowing ahead with illegal activities, there is a very real possibility of a return to the violence of a decade ago.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He was the director of Al Quds Educational Television until 2007.