I still 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 mouth-piece nor a commercial station that lives by game shows and shampoo.
It wasn’t easy but we were largely successful until this week.
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 has grown in size, viewrship and program, has been arbitrarily closed, our equipment has been destroyed and Israeli soldiers are using our offices, studios and equipment as their bowling ally. No order was issued for this closure, we didn’t violate any law. The destruction was simply an act of unprovoked and uncivilized aggression
From early on the going was tough, but our existence until this week was never in doubt. We tried to stay independent as the best means we believed will help us in the pursuit of serving our people. We received little help in our mission. The major international donors wanted to help the state-run television as a means to boost the Palestinian Authority. With help from Palestinian foundations like the Welfare Association and international organizations like the Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation we were able to create a Palestinian TV station that combined PBS and C-Span-type of public service programming.
Early on, senior leaders in the Palestinian Authority were not happy with us. 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 then and despite some programming critical of the Palestinian Authority, we were left alone. On our screens we have dealt with issues ranging from children’s rights to the problems of early marriage among young Palestinian women. From issues about physical and sexual abuse of children to programs dealing with our societies lack of respect for individuals with disabilities. We tackled issues dealing with the environment, public health and family planning. Freedom of expression and presenting multiple opinions on social economic and political issues were our motto.
During this time, and despite many pressures, we were excited about our efforts. We felt that we were not only building up a TV station but contributing in the building of our society. Throughout this period we felt firmly that we were laying the blocks for a cohesive progressive society that will be the foundation of an independent state.
As part of the vision of the president of Al Quds University, Professor Sari Nuseibeh, we embarked on a brave television co production to produce a Palestinian-Israeli version of Sesame Street. The program was produced with the aim of teaching both our children mutual respect and tolerance. We even used the same image of the fish from our first broadcast to teach children the Arabic word for fish samak. Although the program was aired on our 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 hoped for peace and it was clear that the situation had not changed enough to allow our children to consider paying serious attention to the television program’s curriculum goals of tolerance and mutual respect.
It wasn’t only the children who were disappointed with the lack of progress in the effort to end the Israeli occupation. We were all unhappy with the continued Israeli hesitation in delivering on our right to freedom from checkpoints and travel permits not to mention the continued illegal settlement activities.
Yet we kept hoping. For so long we kept on hoping, refusing to give-in to despair. As late as last week and despite the Israeli humiliations to our president and our people we kept the vision alive.
When the latest Israeli incursion occurred we tried our best to keep our cool despite the next to impossible mission of running an educational television station in such times. Tanks were rolling around our city, our staff were 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 sparred us in the early days of the incursion. e kept running our station with a mix of public service messages (phone numbers of medical care etc.) plus public service programming. A series of 13 Public Service Messages that we produced with UNICEF with the aim of helping parents and children deal with the trauma of violence were repeatedly broadcast.
But this Israeli honeymoon didn’t last. At 6:30 on April 2, 2002, Israeli soldiers came to the four story Medical Professions College Building where located and began destroying our dream. Every office in this educational facility was broken into, equipment was destroyed and office space was settled into by the invading soldiers. 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 turned off the transmitter in fear that the Israeli soldiers would repeat what they did at a local commercial station a few days earlier. When the Israelis occupied the building housing Watan TV, they kicked away its staff and after a while the soldiers started to broadcast pornographic material.
While being held, the two remaining staff in the building and the University’s guard heard and noticed the destruction of our building. They saw television cameras and invaluable video archives thrown from the fourth floor where our equipment and studio are located. Neighbors saw at least five Israel tanks rolling in and parking in the parking lot where professors and television staff used to park. The entire building’s offices were lit till late hours of the night and when a number of our viewers called to find out what was happening Israeli soldiers answered our phones as if this was their private homes.
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.
But what happened hurt when seen in the context of what one has been working for all his life. The attempt to destroy our dream, both personally in building a useful educational TV station, or collectively in building a viable state, will not be shattered by such reprehensive actions.
It will not be easy to pick up the pieces after one experiences such brutality and lack of respect by individuals who no doubt bring shame to the nation and religion that they belong to.
I have no doubt that we will rebuild our television station and re ignite the hope that we had five years ago. At the same time I am confident that our people with the support of the international community will rise from the pain and build the foundation of a viable state that can live in peace with its neighbors.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University which owns and runs Al Quds Educational Television. In May 2001, Mr. Kuttab received the International Press Institute’s award as one of fifty press freedom heroes in the last fifty years.