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Palestinian-funded TV channel for Israeli Arabs challenged

In this photo taken Wednesday, July 15, 2015, "Palestine 48" TV channel crew film during a morning broadcast at a makeshift studio in the parking lot of a hotel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. A new satellite TV channel for Israel's large Arab minority is off to a rough start: Israel shut down operations just days after the launch, arguing that it harms Israeli sovereignty because it is funded by the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Now broadcasting live from a West Bank parking lot, a new Palestinian-funded satellite television channel for Israel’s Arab citizens already found its studio closed before it could even fill its airtime.

The flap over Palestine 48 — named for the year of Israel’s creation and Palestinian displacement — reflects strained relations between Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas at a time when a resumption of talks on Palestinian statehood is unlikely.

It also illustrates the complex ties between Palestinian communities separated by the Israeli-Arab conflict and the unique circumstances of Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs — descendants of Palestinians who stayed put in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation and now make up one-fifth of the country’s population.

“We are all one people and need to communicate with each other,” said Riad Hassan, head of the West Bank-based Palestinian Broadcasting Corp., which operates the new channel.

Israel closed the channel’s studio in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth within days of its June launch because it is funded by non-Israelis — the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank.

Since the closure, the channel has set up a makeshift studio in the parking lot of a hotel in a Palestinian-run part of the West Bank, from where they broadcast to Israel and the Arab world. Its on-air hosts are taking the move in stride.

“There are no borders when you have your own satellite,” said morning show host Doraid Liddawi, an Israeli Arab actor who easily switches between Hebrew, Arabic and English.

On a recent morning, Liddawi and co-host Afaf Sheni sat on an orange couch on a low stage in the parking lot, a fountain bubbling nearby as they interviewed a beauty expert, a rapper and a group performing Islamic songs — all Arab citizens of Israel.

The two-hour morning show is the main offering, with the rest of the airtime filled with cartoons, imported soap operas and movies. An evening talk show, on the air during the recent Muslim holy month of Ramadan, will be back bi-weekly in September.

The talk shows offer lifestyle tips, songs and banter, along with discussions about weightier issues. A recent morning show dealt with sexual harassment in Arab society and hosted a priest who called for religious tolerance.

Hot-button issues like gender roles and identity conflicts are raised spontaneously by guests, said Fadi Zgairy, the evening show’s host.

During one segment, he hosted an Arab filmmaker who interviewed Sephardi Jews complaining about discrimination by fellow Israelis with European roots and argued the issue wasn’t being dealt with openly in Israel.

Broadcasters say Palestine 48 fills a gap in local media.

Another satellite channel, Hala TV, also serves Israeli Arabs, but is commercial, they say. Israel’s three main TV channels only set aside a few hours per week for Arabic-language shows.

Israel seems to fear Palestine 48 is part of an attempt by Abbas to influence Israel’s largest minority. In shutting down the production site last month, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he won’t allow “Israel’s sovereignty to be harmed” and for the Palestinian Authority to gain a “foothold.”

Israeli officials said the channel had not tried to obtain an operating permit.

Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Israeli official involved in monitoring Arabic media, alleged that the channel is a “propaganda tool” for Abbas. “We don’t need foreign intervention,” he said.

Hassan, the Palestinian broadcasting chief, said the channel covers concerns of Israeli Arabs “without incitement, racism or calls to violence.”

PBC officials would not say how much money is being spent on the channel, for now without advertising.

They also said they don’t know how many people are watching, though the talk show hosts said fans have begun approaching them in the streets.

Israel’s Arabs are part of the world’s estimated 12 million Palestinians. After the split of 1948, they were reunited — to an extent — with families in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem when Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

Half the world’s Palestinians still live in historic Palestine — the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River — while the rest are scattered, most descendants of refugees living in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

For Arabs in Israel, the question of destiny was settled when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization began peace talks two decades ago, under a framework that made clear they would remain part of Israel.

Identity is a different matter.

Arabs in Israel are caught in the push and pull of fitting into a Jewish-dominated society and protecting Palestinian roots, a struggle at times overshadowed by what many say is continuing prejudice. Some have risen to top positions in Israel’s Western-type society, but income and education gaps remain between Jewish and Arab communities.

Relations between Arabs in Israel and their relatives across the Green Line, the invisible pre-1967 frontier, have been disrupted by repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Yet ties were never completely severed.

Abbas views Israel’s Arabs as key to generating support for a two-state solution. He was involved in efforts earlier this year to merge smaller Arab parties in Israel into a single slate to increase their political clout.

Former peace negotiator Uri Savir said Abbas should focus his peace lobbying on Israeli Jews, though he and others say Israel’s clampdown on the channel was misguided.

“If Israel worries about hearts and minds of Arab citizens, it needs to change the reality of alienation and discrimination,” Israeli Arab analyst Mohammed Darawshe said. “It needs to hug its Arab citizens, instead of standing between us and our Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza.”

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