Palestinian citizens of Israel struggle to tell their stories

January 11, 2019
The production room of Musawa TV, the only TV channel focused on Palestinians inside Israel, based out of Nazareth. Photo by Miriam Berger

Majd Daniel wants to tell the stories of his people: Palestinian citizens of Israel. The 27-year-old from northern Israel most likes to interview people “who were there in the Nakba”—the catastrophe, the Palestinian term for Israel’s founding—“to learn about old Haifa and all the Palestinian villages that were destroyed.” When we spoke in November, he was working on a news segment in Haifa about the experiences of Arab students at one of Israel’s toughest medical programs. It’s the kind of angle that Israeli or international media might cover about how “the other” is integrating, but that for Daniel is about documenting and disseminating the experiences of young people like him.

“It’s our role,” Daniel said, describing his obligation to Palestinian citizens of Israel who are underrepresented in the country’s media and its politics. Palestinian citizens of Israel—also called Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians in Israel, ’48 Arabs, or Palestinian Arabs—make up about 20 percent of Israel’s 9 million citizens. Unlike other Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank,  Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem, this group of Palestinians remained in Israel after its founding in 1948 and has Israeli citizenship.

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“We are the only ones of all of the Palestinians. . . who are able to visit [places in Israel] and see and do reports.” Still, like other reporters who share his status in Israel, Daniel’s looking for opportunities elsewhere.

“I don’t see much of a future here in the country,” he concluded. “If I want to continue in journalism, I should get out.”

Some of these dynamics are starting to shift—but not, for now, in Daniel’s favor.  The two-state solution is on its last breath, as are hopes for a Palestinian state alongside Israel—dynamics that are intensifying as Israelis prepare to go to the polls in April. After decades of violence, Palestinians are increasingly making the fight about civil and human rights and the Israeli public is shifting inward and rightward. A controversial new “Nation State” law earlier this year downgraded Arabic from an official language and effectively elevated Jewish citizens above non-Jewish Israelis by legislating  that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”

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The struggle to create a sustainable and independent Palestinian press inside Israel reflects many of the pressures facing these communities. Stories about Palestinian citizens of Israel are often not heard, even though the citizens themselves are a crucial component of the stories others tell. And journalists say there are few good options for Arabic-speaking reporters in the country.

“Each international channel just wants one person in Jerusalem,” Ameer Khatib, 27, a journalist from Haifa, says.. “So your options are [Palestinian] Arabic ones, where you get paid nothing, or Israeli ones, where there are political issues and you could get kicked out if you don’t use the right language.”

“There are no choices… There is no competition,”  he continues.

Historic Palestine under Ottoman and British control had a thriving Arabic press. Today, inside Israel, there are currently more than 200 local news websites serving the country’s Arab villages and cities. But they are mainly personal commercial ventures, full of event photography and hyperlocal announcements that journalists like Daniel aren’t interested in. The most popular of these sites, Panet, is owned by a prominent businessman; several journalists dismissed its content as “yellow news.” The most established newspaper for Palestinians inside Israel is Arab 48, which has ties to the Balad Party, the main party representing Arab citizens in the Israeli parliament. Curated Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, and other social media increasingly serve people their information first, says Nadim Nashif, the Director of the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh).

Journalists who work in the local Arabic newspapers and websites complained of low pay, poor writing and editing standards, and basically no way to advance. “It’s limited and their aren’t many possibilities,” Daniel says. The commercial-oriented nature of such sites means they won’t come near stories of abuse or corruption, as no journalist or media institution is strong enough to take on the blowback.

Funding for Israel’s Arabic press is particularly political. “We are not as economically strong as the Israeli media,” says Kholod Massalha, 39, a Nazareth-based journalist and feminist activist. Massalha, who directs the Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research (I’Lam), is also Editor-in-Chief of another larger local website, Bokra. “Arabic media doesn’t have specialists”—journalists with the time to specialize in specific topics and beats, she laments.

One key source of funding for Bokra is Lapam, Israel’s government advertising agency, says Massalha. Lapam pays Arabic newspapers and websites to publish bundles of advertisements, such as a Ministry of Health reminder for women to get breast-cancer checks. But, a few times, the bundle has included advertisements for national service: all Israeli Jews are required to serve in the military, while Palestinian Arab citizens are encouraged but not obliged to serve in the army or volunteer programs. For Bokra to survive, Massalha says the site can’t refuse to publish those ads because there aren’t many sources of funding, even though the ads anger some readers.

I cannot be a Palestinian journalist in a medium that broadcasts the news in this way.

Israel’s national broadcaster, Kan, has an Arabic version, Makan, which employs Arab citizens and offers better salary and resources than many Arabic news outlets in Israel. Makan is quite popular on Facebook and has a large following among Palestinians. But, despite its popularity, young journalists such as Daniel aren’t interested in working there.

“I don’t want to work with an Israeli channel and use their language,” he says. On Makan, terms like “occupation” and “nakba” are not allowed. “The Israeli narrative totally differs,” Daniel says. “As a Palestinian journalist [at Makan] I can’t be free.”

When Khatib first started looking for work in Arabic TV, he says the only viable option he found was the Arabic version of i24News, an internationally broadcasted channel focused on Israel. For three years he worked there on news reports in Arabic.  But he left last year, feeling he could no longer stay.

“I cannot be a Palestinian journalist in a medium that broadcasts the news in this way,” he says, declining to go into specifics. “When I left i24News I was looking for a medium that’s talking like me, that has the same point of view, an agenda that I agree with basically.”

While much of Israel’s Arabic media is based out of the northern part of the country, Rafaat Abu Aish, 28, a freelance journalist for Arab 48, covers his Palestinian Bedouin community in the negev in southern Israel—where journalism, he says, “is not that developed.”

“Sometimes you see news on Ynet [an Israeli website] that you didn’t get yourself from your own village because they [Israeli media]  are well connected to the government,” said Abu Aish.

Both Daniel and Khatib now work for Musawa, the only Palestinian TV channel aimed specifically at those inside Israel through daily and weekly news programs. Both say that Musawa offers them the best working conditions, in terms of pay, resources, and editorial standards.

The channel also has a complicated status. Musawa started in 2015 as Palestine 48. The channel began as a project of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Israel bans from operating outside of parts of the West Bank. Soon after its launch, Israel shut down the channel for its relation to the PA. A few weeks later, the channel relaunched as Musawa. It is now produced by Al Arz Production company, an Israeli company in Nazareth, where the office is based. But in its current form it remains connected to the PA, and is broadcast via Ramallah, where the PA is based.

Musawa is “the first channel that’s talking for the Palestinian people in Israel,” Khatib says. “And it’s the first time for me that I’m working for the local community and local people. That’s important for me.”

Daniel says he thinks criticism of politicians is important. On Musawa, he says, “you can criticize the members of the Israeli parliament and [Arab] coalition. It’s not a big space, but you can.” For the PA, however, “you can’t criticize,” says Daniel. He says he would like to report at a place like the BBC, France 24, or DW, “where they are not especially to one side, like we learned it should be.” For now, however, Musawa offers Daniel the greatest degree of independence.

“In the end, I’m Palestinian Arab,” says Daniel, “and I prefer to work in a Palestinian channel where I have freedom.”

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Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist with a focus on the Middle East and international affairs.