RAMALLAH, the occupied West Bank – Sitting in a hotel café in Ramallah, Moammar Orabi, general director of a Palestinian news agency, lights a cigarette and describes a history of harassment from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Orabi, who has been the general director of Al-Wattan TV for nearly 13 years, explains that the agency has faced closures and censorship since its 1996 founding. With journalists and television crews across the West Bank, Al-Wattan has built a reputation for its independent coverage of human rights violations.
Most recently, Israeli authorities contacted Al-Wattan on April 27 and demanded that it stop its television broadcasts.
“We got a threat from Israel through our legal advisor,” Orabi told MintPress. “In the letter, the Israeli [military] said Al-Wattan threatens the security in the region, and they asked us to close the TV station as soon as possible, or otherwise they would take a security measure against us.”
Al-Wattan is launching a legal challenge to this order, but it is also already engaged in a lengthy legal battle in Israel’s High Court.
“We already have a legal case against Israel for compensation,” he said, explaining that Al-Wattan’s transmitters, computers and other equipment were confiscated during a July 2012 raid. “When we got it back, it was all damaged.”
Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups regularly decry Israel’s censorship of Palestinian media outlets and targeting of critical journalists.
Out of 180 countries across the world, Israel was 96th for press freedoms, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, an annual publication that ranks governments’ treatment of journalists.
“I believe that Israel is targeting Al-Wattan because we have a moderate voice,” Orabi said, pointing out that the station has been attacked much more often than channels affiliated with Islamic Palestinian political organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. “We are an independent, critical and moderate voice, and that scares Israel.”
Following the 1994 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority was created with limited self-governance in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This also opened up the opportunity for independent Palestinian news organizations to register with the Palestinian Authority.
Two years later, Al-Wattan opened up shop and began to regularly voice criticism of Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s “peace” negotiations and domestic policies. Between 1996 and 2000, the self-governing body closed the station six times.
Yet since 2002, Orabi noted, the outlet has repeatedly been targeted by Israel’s occupation authorities, including the military and civil authorities in the occupied West Bank. “During Israel’s 2002 invasion of Ramallah, the army attacked Al-Wattan’s offices.”
The latest raid took place in July 2012, when Israeli forces stormed the premises overnight and confiscated most of Al-Wattan’s equipment.
“They told us that our frequency is illegal and interferes with the [Israel’s] Ben Gurion Airport,” Orabi recalled. “We offered to bring in any neutral international expert and an expert from their side to investigate this issue.”
Following that raid, Al-Wattan applied for and received a new television broadcasting frequency, only to be told again by Israeli authorities that they were “operating illegally.”
But Orabi noted that dozens of Palestinian and Israeli television and radio stations operate on a daily basis without the accusation that their transmissions interfere with Israel’s air traffic.
“It is not just about our frequencies and when they confiscate our equipment,” Orabi continued. “The Israeli forces always stop my crews and journalists confiscate their cameras in places like Hebron and Jericho,” he said, referring to Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank.
“One of my journalists spent 10 months in jail” for charges related to his journalistic work, Orabi said, adding that he believes Israel’s continual attempts to close Al-Wattan are motivated by political decisions.
Though he has never been arrested for his journalistic work, Orabi recounted, “I am always hassled at the borders when I travel and they don’t give me permits to enter Jerusalem or Israel.”
“It is a lot easier for Israel to justify its actions when there are extremist voices,” he said. “But Al-Wattan is independent, critical and not affiliated with any political parties.”
“Assaulted, threatened, and censored”
The Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued an alert noting that “multiple journalists have been assaulted, threatened, and censored in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory in recent months.”
In February, Israeli forces raided Sheraa TV, a local news station based in the central West Bank city of Tulkarem.
Following orders to close the station, Sheraa’s general director Mohammad Zeidan told Ma’an News Agency, “We have taken the decision to stop broadcasting two days ago until we find a solution to this issue, because it is no stranger to the occupation authorities to raid media outlets and confiscate broadcasting equipment, which cost us a fortune.”
More recently, on June 6, Israeli soldiers raided a station in East Jerusalem and broke up the airing of “Good Morning Jerusalem,” a popular local Palestinian television program. Two employees were reportedly arrested and interrogated for an hour and a half.
According to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, or MADA, Israeli authorities claimed the program is unlicensed and “inciting against Israeli occupation.”
MADA also reported that earlier that week photojournalist Hamde Abu Rahmeh had been dealt a “severe beating” while covering a weekly march in Bilin, a village located about 6 miles from the West Bank city of Ramallah that is known for its popular activism.
“They erased all the photos taken by his camera” and broke a lens, the MADA press release added.
“Holy Cow of excuses”
The Coordinator for the Government Activities in the Territories, an Israeli authority in the West Bank, was not available for immediate comment on this article.
The general director of MADA, Mousa Rimawi, explained that Israel’s closure of Palestinian television and radio stations is part of a broader goal “to control the frequencies as much as possible, partially for settlers’ usage and also because they don’t want Palestinian media to operate freely.”
Between 2008 and mid-2012, the Israeli military “stormed” up to 11 Palestinian media headquarters and confiscated equipment belonging to 14 others, according to a MADA report.
In 2013, Rimawi added, Israel committed the most press violations against Palestinian media in the last five years.
He also dismissed the Israeli military’s claims that the television and radio stations were legitimately interfering with frequencies.
“Like in most cases, the military says it’s for security reasons,” Rimawi told MintPress. “But ‘security’ is the Holy Cow of excuses.”
Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter:@P_Strickland_