Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Blog

As Secretary of State John Kerry makes yet another visit to Israel in an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, it should be an opportunity for Wattan TV, the only independent, secular Palestinian TV news station, to tackle a story of global import. The network’s reporting has been hampered, however, by both Israeli and Palestinian officials. The Israeli Army seized $300,000 worth of vital broadcast equipment and held it for more than a year without explanation. After reporting on corruption among the children of Palestinian Authority officials, Wattan TV reporters have been harassed, arrested and hauled into court by Palestinian officials. Independent journalism of the sort practiced by Wattan TV would be a vital component of any Palestinian state. So why do both sides seem so hostile to the network?

Wattan’s reporting on the use of dangerous pesticides in Palestine and on official corruption within the Palestinian Authority have earned it the enmity of some Palestinian leaders. Speaking with a reporter from Bloomberg News, George Sahhar, Wattan’s communications manager, speculates that Palestinian leaders fear protest movements like those that have sprung up in other Arab countries since 2010. For Palestinians, rapidly losing hope for a state of their own and frustrated by Israeli restrictions on their movement and economic activity, PA leaders fear that documentation of official corruption by media organizations could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Israeli motivations are more difficult to understand, since Wattan represents the sort of independent, secular Palestine Israelis claim to want as an eventual neighbor. The official reason given by the IDF for seizing and destroying some of Wattan’s equipment was that the station’s signal does not comply with international standards and was interfering with Israeli telecommunications networks. Sahhar and others at Wattan speculate that the IDF wants Wattan’s spectrum for use by resident of illegal West Bank settlements and the army units that protect them. The IDF also works closely with Palestinian Authority security services, so the seizure may have been convenient for both sides.

In some ways, Wattan TV’s predicament mirrors that of Kerry’s mission, both confronted by challenges from both sides of this intractable conflict. In recent weeks, Israel has announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem, and two cabinet ministers have made statements suggesting they would not support a two-state solution, if one could even be negotiated. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials have pushed forward with their bid to join the International Criminal Court, a prospect that terrifies Israelis. The two sides are by no means equivalent (Prime Minister Abbas has explicitly said he hopes Kerry will succeed), but neither seems confident in Kerry’s latest attempt to find a solution.  

Regardless of the success or failure of Kerry’s mission, Americans should be invested in the success of Wattan TV. The station is primarily financed by funds from various American NGOs and governmental organizations, including USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, so the equipment seized by the IDF was purchased with our tax dollars. In a larger sense, though, Wattan TV represents the Palestine Americans want to see. Secular and independent, it asks difficult questions of all sides, exactly the sort of media institution that could help build a transparent and effective Palestinian state. Congress should press both Israel and the PA to return the organization’s equipment and to allow it to operate without interference. Hopefully, its next big story will be the resumption of peace talks.

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