Religious Right Fights To Save Pro-Settler Radio Station

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Last month’s closure of the major media outlet of the pro-settler religious right, radio station Arutz-7, has left supporters scrambling to get it back on the air and critics satisfied that the law against illegal broadcasting has been upheld.

The Oct. 20 ruling by a Jerusalem Magistrates Court, after four and a half years of litigation, found 10 directors, station managers and broadcasters guilty of various violations, including transmitting from a boat within Israeli territorial waters and broadcasting from locations in the West Bank without the required government permits from 1995 to 1998. In addition, the station’s general manager, Ya’acov Katz, was convicted on two counts of perjury for declaring under oath that the station had broadcast exclusively from a ship outside Israel’s territorial waters.

The court, which is expected to hand down sentencing this month, could slap each of the defendants with a maximum three-year jail term and a fine as high as $650,000.

Arutz-7 (“Channel 7”) has had an iconic stature, almost since its 1988 launching, as a voice and symbol of the Israeli right and the settler movement. It projects an image similar to Fox News, claiming to offer unbiased reporting that is in contrast to the supposedly left-leaning general media. In addition to hard news, the station provides programming revolving around Bible and rabbinic legal commentary, as well as a variety of right-wing talk hosts.

“Its foremost impact on society was that it finally made the country pluralistic,” said Yisrael Medad, a board member of the right-leaning Israel Media Watch and a media columnist for the Jerusalem Post. “Religious and Sephardic Jewish music were rarely heard on national radio except in ‘corners.’ But here, religious figures became mainstream. All of a sudden, there were academics and writers and intellectuals who had a different ideological point of view.”

But the station was never granted a license under Israel’s restrictive broadcast laws and had to beam its signal from a ship outside Israel’s territorial waters, similar to Abie Nathan’s Voice of Peace radio ship in the 1970s. There have been repeated government attempts over the years to shut it down, all derided by loyal listeners as bids to stifle criticism by a political establishment that settlers view as left-wing.

“Arutz-7 over the years has been the only sane Jewish voice of a huge national camp, religious and irreligious,” said Nadia Matar, longtime weekly talk-show host and co-chairwoman of the right-wing activist group Women in Green. “For them, Arutz-7 was a breath of fresh air, of Jewish air. We cannot listen to the other stations, which we know are biased, pro-left, pro-Arab.”

Matar said the station’s closing was a continuation of the left’s decades-long campaign against the right, going back to the shelling in June 1948 of the Irgun weapons ship Altalena by the Israeli military on orders from then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. “It’s a Bolshevik act,” she said.

But to lawmaker Zahava Gal-on of the left-wing Meretz party, the issue is content. Last week she asked Attorney-General Elyakim Rubenstein to open a criminal investigation into the operators of the Arutz-7 Internet site — which still maintains a Hebrew and English news operation — on suspicion of “incitement to murder and racism.” She quoted an opinion article on the Web site calling for the “killing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.” Arutz-7 argued that it was an individual opinion, not endorsed by Arutz-7, and that the sentence in question was taken out of context.

Gal-on said the issue is not one of free speech. “This was incitement to murder,” she told the Forward. “This week, when we are remembering the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, we should remember how words became a weapon, and how people like [convicted Rabin assassin] Yigal Amir used weapons because of the words of rabbis. It’s the same; it’s illegitimate to ask people to kill others.”

Particularly galling to the station’s supporters was that the closure of Arutz-7 — sometimes dubbed “Radio Free Israel” — took place under a right-wing government headed by the champion of the settler movement, Ariel Sharon. Indeed, the court ruling came just a day after the government lent its support to a proposed law that would fine advertisers on pirate radio stations. Some commentators suggest that the move was meant to make it easier for Sharon to evacuate settlements.

To Matar, however, the government move is not surprising. “Sharon may be portrayed in the world as a right-winger, but those who are really right-wing know that Sharon has turned to the left,” she said.

Likud lawmaker Yuli Edelstein, however, takes the opposite view, saying that while the closure under a right-wing government “causes many people to think that it’s a political attack on Arutz-7, I have to say thank God it happened in the days of the right-wing government. If it were a left-wing government, the reaction would be one of much more distrust and disappointment and political accusations.”

What Edelstein and some other observers found startling was the relative quiet from the station’s supporters following the closure. “It did surprise me, and that’s something I can’t understand,” he said this week. “I can recall only one person in the past two weeks who approached me and said, ‘Don’t let them do this to Arutz-7.’”

Arutz-7 management and supporters are now lobbying Knesset members for legislation known as the “open-air law” to enable the station to resume broadcasting on radio. Leading the fight are Knesset members Tzvi Hendel and Uri Ariel of the National Union Party, who have said they would not rest until Arutz-7 is allowed back on the air. There is also a street campaign begun this week, which includes putting up signs on the roads against the closure of Arutz-7. Volunteers are standing at intersections wearing Arutz-7 hats and T-shirts and giving out stickers with the motto: “Let the truth be heard — the people are with Arutz-7.”

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