Immediately after Yasser Arafat’s death, Prime Minister Sharon announced that his test for “exposing the true face” of the new Palestinian leaders would be an end to incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media and education system. The prime minister was correct to insist on an end to inflammatory messages emanating from Palestinian sources. But if taking steps to create a better atmosphere for Israeli-Palestinian relations is now the test, there’s something the prime minister can do as well.
For more than a year, his government has kept a radio transmitter purchased for a pro-peace radio station, Voice of Peace, locked up in a warehouse at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The Israeli and Palestinian founders of the station want to use this transmitter to broadcast programs about tolerance and co-existence in Arabic, Hebrew and English throughout Israel and areas under Palestinian Authority rule. In order for the prime minister to practice what he preaches, this transmitter should be released immediately.
Voice of Peace was established as a joint initiative by the Palestinian organization Biladi, The Jerusalem Times newspaper and the Israeli group Givat Haviva. Not surprisingly, the station carefully maintains equality in its management, content and language, with Israeli Shimon Malka and Palestinian Maysa Baransi-Siniora serving as co-directors. The founders have received a frequency from the Palestinian Authority to establish a radio station, and the European Union, the Japanese Embassy in Israel and the Swiss Rich Foundation are providing the funding.
Even though its transmitter is out of reach and gathering dust, the station is already broadcasting its programming on current affairs, culture, sports and music over the Internet at www.allforpeace.org. Voice of Peace currently draws roughly 7,000 listeners a day to its Web site, but its programs need to have a broader audience. After all, it’s dedicated to providing the kind of messages that Sharon says he’d like Palestinians to hear: programming with an emphasis on exposing various aspects of each side to the other, shattering stereotypes and discussing common interests in areas like health, culture and the economy.
The station’s Palestinian co-director, Baransi-Siniora, said in a recent interview with the Israeli newsweekly Kol Ha’Ir, “You destroy, we destroy; halas , enough. Feelings of revenge do not help the sides get anywhere. We all lose. We try to speak to people who don’t think the way we do. To talk to those who believe in the slogans of force and violence, who believe in ‘in blood and fire we will liberate.’… Each story has two sides, and it is important that people see the whole picture. When a newspaper in Arabic shows the picture of a woman wailing because the olive trees have been uprooted on the family plot, it is important that readers know that a day before, shots were fired from this olive grove at an Israeli car. It is important that we know the true mood of people, not only on security matters but also in regard to social, economic and cultural issues. These are issues that are no less important, and they should be shown to the public without establishment filters and without the mantras that we’re so sick of hearing.”
The station’s Israeli co-director, Malka — who grew up in the right-wing Betar movement and in a conservative Sephardic environment — is on the same frequency as his Palestinian colleague. “What does our leadership think?”, he asks in the same interview. “That one day, just all of a sudden, there will be somebody relevant on the other side? What do they think, that suddenly everything will come together and everyone will stop believing everything they’ve been taught throughout the years? That everyone will suddenly begin to love the other side? To make peace… you have to present balanced information, additional aspects, more positions. There is more than just black and white in relations between peoples.”
With broad-minded thinking like this behind the station, you’d think that Sharon would be anxious to get Voice of Peace on the air. But Malka says that the station’s transmitter is stuck in customs, and the Israeli Communications Ministry refuses to release it. He thinks that the Israeli government will not let the station broadcast, despite numerous meetings with ministry officials and legal advisers more than a year ago to provide them with information about the concept of the programs.
Now is the moment for Sharon to help facilitate the creation of a different social and political environment in the Palestinian territories. The messages of tolerance, peace and understanding emanating from Voice of Peace should not be confined to the Internet. It’s time for the prime minister to release this station’s transmitter so the Voice of Peace can be heard more clearly.
Luis Lainer is chair of Americans for Peace Now.