Mideast's Voice of Peace to Rise Again
by Peter Hirschberg
JERUSALEM -- For 20 years, intrepid Israeli peace campaigner Abie Nathan broadcast his message of coexistence to Jewish and Arab listeners from his boat in the Mediterranean Sea, which housed his pirate Voice of Peace radio station.
In 1993, suffering from lack of funding, the station broadcast its last track -- Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome'. Nathan then scuttled the ship.
Some peace activists, comforting themselves, suggested that The Peace Ship, as it was named, had achieved its aim: it ceased broadcasting in the very year that the Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo peace accords. But then the peace process got bogged down, derailed and finally collapsed as Israelis and Palestinians went back to war.
Abie Nathan's M.V. Peace
The new 'Voice of Peace will be land-based. The station's studios will be located in East Jerusalem, while its transmitters will be positioned in the West Bank town of Bitunia, near Ramallah.
Some activists began thinking that an unequivocal message of peace needed to be heard again on the airwaves. Now, ten years after the Voice of Peace went silent, it is being reincarnated. This time round, it will be a joint Israeli- Palestinian station, it will broadcast in Hebrew and Arabic, and will be land-based, transmitting from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
”We want the silent majority on both sides that supports peace, that believes peace is not dead, to have a voice,” Hanna Siniora, a veteran Palestinian peace activist and businessman who is one of the initiators of the project told IPS.
”We believe civil society can exercise pressure on leaders to move forward,” says Siniora, who also publishes The Jerusalem Times, a weekly English language newspaper based in East Jerusalem.
The new Voice of Peace -- Siniora and his partners have asked Nathan for permission to use the name -- will broadcast 21 hours of music a day and three hours of programmes dealing with coexistence and the promotion of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
”We want to enhance people-to-people type activities between the two sides and give a voice to peace groups,” Mussi Raz, deputy director-general of the Jewish-Arab Centre for Peace in Givat Haviva in northern Israel, and Siniora's Israeli partner, told IPS. ”We want to make sure that moderate politicians on both sides get heard.”
Does that mean hardline leaders, whether on the Israeli far right or from the Palestinian groups like Hamas, will not be heard on the new station? ”We still have to sit down and discuss these issues, but we don't plan to boycott anyone,” says Raz, a former member of parliament for the left-wing Meretz party.
The studios will be located in East Jerusalem, which is considered a relatively safe area for Jews. But the actual transmitters will be in the northern Ramallah neighbourhood of Bitunia, and at some stage in Gaza.
Raz and Siniora had hoped to obtain a broadcasting license in Israel as well as in the Palestinian Authority. But due to broadcasting regulations in Israel, they approached Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He agreed to grant them one of the frequencies that had originally been assigned to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo accords.
Raz says the only licence they would have been able to apply for in Israel was a regional one, confined to a specific area. ”We want our broadcasts to reach as many people in Israel and in the occupied territories as possible,” he explains.
”In the future,” adds Siniora, ”we hope to reach Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as well.”
It is not immediately clear what the rating will be for a station that broadcasts in both languages and is politically unpalatable to many on both sides of the conflict. ”There are a lot of people who speak both languages. Anyway, I am sure that even those who speak only one of the languages will find the broadcasts interesting,” says Raz.
For the first two years at least, the station will not have to worry about its rating. The European Union has already donated 80 percent of the 681,000-dollar budget for this period. Siniora says he also has a promise of assistance from the Japanese government, and has approached the Italian government.
The launch of the station, symbolically, is planned for November 4 -- the anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Jewish extremist bent on destroying the peace process he had begun.
Besides the inspiration provided by Abie Nathan's peace ship, the idea to resuscitate a peace radio station also grew out of a joint project run by Raz's organization which has seen Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian youth putting out a joint magazine that focuses on peace building. Unlike many other Israeli- Arab grassroots initiatives, the project survived the Intifadah uprising.
Do Raz and Siniora fear that if the road map peace plan fails and the two sides again begin talking out of the barrel of a gun, their broadcasts will be one of the first casualties?
”No one knows how the road map will end,” concedes Siniora. ”But our newspaper project was one of the few joint initiatives that continued throughout the Intifadah. Things cannot be worse than they have been. With our new station we will try to keep the hope alive that reconciliation is possible and that the two peoples have to learn to live together.”