A few weeks ago, Channel 2 Arab Affairs reporter Ohad Hamu was invited to the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. He went, a journalist with a small camera crew, risking his life in the process. Israeli and international media have stayed away from this volatile area, where gun battles have been raging between supporters and opponents of Abu Mazen. But Hamu was able to start a dialogue, in fluent Arabic, with local residents, and to give the Israeli viewer at least a small glimpse of the Palestinian situation there.
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Hamu’s new show on Educational TV, “Between the Lines,” originates from much more comfortable surroundings. On the show he leads an open discussion with Israeli teenagers about a range of subjects in the Muslim world. One program dealt with the Arab Spring, another with Israeli Arabs. Others covered the Golden Age of Andalusia, and the Jews of Iraq. Despite the absence of the adrenaline rush that comes with reporting from hot zones, Hamu sees a connection between the two.
“I think this show is pretty avant garde,” says Hamu. “Israelis don’t really want to hear about the Palestinians anymore. There’s been a process that started with the second intifada, with the buses getting blown up, that profoundly affected the peace camp. Add to that the physical and mental barriers that have been erected over the years, and you see where the present indifference comes from. There’s a feeling of helplessness. Along with the Arab Spring and ISIS and all the other threats, you see, as an Israeli, that you’re living in a not very nice neighborhood, and the natural inclination is to shut yourself within your familiar space. In this sense, the program can be of tremendous value – It can make one cautiously optimistic about Israeli youth’s ability to look at the Arab and Muslim world without fear or pre-judgment.
“When I was approached with this idea, at first I wondered if young people would really want to hear so directly about ‘hard-core’ Arab world issues,” Hamu continues. “But then I realized that it could be pretty amazing and a little subversive. Subversive because Arabs only come up on the agenda here in a menacing context, and I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to alter perceptions, to give a new and more authentic face to the Muslim world that surrounds us. I found the idea very exciting, so I ran with it.”
Israeli public opinion today is very anti-Arab. How different was this among the teens?
“These kids are young enough not to have developed a rigid political stance and mature enough to look the other side in the eye, with real curiosity. Obviously there’s a general problem, on both sides, of not recognizing the other side, which of course leads to terrible demonization. I’m glad we’ve been able to break down all the stigmas and stereotypes, at least for the children who’ll see the show.”
How do you deal with the political minefield when making educational television for Israeli youth? How do you handle topics like the occupation, the Nakba, wars?
“It is a minefield. But I think we’ve been able to navigate through it. On one episode, for example, we talked about the Arabs in Israel. The Nakba came up, and the 1967 war, of course.”
How do you explain to Israeli kids in 2016 what the Nakba is?
“Actually, we didn’t use the term ‘Nakba,’ because that’s a term of self-definition. We talked about the year 1948, what we Israelis perceive as the War of Independence and what the Palestinian side perceives as a nakba, or catastrophe. We looked at these issues, but in a historical rather than a political context.”
Have you also addressed the topics of the occupied territories, Palestinian resistance, and so on?
“No, that wasn’t our aim. If we went into all those things, it would immediately create antagonism and fertile ground for disagreement and conflict. That wasn’t the goal of this program.”
People in the Arab world would probably be surprised to hear you were doing a series about them without mentioning the occupation or Palestinian resistance.
“I disagree. There are so many fascinating topics in the Muslim world, the occupation is just one thing. And it’s present, but it’s not the whole story. If you just look at the 30 topics covered by the program, you’ll see how broad this world really is.”
A wide range of guests – including Itay Anghel, Lucy Aharish, Zouheir Bahloul, Ayman Odeh and others – came on the show to talk with the kids. “Nearly everyone who was interviewed on the show seemed to be really inspired by the project. They felt how important it was to expose the kids to a world they’re not so familiar with,” says Hamu. “We live in this dichotomous world, and suddenly you discover that, throughout history, Jews have lived alongside Muslims, in near harmony, for hundreds of years.
The major media have been dealing less and less with the Arab world. We’re becoming more ignorant about our neighbors.
“When I think about the way Arabs have been covered for the last 16 years, since the start of the second intifada, [dwindling coverage] may be a positive thing, since the media presence was always negative, about terror and conflict. But I agree that the media doesn’t look at the Arab world enough, certainly not the positive aspects. We’re always coming back to threats and stereotypes, and here we had an opportunity to break through that.”
Maybe we as the media aren’t being responsible enough.
“I don’t think the blame lies with us, either the media or the Israeli public. The problem is that the other side makes it difficult, nearly impossible, to go out and cover it. Not so long ago I could wander freely around Gaza and the West Bank and bring cultural and political stories, but today there are few places I can enter in the West Bank. And like all Israelis, I haven’t been able to enter Gaza since 2006. The Israeli media doesn’t go into something like 70 percent of the West Bank, and even when I do go, it’ll be to film some 10-minute dialogue with someone and then we’re out of there right away, because it’s just become too dangerous. They don’t want to see us there. We don’t have access. And you can’t do serious journalism this way.”
Kind of tragic.
“Utterly tragic. Israeli journalists used to serve as a bridge between Israeli and Palestinian society, but this bridge has been gradually cracking.”