Talk radio with a difference: the father, the kidnappers and the radio station that got them to talk

Ziad Darwish is a presenter making headlines on an innovative station in the Middle East. By allowing both sides of the conflict to air their views, he is bringing hope that the dialogue will spread further and the leaders might just be listening.
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Yesterday was a routine ­ if relatively newsy ­ Tuesday for Ziad Darwish's 8am to 9am Arabic morning show on 107.2FM. The Chief Palestinian Islamic Justice, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, was one of his guests, airing a fresh spate of complaints about Israeli inroads into Muslim areas of Jerusalem's Old City, including archaeological excavations that he believes threaten the foundations of al-Aqsa mosque.

Another guest was Seif al-Din Shahin, the much-threatened Gaza correspondent of the Al- Arabiya satellite news channel talking about the attack on the network's offices in the Gaza Strip. It is the latest manifestation of a row between Hamas and Al-Arabiya over the latter's broadcast of a tape ­ deliberately doctored by Al-Arabiya's source according to Hamas ­ in which Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister is supposed to have made the "blasphemous" remark that "Hamas will not accept the [international] conditions even if they came from God". And Shahin is doing his best to defend the network.

Ziad Darwish is trying to get to the bottom of the dispute; but he isn't taking sides, which is an exception to most Palestinian broadcasting norms when it comes to covering internal conflicts.

He is every bit as likely to interview a Hamas spokesman, or an Arabic-speaking Israeli politician or an analyst. But then he works for what is, to say the least, an unusual station, one whose own mission statement says proudly it aims to provide "an unrestricted opportunity for dialogue between the citizens... of both sides."

For, after a long and distinguished career as a senior national broadcaster, Mr Darwish has chosen to work for "All for Peace", a small and financially struggling station that happens to be run jointly by a dedicated group of 22 Israelis and Palestinians from a small studio and office complex in East Jerusalem.

Half of its 24-hour output is in Hebrew, half in Arabic. Mr Darwish, of a famous Palestinian family ­ one of his cousins is the poet Mahmoud Darwish ­ says of his job: "As a peace activist, this is my place, my home. I feel very comfortable working with Israelis who share the same ideas as me."

Conceived at the height of the intifada in 2002, the station finally went on air at the beginning of 2005. But it was a coup by Mr Darwish earlier this month that helped put in on the media map. The seizure of 19-year-old Cpl Gilad Shalit by Gaza militants last June has brought unimaginable anxiety to the soldier's family, including his exceptionally dignified father, Noam. And because of the Israeli military escalation in Gaza it triggered, it has resulted in severely increased misery for many non-combatant Palestinians as well. On 10 January, Mr Darwish managed to bring on the air ­ at the same time ­ Noam Shalit and Abu Mujahad, the spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the three groups, including Hamas's military wing, that abducted the Israeli corporal.

Mr Darwish believes something important happened in the highly-charged exchange, that attracted attention from the mainstream Israeli and Palestinian media. Neither man spoke directly to the other but instead to Mr Darwish who translated from Hebrew and Arabic and vice-versa as well as acting as mediator.

The headlines were made, first, by a promise by Mr Shalit to act as guarantor for any prisoner exchange deal involving his son's release. " If needed, I am prepared to travel to the Gaza Strip and to stay with Hamas's security forces until all of their demands are answered," he said.

And secondly, the comments by Abu Mujahad, reporting on the soldier's condition. "The soldier is very healthy and is getting everything he asks for... In appreciation of human emotions we say to Noam Shalit that your son is alive and healthy, and we didn't abuse him as the Israeli government does to our prisoners."

But Mr Shalit was also able, through Mr Darwish, to press the PRC spokesman on an issue that was deeply concerning him. According to what he learned from Israeli officials ­"and it is hard to believe they are lying to me"­ no actual target list of prisoners to be released had been passed to them.

Twice Mr Shalit asked about the list but, according to Mr Darwish, Mr Mujahad became "defensive" ­ repeating at length that the groups had demanded through Egyptian mediators the release of 1,000 prisoners, and specified: "A number of our prisoners are looking to be released in the first round ... In the second phase, we will hand over the soldier to the Egyptians, another wave of releases with specific names will take place and the Egyptians will hand over the soldier to Israel."

Under pressure at one point, Mr Mujahad did say: "It could be the Egyptians didn't pass on our list but we gave them all our demands." But when Mr Shalit asks Mr Darwish: "They didn't pass a list. Is this is what you understand?", Mr Darwish concedes: "Yes, it's true." Mr Shalit declares: "Israel is interested in finishing this deal and releasing a lot of prisoners even after Gilad is released, but I am saying that, as long as there is no list of prisoners, we can't move forward."

It may yet be a long time before it can be said whether the exchange had any positive outcome but it can certainly have done no harm, beside helping to shed light on an issue of intense public interest to both sides of the conflict. Mr Darwish had prepared well for the confrontation, speaking many times to Mr Shalit over months and to Mr Mujahad, in Gaza and by telephone. But the fact a PRC spokesman was prepared to talk to a station partly run by Israelis is also a testament to its increasing importance.

While the Israeli broadcasting regime licenses local Arabic stations as well as Hebrew ones, it doesn't, at present, provide frequencies for joint Arab-Hebrew ones, despite the fact that both are official languages.

So this unique station, dedicated as a matter of policy to raising " public awareness in both the Palestinian and Israeli societies to the problems of the other", is obliged to send its output by audio line to Ramallah from where it is transmitted by FM to the Jerusalem area and by internet throughout Israel and the occupied territories.

The station can't afford to measure its FM audience but on the internet it is reaching between 20,000 and 25,000 listeners every day. That may sound small but ­ like the station, whose staff has doubled since the start ­ it is growing fast ­ by 65 per cent in just a year. About 39 per cent of listeners are in Israel, about 31 per cent in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr Darwish, like all his colleagues, is an ardent advocate of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and a passionate supporter of a lasting peace. At the height of the conflict, he led the Palestinian side of a highly symbolic joint Israeli-Palestinian expedition to Antarctica called "Breaking the Ice".

But that doesn't stop him, as an instinctive Palestinian nationalist as well as a peace activist, from showing emotion. He was reporting on a story about a group of Palestinian doctors that had been severely harassed by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint outside Nablus, and was infuriated by the blandness of the Israel Defence Forces' spokesman's response. "I lost my temper. He was saying they hadn't made a complaint, even though the doctors had gone straight to the Red Cross. I pretty well accused him of covering up what was happening."

Nor did it stop him trying to bring Hizbollah on the air ­ so far, one of his few failures. "I was in touch with them and spoke to one of Nasrallah's senior aides. They asked to see our website but came back very politely and said they couldn't talk to us because there were Israelis involved."

The station's willingness to talk to everyone from the Israeli far right to the most hardline Palestinian militant groups ­ as well as to many more moderate voices, Israeli and Palestinian, all too easily ignored by the mainstream media ­ is a cherished part of its independence, one that has cost it dear. The Israeli co-director, Shimon Malka, explains that, in 2005, the station, which already receives about 40 per cent of its $600,000 (£300,000) annual costs from the European Commission, was delighted to receive a year's grant of $700,000 from USaid.

But after Hamas took office in the wake of its election victory last year, he and his Palestinian co-director Maysa Baransi-Siniora were told bluntly the grant would be halted unless they agreed to keep Hamas off the air.

He said: "Maysa and I flew to Washington and tried to persuade them we couldn't be real independent media if we became the voice of Fatah, or Washington or whatever." But even though Hamas spokesmen appear on Israeli media, it was to no avail, and All for Peace lost a third of the US money, having to pay back some cash it used to buy equipment.

"We couldn't say we were only interested in half the Palestinian population," adds Mrs Siniora.

The two co-directors joined forces in 2002 to plan the station when both were working for the two peace oriented organisations, the Israeli Givat Haviva and the Palestinian Biladi. Mr Malka, a former producer and reporter for Israeli state broadcasting, was editor-in-chief of Crossing the Borders, an Israeli-Palestinian magazine that was having serious trouble living up to its name because of the checkpoints established after the intifada began.

Mrs Siniora, recently named by Ha'aretz's Marker business magazine as one of the top 40 women in the country for "making a difference", was a reporter on Biladi's Jerusalem Times.

Mr Malka says one of the most difficult tasks was finding the right group of Israelis and Palestinians who shared the outlook in favour of dialogue and peace "so we could speak with something like one voice."

Mr Malka said: "We have to realise these years of military operations, for example against groups such as Hamas in Gaza, is not working and ­ for them ­ all the terror and suicide bombings wasn't working either."

Underlining that the quality and commitment of the station's staff is crucial, he says that when an Israeli woman presenter recently left a vacuum on the Hebrew counterpart to Mr Darwish's show, it posed a "crisis" now solved by finding a successor.

The "other crisis" was a financial one left by the Bush administration's funding cut. The dream shared by Mr Malka and Mrs Siniora is to make the station independent and self-financing.

Thanks in part to an advertising contract with the sympathetic Israeli cleaning materials company, Sano, they hope advertising will account for 20 percent of the station's costs this year compared with 1 per cent last year. And they are also planning deals under which NGOs can buy air time on the station.

But, as Mrs Siniora says, all that will take time, like many other of the changes she would gradually like to see. As an example she cites the fact that most of the music played on the station is European or American, mainly from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s ­ the target audience is mainly those above their early to mid-20s. They play two Hebrew and two Arabic records per hour, hoping to get the two sides gradually used to each other's music. In time, she'd like to see Hebrew and Arabic music play a bigger part in the output.

She is far from starry-eyed about the attainability of the climate the station is trying to create; indeed she says she is continually " frustrated" by the lack of political progress in the region. But, like Mr Malka, she remains deeply committed to the cause of increasing understanding between the two peoples and cheered by the camaraderie and dedication of the staff ­Israeli and Palestinian.

"They motivate you to carry on," she says. And somehow you have the impression this is a project that will grow. Mr Darwish admits this is a small beginning, and ­ of course ­ that it is not somehow going to bring peace of itself. But he says: "There is a Chinese proverb, that you go 1,000 miles with your first step. That's how I feel."