Egypt to beam Hebrew TV show into Israeli homes

Channel will launch in new year to offer an Arab perspective on current events.

Overlooking a polluted stretch of the Nile, on one of Cairo's busiest streets, stands an imposing tower, its roof brimming with giant satellite dishes.

Early next year, this "TV Building," housing Egypt's many state-run television channels, will accommodate another station - one promising to be rather different.

For the first time, an Arab nation is to launch a television channel that will broadcast entirely in Hebrew. Beamed directly into Israeli living rooms, the new station will be run by the government-controlled Nile TV, which already transmits programs in English and French as well as Arabic.

It's a "breakthrough step in countering Israeli allegations," says Youssef Sherif Rizqallah, head of Nile TV. The station hopes to reach Jewish viewers who, Egyptians say, have never had unfettered access to an Arab worldview.

"Our aim is to reach Hebrew speakers who may only know about Arab problems with Israel from an Israeli point of view," says Hasan Aly Hasan, an undersecretary to the minister of information and a vice president of broadcasting in foreign languages, who will head up the station. "By broadcasting to this audience, we can clarify Egypt's position on the Middle East and, in particular, examine the Arab perception of the Palestinian intifada."

The new station will start with four hours of daily programs, featuring chat shows and cultural broadcasts about the history of Islam and Egyptian antiquities alongside political analysis and news bulletins.

Despite a peace treaty signed by the two countries in 1979, diplomatic relations are currently in deep freeze. Throughout the 14-month intifada, the Egyptian public has been fed a diet of images that show Israeli aggression against Palestinians. This, combined with vocal criticism in the local media, has led to a swelling anti-Israel sentiment.

But Mr. Hasan says the new TV station could cross a growing divide between the two countries.

"I chose to learn Hebrew ... because I wanted to know about the society that we have so many problems with," he says. "I have studied Israeli literature and culture, and have been speaking their language for 34 years. This has given me an insight into the way things really are. I hope our station can do the same."

Although many Egyptian universities offer Hebrew courses, there are few fluent speakers in the country. According to Hasan, they could number as low as 150.

By contrast, tens of thousands of Israelis may speak fluent Arabic, government officials suggest.

Israeli students take three hours of Arabic a week from the age of 12 to 16, and are encouraged to continue study at college. In addition, there is an aging generation of Arabic-speaking Jews, born in the Middle East and North Africa, who migrated to Israel after its founding in 1948.

The new Egyptian channel, which will have no input from either the Israeli Embassy in Egypt or Israeli TV, follows recommendations announced at a conference of Arab information ministers held in Cairo in September.

"The conference stressed the importance of having satellite broadcasts in foreign languages in order to reach various audiences," says Dorreya Sharafeddin, head of the satellite section for the Egyptian Radio and Television Union.

Yet to date, the station has no predetermined budget or projected audience figures.

In part, the new TV station appears to be a response to plans by Israeli television to launch a 24-hour satellite broadcast entirely in Arabic - a suggestion denied by the Egyptians. Until now, Arabic programs in Israel have been limited to several hours a day.

A spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo says: "The Egyptians are taking a lead in the Arab world by launching the first Hebrew broadcasts, which makes them look good among their Arab peers. The problem is, will anyone in Israel be watching?"

But Egyptian commentators and analysts are hopeful. Mohamed Auda, a leading journalist and writer, says: "There is an acute crisis in Israel right now, and it is possible that the Israeli public is searching for the real opinions of the Arab world."

Abdel Azim Ramadan, a columnist and prolific author, says: "[This station] will remind Israelis of historical facts from an Arab perspective. And even if some of it is propaganda, other elements will do good and hopefully bring our people together."

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