The worst and most excruciatingly awful show on Palestinian TV is a wierd, arrogant, and embarassing nightly half-hour which has now become a part of the Ramadan post-Iftar must-watch family programming that airs every evening after the day’s fast is broken, the table has been cleared, and the formerly drooping audience its not quite yet adjusted to having some food and water in their systems.
It is called “The Cedar and the Olive Tree”.
Palestinian journalist Maher ash-Shalabi, who all winter wore a suit and a tie and held hour-long interviews with Palestinian political and “intellectual” types (a while ago, he worked for MBC), is now roaming the narrow streets of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki chino trousers, holding a microphone with a clean new cover embellished with the new Palestinian TV logo (one letter is graphically transformed into the shape of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, with a crescent moon on top). He walks up to men sitting on plastic chairs in alleyways, or to middle-aged women walking with with headscarves and long coats in the dusty streets (younger women, also wearing headscarves and long coats, answer the doors of their family apartments).
The journalist, an apparition from Ramallah, de facto capital city of the occupied West Bank and seat of government for the Palestinian Authority (though word must have gotten around fairly quickly that he was around), always starts by asking his interlocutors where they are from.
Most of those asked reply immediately with the names of small villages near cities like Acca or Ramla, or even from places in the West Bank. Some few are of Lebanese origin.
He then asks: “How many people are at home”? The replies indicate large families — and suggest suffering. (“There are nine people at home, nine now, but there were eleven before. [Two -- the lady's husband, and one of her sons, for example -- are "martyrs", meaning were killed in conflict.]
Does anyone in the household work? “No”, is often the reply.
Then, he asks them questions like: “Can you name five cities in Palestine?” (Just over 50% of those asked can manage to do this by themselves.) In every episode, he also asks, several times: “What is the capital of Palestine”? (The correct answer is: Al-Quds, sometimes pronounced Al-Kudus, meaning Jerusalem.)
If those being questioned manage to answer correctly, the journalist then hands over a crisp $100 (one hundred dollar) bill! $100! Sometimes, apparently just when he feels like it, or when the story he has just been told is particularly moving, he hands over two of these bills!
His attitude is patently patronizing — he is distributing largess from the donor-supported Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, to the poor Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. [They are definitely poor -- a bill was passed in the Lebanese Parliament only last week, that finally allowed Palestinian refugees who have in Lebanon for over 30 years or more to be able to seek work, although they have no residency status and no official papers.]
The money comes from the Palestine Investment Fund [!].
Tonight’s episode was filmed in Beddawi refugee camp. One lady said she was from “Bared” — and the journalist quickly asks her if she was from Nahr al-Bared, which was in part destroyed during a Lebanese Army assault several years ago on militants who were said to be part of a group called “Fatah al-Islam”, which the Palestinian representative in Lebanon quickly denounced. That lady said that she and her large family were still being sheltered in a garage. “What can we do?”, she asked plaintively.
She was the only one who told the journalist that she didn’t want the money he was distributing. She just wanted Palestine said, in an even tone. [But, exhibiting a practical streak nonetheless, she kept the $100 bill she had been handed...]
In the unsuccessful Camp David negotiations hosted by the U.S. then-President Bill Clinton in July 2000, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reportedly asked Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to agree that the Palestinian refugees living without papers in poor conditions in Lebanon (about 175,000 of them, it was estimated) should be the ones whose situation would be addressed first.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were always vulnerable, but their situation became extraordinarily delicate in the late summer of 1982, after Israel’s then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon pushed quickly up through the south of the country and then surrounded and laid siege to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in what he said was an effort to kill — or to expel — the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership that had regrouped there, and formed what was called a “state within a state”, following their flight from Jordan in 1970 during clashes with the Jordanian Army over raids to “liberate” Palestine by armed struggle.
Once thousands of PLO fighters were shipped out of Beirut “under a UN umbrella” into a 12-year long exile, mainly in remote desert location around the Arab world, Lebanese Christian militiamen carried out a horrific massacre of unprotected Palestinian refugees left behind, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut, while Ariel Sharon’s troops were very nearby.
None of those being interviewed on this special Palestinian TV program seem to have any words to say about those days, or about those responsible…
Nor do they complain about the lese-majeste with which they are handed $100 dollar bills by an employee of the Palestinian Authority’s official Palestinian Television, funded by an organization of elite businessmen (hand-picked by the leadership) who have little or no accountability either to the Palestinian Authority itself, or to the public, for what they decide to do with the money generated by some of the holdings that late Palestinian leader, and his then-economic adviser, were obliged to set up to comply with donor requirements for greater financial transparency and accountability…
It must be mentioned that a certain number of this program’s viewers are staunch defenders — they say they get so little information otherwise about the Palestinians in diaspora in Arab countries…and besides, they say, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon need the money…
Today, the journalist mentioned — twice, as if it were a promotional commercial — that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has just recently decreed that any Palestinian refugee in Lebanon who has just completed secondary school may apply to the Presidency for funding for university studies, either in Lebanon, or abroad…
The journalist also instructed his cameraman to linger on the tangle of electrical wires running along the narrow alleyways of Beddawi and branching off into individual homes along the way — to illustrate the difficulty of life for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as if the same difficulties don’t exist in refugee camps in the West Bank, or even in neighborhoods of Ramallah, or in East Jerusalem…