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Wednesday, February 24, 1999 Published at 17:36 GMT

World: Middle East

Israel legalises religious pirate radios

Move seen as attempt to woo religious voters

By Morand Fachot of BBC Monitoring

The Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, has passed a law legalising a number of pirate radio stations run by Jewish settlers and religious activists.

The bill was put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, taken under pressure from right-wing and religious members of parliament, and against the advice of the attorney-general who denounced its "dubious legality".

The Knesset's decision was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court by left-wing members of the Knesset and attacked by Palestinian National Authority officials as a dangerous escalation.

Wooing right wing

Mr Netanyahu's action is widely seen as aimed to gain support from right-wing and religious voters ahead of the general elections on 17 May.

The bill was carefully worded to legalise Arutz 7 - Channel 7 - whilst keeping out other pirate stations.

However, the Torah Observing Sephardim party, Shas, a key ally of the prime minister, has already claimed that the law allows the legalisation of six Shas-affiliated radio stations broadcasting nationwide.

Pirate radio stations have been broadcasting in Israel for a number of years: 35 were recorded in 1985, double that number in 1995 and, according to the Second Radio and Television Authority, as many as 115 in 1997, some 40 of which were operated by ultra-orthodox groups and accused of stirring up hatred.

Political backing

The authorities have tried to close down some of these stations on a number of occasions. Arutz 7 - the most famous Israeli pirate station - has been a major target of these efforts.

However, in spite of many raids on its premises, it has been able to operate practically unhindered thanks mainly to powerful political backing.

Arutz 7, which formerly called itself Voice of the Gazelle, was established by the Bet-El Thora institution and began broadcasting in October 1988 from a ship anchored off the coast of Israel.

It claims to be "the only independent national radio station in Israel", and says it was "established to combat the 'negative thinking' and 'post-Zionist' attitudes so prevalent in Israel's liberal-left media".

It broadcasts on AM and FM, and via the Internet, in Hebrew, as well as in Russian, English and French.

Voice of the ultra-orthodox

Arutz 7 proved an inspiration to ultra-orthodox Jews who decided to launch even more radical pirate stations.

Arutz 7 Executive-Director Yaakov Katz welcomed the decision as "a great step... in the direction of freedom of speech."

However other quarters reacted angrily at the Knesset's decision. The Palestinian National Authority immediately lodged a protest with the US administration calling on Washington to intervene, and a senior Palestinian official called the move a dangerous escalation and a flagrant call for violence and chaos.

Within hours of the vote left-wing members of the Knesset submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court demanding the annulment of the new law.

Whatever the outcome of any Supreme Court ruling, pirate stations, whether commercial or political are set to remain a lasting feature of the Israeli broadcasting scene.

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