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Sitting at the oversized crescent desk on a set lit up by massive screens, smartly-suited Suleiman Maswadeh fits right in with his colleagues at Israel’s public broadcaster Kan 11.
But between his name and very slight accent in Hebrew, it’s clear Maswadeh is something not often seen on Israeli television. He is one of the few Palestinian reporters who report in Hebrew, on Israeli TV.
Maswadeh is not the first or the only Palestinian reporter on Israeli TV – there are several on the Arab affairs beat. But Maswadeh doesn’t cover only “Palestinian” stories. Recently promoted to political correspondent and anchor, he’s leaving his hometown of Jerusalem for the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. All this by the age of 27, when only seven years ago, he did not even speak Hebrew.
Speaking to CNN from Kan’s Jerusalem studios, Maswadeh said he lives his life now between worlds, feeling a constant internal debate and sometimes struggle, not only from being a reporter, but from the pressures of a community that doesn’t always approve of what he does.
“I was born in East Jerusalem to a Palestinian family, to a Palestinian culture. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m Palestinian. But I also live in Israel and also feel Israeli in some ways,” Maswadeh said. “When people ask me, ‘who are you?’ I don’t know. I just say I come from Jerusalem and I’m a journalist. And that’s the two most important things of my identity.”
From the Old City of Jerusalem, Maswadeh does not hold Israeli citizenship. He is one of the many Palestinians, mostly from East Jerusalem, who hold Israeli identity cards and residency, but a Jordanian passport. That passport, Maswadeh explained, is only a travel document that many Palestinians hold, and does not bestow Jordanian citizenship.
He grew up in and around some of the most prominent and newsworthy places in the world. He attended a strict, all-boys Islamic school in the Old City, and played as a child in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound – known to Jews as the Temple Mount – the site of regular clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian Muslims that often trigger broader conflict.
Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in a 1967 war and now considers it, with West Jerusalem, as part of its “undivided capital.” Most of the international community however considers it to be occupied territory and the Palestinians want it as the capital of their future state.
Maswadeh says his first interest in journalism came during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the early 2000s, when there were frequent suicide bombings and other attacks in Jerusalem.
“We were there looking at the TV – Israeli TV – and saw, you know, the smokes and people screaming and I didn’t know what’s happening, I didn’t speak Hebrew. I just looked at TV and I felt that I want to be there, like I want to report, I want to do something,” Maswadeh said.
But his path to journalism was far from straightforward. While studying accounting at the Palestinian Birzeit University, Maswadeh worked at a high-end hotel in Jerusalem, where he said he quickly realized the mostly-Jewish waiters who spoke Hebrew made better money, because they would earn tips in the lobby where they could converse with the customers.
“I decided to drop out of university and go find work because I told myself it’s better not to, you know, spend my years just working for nothing,” Maswadeh said.
A friend tipped him off about a scholarship that would help him learn Hebrew in under a year. He then transferred to an Israeli college, where he studied journalism – and landed an internship at Kan’s Arabic channel.
After a few months, he moved to the main Hebrew channel and worked as a field producer.
His first on-air role was as Arab affairs reporter.
“I really hated that. I don’t know why, it’s just I saw that all the Arab reporters, or most of the Arab reporters in Israel, report about the Arab society or something and I didn’t like that,” Maswadeh said. “I said that I can be a reporter that covers Arabs and Jews, I can cover the police and we can cover Knesset [the Israeli Parliament] or cover the prime minister’s office as any other Jewish journalist.”
It was as Jerusalem correspondent that Maswadeh really made his mark, reporting from Palestinian refugee camps during police raids, on protests in East Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians, and on Israeli politics. He’s been a mainstay of recent coverage of the massive protests against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, and has even sat down with the extreme right-wing figures of Israel’s new government, like National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was once convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and supporting terrorism.
If at first he thought his background would hinder his ability to report on all the complex, intertwined and tense sectors of Jerusalem, Maswadeh said, instead he feels it has opened the city up for him.
“When we have stories in East Jerusalem, actually the fact that I’ve come from there and people know me and people hear me, speak their language … it makes them feel comfortable talking to me and has given me access as well,” Maswadeh said. “I come to the [Israeli] police officers, I tell them my story and they see that I can understand both the Arab society and also the Jewish society, which gives me access to police officers as well. So if at the beginning I thought that it’s going to restrict me – being an Arab, or you know, covering Jerusalem as an Arab – it actually was the other way.”
But one of his first major scoops as Jerusalem correspondent laid bare what he says is a “constant dilemma” – reporting on when “something bad happened in my society.”
In 2020, Maswadeh revealed how Covid-19 restrictions were being violated at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Worshippers were crowding inside the mosque, many, if not most, without masks, according to his report.
“I remember my grandfather calling me and telling me that everyone there is talking to him and telling him that what his grandson did was a shame to the community. And I should, you know, just leave my job right now,” Maswadeh said. “I told him, ‘it might be bad what I did, but I wouldn’t forgive myself if you died because your son prayed there and he came back and sat with you (at) dinner and infected you’.”
The pressure from his family hasn’t let up, he says.
“Every day that I go to a Friday dinner with my family they told me ‘Please just leave the job. Just leave it. We love seeing you on TV, it gives us a lot of pride, but you can’t do this anymore,’” Maswadeh said.
Maswadeh said he gets death threats for his work, and sometimes goes into the field with security. He now only visits his parents at night.
“I get threats from both sides [Palestinian and Israeli], but it was mainly from Palestinians who don’t like the fact that I work for Israeli TV,” he added.
He says he tells his detractors that his presence in the newsroom and on Israeli TV helps bring the Palestinian voice to a place where it’s missing.
“Sometimes when I go to the field I get people threatening me that I have to leave because I work for an occupying system. My answer to that is, this is where you make things different. I can make an effect on people’s life,” Maswadeh said, citing at least one police investigation and ultimate suspension of several officers after he reported on Israeli police injuring a Palestinian girl.
And, he says, his presence is also a way to show Israelis that if young Palestinians are given the resources, and the opportunity, they can succeed.
“As someone who’s from East Jerusalem, most of the chances [are] that at 25 years old he won’t be a reporter, but a terrorist who carries a knife, or you know, someone [who] was cleaning this building. For me to actually be a journalist, I feel that I am giving a message for Jewish people that if you gave all the people, citizens of East Jerusalem a chance like I got, everyone can be like me.”