A right-wing television channel drew condemnation Sunday after it broadcast a live interview with a Jewish activist who expressed no regret for his arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school and cheerfully recalled details of the incident.
Channel 20 later issued an apology for its “Open Studio” show, which hosted Yitzhak Gabai who was sentenced to over three years in prison for torching the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem in 2014.
Gabai and brothers Nahman and Shlomo Twitto were found guilty in September 2015 by the Jerusalem District Court of starting a fire at the Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school and spray-painting on the school’s walls messages such as “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs”; and “Kahane was right,” a reference to the late rabbi Meir Kahane, a mentor of the Jewish ultra-nationalist movement.
The trio were activists in the far-right Lehava organization, which, inspired by the teachings of Kahane, aims to prevent coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
In December 2015, Gabai was sentenced to three years in prison after rejecting a plea deal signed by the Twitto brothers on separate counts of arson, carrying an illegal weapon, and incitement to violence on social media. The Supreme Court later accepted a state prosecution appeal and increased the sentence to 40 months.
During the Channel 20 interview, which was peppered with jovial repartee between Gabai and other participants, Gabai explained how he had set fire to the school and said “I don’t regret torching the school. I regret that I sat in prison, but I paid the price.”
Smiling as he recalled the details, Gabai recounted how the group had scouted out the premises the night before the attack to look for security cameras and possible escape routes. He said the purpose of the attack was to create media waves about assimilation between Jews and Arabs.
— חדשות 13 (@newsisrael13) November 12, 2018
Following the broadcast there was a wave of criticism on social media networks, with many deploring that the channel had given Gabai a platform and that presenter Boaz Golan neither condemned the crime nor asked critical questions.
Prominent Israeli reporters also criticized the show, among them Erel Segal, who recently said he was leaving the channel where he had worked as a host for four years.
The interview with Gabai was “disgraceful,” Segal tweeted.
Channel 10 reporter Baruch Kara wrote on his Twitter feed: “A disgrace. Laughing at the torching of the school.”
Amit Segal of the leading Hadashot television news channel tweeted: “Really sickening. If that’s why they set up a right-wing channel then we will give it up.”
Josh Breiner, the legal correspondent for Haaretz, noted in a tweet that during his sentencing, Gabai told the judges that “I made a fool of myself, with wild emotions. Give me a chance, it was a complete mistake, I have internalized the lesson.”
Channel 20 issued a response in which it expressed disapproval of the interview.
“The Channel 20 administration takes a serious view of the interview that was held this evening on ‘Open Studio’ with the criminal Yitzhak Gabai who set fire to the bilingual school in Jerusalem,” the channel said in a statement. “The interview strayed from all accepted norms and we completely disapprove of the crime committed and the manner in which the interview was conducted.”
Host Boaz Golan also apologized, writing on his Facebook page, “The aim of the interview was to give him an opportunity to repent his actions. To my regret, Gabai made it clear that he is not sorry for that incident.
“We made a mistake in that we gave a platform in a live broadcast to a person who committed a crime, without being able to control he message he would give, and that in the studio an atmosphere developed that including frivolity and joking, and that the interview was not immediately discontinued.”
“To remove any doubt, we condemn the man and his actions and will learn the lesson. We apologize to our viewers.”
Channel 20 began broadcasting in August 2014 as a station focusing on Jewish tradition with a conservative bent. Sometimes referred to as Israel’s Fox News for its right-of-center programming and claim to offer a countering view to the “mainstream media,” the channel only received permission to broadcast its own news programs in December 2016.
Channel 20 came under fire that month when it censured President Reuven Rivlin for attending a conference in New York at which members of Breaking the Silence — a group that publishes allegations of Israeli soldiers’ transgressions against Palestinians in the West Bank — also appeared.
In March 2016, Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir claimed that a satirical skit aired on Channel 20 amounted to sexual harassment. Taking to Facebook, Shaffir slammed the channel for a segment on its show “The Patriots” in which host Erel Segal said the MK derived sexual pleasure from riding her bicycle.