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Hamas TV: Palestinian Media in Transition

In late January 2006, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian government announced the closure of Hamas’ new Al Aqsa television network. The station’s demise after only a few weeks on air came as no surprise to those familiar with the tug-of-war that is Palestinian politics. Named in honor of the famous Jerusalem mosque of the same name, Al Aqsa TV had sought to reflect a softer, more civilly responsible side of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel. In the months leading up to its January 9 launch, Al Aqsa TV already had sparked considerable controversy, and the Fatah-led government’s move to silence Al Aqsa after less than three weeks on the air ignited a firestorm of anger among Islamists in the West Bank and Gaza. Rael Abu Deir, head of the controversial network, admitted the station did not have a license but complained that he had not been notified of the decision prior to the announcement. "We have been trying for a year (to receive a license),” he told Al Jazeera. “But the information minister told us he was not yet taking applications.” With just three days left before the Palestinian territories’ first parliamentary election in a decade, it seemed that Hamas and the future of Al Aqsa were at the mercy of the ruling Fatah party.

But then the tables turned. On January 25, Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem headed to the polls. By the end of the next day, the green flags of Hamas draped the Palestinian territories in triumph. In their first attempt at organized politicking, the group—founded on principles that include armed resistance and the obliteration of the state of Israel—had won an unprecedented 56 percent of the seats (76 of 132) in the newly established parliament.

Among other things, Hamas’ victory instantly threatened Palestine’s flow of financial aid. Nearly $2 billion of the Palestinian Authority’s annual budget comes from overseas sources – the majority from the European Union (EU). After Hamas’ win, US President George W. Bush took to the airwaves, asking his Arab and European allies to take a firm stand against the new Palestinian government unless it quashed its anti-Israel rhetoric. Although the US eventually backed down somewhat and pledged $245 million in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, the lack of funds remains a major problem for the Hamas-led government.

Parliamentarians promise the media is a priority, but it is just one of many concerns awaiting consideration by the newly established government – which is busy just trying to stay afloat. “There is really a great deal of uncertainty thus far,” said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent MP from Gaza. “But the media is a tool in the struggle. This is a national struggle and so we mustn’t air just any programming in haste.”

The Palestinian media arsenal currently consists of more than 80 public and private stations. These channels will now be re-formatted to better serve the vision of the new, Hamas-led government, Hamas officials told TBS. Not surprisingly, however, concerns have arisen about the content of broadcasting, since militant programming aired in the past has been directly linked to Hamas. What influence will a Hamas government have on the Palestinian media, particularly television? And as noted above, funding remains a major concern. Some experts believe the Palestinian Authority would be defunct were it not for the substantial financial aid it receives annually. Will the proposed cuts leave the embattled Palestinian media shell shocked?

Media: A Tool in the Struggle

Prior to 1994, Palestinians living the West Bank and Gaza Strip relied almost entirely on Israeli-owned and operated news organizations for their information. On July 2, 1994, an experimental transmission of the Voice of Palestine was launched. Its objective was to broadcast messages of solidarity uniting the people in the two occupied territories toward the goal of achieving an independent Palestinian state. Established by President Arafat with former head of the Arab Journalists’ Association Radwan Abu Ayyash as its chairman, it was the first taste of domestic media for the people of Palestine.

The experimental transmissions were broadcasted twice daily – in the morning from 6:30 to 10:30 and then again the evening from 5:00 to 10:30 – airing programs that ranged from music to news bulletins and including programs about health, culture and sports. One year after its launch, experimental transmissions were replaced by permanent programming. Transmission times were extended and the quality and quantity of programs rapidly increased.

Two years after its debut, the Voice of Palestine – renamed the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) – launched its first television broadcasts. By that time, its radio counterpart had begun broadcasting past midnight every night with ransmissions in Arabic, Hebrew and English. By establishing a domestic television network, the government sought to unify the media activities of the Palestinian resistance through organized telecasts – including newscasts, talk shows and entertainment.

“One of the impediments of Palestinian television is that it is subject to the control of the Israelis,” explains Ibrahim Saleh, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo and the author of a book about Arab-Israeli dialogue, Prior to the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath in the Middle East. “It’s like having a wheelchair for a crippled person. It might help the crippled person move around but this movement will be limited and orchestrated and monitored.”

Palestinian officials admit there was difficulty. “It was a miracle that early in the game, we were able to establish a radio and television station, and eventually a satellite station,” says Nabil Shaath, Palestine’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information until the 2006 elections. “I think we started very early for a people under occupation.”

Indeed, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) ran a tight ship at the PBC. Under the auspice of President Arafat and the Palestinian Ministry of Information, the message broadcast was generally in support of the Oslo Agreement, signed in August 1993 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the presence of US President Bill Clinton. The agreement sought to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world, though many have deemed that agreement a failure. Much of the programming served as an apparatus for rallying support for Fatah, with party members admitting that Yasser Arafat’s picture and voice became a national system used by government-owned stations. “What happened was the politicians would choose all of the circumstances to benefit their own interests,” explains Moustafa Kabha, a professor of communications at Ben Gurion University in Jerusalem.

It was not until the Second Intifada that the Palestinian territories turned into a free-for-all for both domestic and foreign news organizations. Palestinian businessmen began to finance their own networks as their national cause drew international attention. Television and radio made a dramatic shift from a government-driven public service to a nationalist bullhorn. “The media ultimately changed from a political voice to a patriotic voice,” Kabha notes.

And perhaps surprisingly, Shaath agrees: “Rarely was anybody other than those carrying the government’s message 100 percent allowed on our television or radio. It was a very unilateral approach.” But Shaath claims this attitude began to change after he took over.

Virtual Palestine

As mentioned above, more than 80 radio and television networks are based in the West Bank and Gaza – with the majority of radio stations in Gaza and most television stations in Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem. More than 30 of them are privately owned television networks (territorial law requires the owner of any private network be a Palestinian individual, registered company or an NGO.) Revenues for all private networks —with the exception of Al-Quds Educational Television, which receives funding from local NGOs and international donor groups like USAID—come from commercials and NGO-funded programs.

Satellite dishes have become a more affordable luxury in recent years, and so Palestinians in the isolated territories remain connected through audio-visual transmissions. Palestinians living in both the West Bank and Gaza as well as those in Israel can watch the extensive coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not only on their own channels but also on pan-Arab satellite stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya as well as Hizbullah’s Al Manar, US-funded Alhurra, and hundreds of other networks. Though they couldn’t attend in person, Palestinians tuned in to the funeral procession held in Cairo for Arafat before his body was brought back to its final resting place in Ramallah. Residents of the West Bank celebrated by remote the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Today, Palestinians watch tensely as Israel’s new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – whose Kadima Party swept the March elections – officially proposes plans for establishing the final borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories. “The Palestinian media has changed the image and politics of the government,” says Kabha. “It has changed Palestinian relations with Israel."

Israeli Broadcasting Authority

Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have access to the two networks aired by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA). Funded entirely by sponsorship from commercial entities as well as by levying television license fees from those with television sets, its purpose upon creation was to facilitate and regulate commercially-operated broadcasts in Israel. The IBA, since its first broadcast as an independent station in 1948, has been assigned the responsibility for the creation of public networks in Israel. Since its inception, the networks under IBA have remained dedicated to directly addressing citizen complaints and current events issues.

One of its television stations, Channel 2, was established in November 1993. The channel, which aired a variety of news, culture and entertainment programming, was a major profit generator for the IBA. To this day, two percent of the broadcast time allotted on IBA commercial channels is reserved for public interest programs produced by the Authority. “Channel 2 is amazing—the quality, the tactics, the set, the reporters, the networking, the kind of guests they bring,” Saleh enthuses. “They have the money; they have the planning. One of the flaws in the Arab world is we do not have this media management and economics. It’s given no attention.”

Despite its efforts, critics say that the Israeli media has remained disconnected from the conflict with the Palestinians. Channel 2, for example, does have a Palestinian affairs correspondent based in Gaza — a Palestinian who files his reports in a fluent Hebrew tongue. However, coverage of Israeli-Palestinian clashes were sometimes overshadowed by alternate programming. “The dilemma has been trying to create a balance between comedy, drama, and say, a bombing,” says Itamar Marcus, director of the ring-wing Israeli group Palestinian Media Watch.

Many Israeli activists like Marcus believe Palestinian television greatly differs from Israeli broadcasts in the sense that Palestinian media functions as a tool for self-defense in the political struggle with Israel. While Israeli media has the funding and political clearance to broadcast, Palestinian media nonetheless has a clearer, more unified vision. Some say Israel’s state-run broadcasts fail to firmly establish its position or objective.

An example Marcus cites goes back to the days of the Second Intifada. One of Israel’s privately owned networks carried a live broadcast of a major soccer game being played by the Israeli national team. At some point in the game, a deadly suicide bombing ripped through an Israeli town. After switching over to live pictures from the scene of the bombing, network executives chose that the game was too great a money-generator to forfeit. They then made a highly criticized decision to carry both events live on split screen. “On one side, there were people carrying away dead bodies. On the other side, the soccer game,” Marcus recalls. “It was a big, big blunder. But it goes to show you that there is never an outward attempt by Israeli TV to defend Israel.”

The Second Intifada: ‘No one will mute the Palestinian voice’

In September 2000, then-Likud party delegate Ariel Sharon made the controversial visit to the mosque compound of the Temple Mount—deemed the third holiest site in Islam—with a 1,000-strong armed bodyguard entourage and claiming it was a march for peace. Waving Israeli flags, the move provoked anger among Palestinians who claimed it was an act of sheer incursion against the mosque. Protests erupted in East Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.

Violence quickly escalated, marking the start of the Second Intifada. The state-owned Palestinian media quickly turned into a “tool in the struggle.” The PBC abandoned all regular programming, broadcasting minute-by-minute coverage of the conflict with Israel. (Israeli television maintained a regular schedule but would break in whenever there was a noteworthy attack.) Commercials were created bluntly calling for Palestinians of all ages to assume the role of freedom fighters for the homeland. Critics attacked the Palestinian media for broadcasting messages of terror. “It was a nonstop war atmosphere with 1-2-3 clips encouraging young kids to be shaheed (martyrs),” recalls Marcus.

“During the Intifada, television and radio became a tool for generating resistance and generating steadfastness facing very difficult times,” explained Shaath. “They became very militant … attempting to show the criminality of Israeli attacks, but to whom? The only ones who were watching the Palestinian broadcasts were the Palestinians.”

The event that marked perhaps the pinnacle of fighting during the Intifada was triggered by the overwhelming coverage of the death of Mohammed El-Dura, a 12-year old Palestinian boy who was captured by cameras dying in his father’s arms after being caught in a hail of Israeli bullets (many Israeli activists claim the bullets were in fact from Palestinian gunfire). Within days of his death, commercials were broadcast incessantly calling out to children to "Drop your toys. Pick up rocks." One commercial featured a child actor playing the role of El-Dura. It aired images of the boy in “child heaven,” telling young viewers, “I wave to you not to say goodbye but to say follow me.”

“It was a message of horror,” Marcus insists. “It was a massive brainwash telling children they should be out fighting.” The commercial sparked sharp criticism from the West. US Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke out during a senate hearing on the ramifications of using violent propaganda on Palestinian national television. “How can you think about building a better future, no matter what your political views, if you indoctrinate your children to a culture of death,” she was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying in November 2003.

Many Palestinians saw the issue differently. “How do you objectively report Israelis shooting and killing children?” questions independent parliamentarian Abu Amr, angrily. “Yes, there are certain things that go beyond the definition of national struggle, but ultimately, this is a conflict. People are killing each other. People are exercising aggressive measures. What do you expect a people under occupation to do?”

As the back-and-forth attacks continued, Israeli forces retaliated against the voice of the people—the Palestinian media. Even in the early days of the Intifada, the PBC was the site of several attacks by Israeli forces. In October 2000, PBC officials allege Israeli soldiers broke into their Ramallah headquarters, stealing files and equipment and placing explosives in the building. The station, as a result, was blown off the air for a day in October 2000. Two months later, the network was incapacitated for one month following a shelling by an Israeli Apatchi.

On January 18, 2002, Al Aqsa Martyrs Bridages, the military wing of Fatah, claimed responsibility for a deadly massacre on Jewish guests at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera that left six people dead and more than 30 wounded. The next day, Israeli soldiers once again left retaliatory explosives in the PBC headquarters, destroying several floors of the building. For one week, the PBC was once again off the air. On February 26, PBC’s deputy coordinator Maher Al-Rayyes was the first to broadcast a message during experimental transmissions. “Sons of Arafat know very well how to start from nothing; no one will mute the Palestinian voice,” he said.

It was not until mid-2004 that the Palestinian media toned down the messages of militancy and began to air programs having nothing to do with the conflict with Israel. By early 2005, networks had resumed regularly scheduled broadcasts. For Palestinians, it was a time to rebuild. So much had been lost during the years of the Second Intifada and just as the media was a tool in the struggle, it now had to rise to the challenge of being a tool for the future.

Changing Tides

No one really knew for sure whether the Palestinian people would actually get to vote in the first parliamentary elections in a decade, scheduled for January 25, 2006. For starters, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had fallen deathly ill from complications from an earlier stroke. His incapacitation cast a cloud of uncertainty on a number of issues, including the future of the Palestinians. Having orchestrated the withdrawal from Gaza only months earlier, the only party expected to carry out Sharon’s vision was the centrist Kadima party, headed by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Consequently, the issue of voting in East Jerusalem remained a concern for Israeli authorities until the last minute. President Mahmoud Abbas had vowed to postpone the elections so long as Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were excluded. In an eleventh hour decision, members of the Knesset chose to permit Palestinians to vote in the old city’s Arab quarter at a post office alongside the historic Damascus gate on the condition that Hamas could not campaign in Jerusalem. All the while, more than a dozen political parties battled it out in the West Bank and Gaza for a place in Palestine’s newly established 132-seat parliament.

Each political party was allotted 30 minutes per night during the campaign period to present their case to people living in the war-torn territories although Fatah and its biggest rival, the Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement, were the predetermined favorites among the people. Still, as incumbents, Fatah officials admit they had an advantage. “There was no direct Fatah propaganda except during the allotted half hour,” Shaath affirms. “Whether we like it or not, however, some of the speakers invited to speak on different shows were Fatah, so I wouldn’t say it was a 100 percent disappearance of Fatah.” Kabha confirms: “The elections were a good opportunity for politicizing the image of Palestine, but official television showed all issues through the image of Fatah.”

Election Day created a media frenzy not just for the domestic networks – which at that point had sprung up all across the two territories – but for the international media community as well. The death of Yasser Arafat more than a year earlier combined with the withdrawal from Gaza and the political participation of Hamas had sparked newfound international interest in the Palestinian cause. Yet the frenzy would not really begin until the announcement that Hamas would walk away with more than half the seats in parliament. Suddenly, a story that had grown into monotonous back-and-forth negotiations between the Fatah-run PA and the Israeli government formalized into a diplomatic rivalry between neighbors.

Palestinian Television in the Hamas Age

“The question now is will Hamas make positive changes for TV?” says Kabha. “Before, there was so much corruption, no transparency. The people saw this and decided for themselves.”

With Hamas earning an unprecedented 56 percent of the reformatted parliament, the people of Palestine are bracing for drastic changes. After assuming an official role in government, Hamas was immediately forced to make a decision regarding its stance toward Israel. So long as the group promoted messages of anger and armed resistance via its airwaves against the Jewish state, it could risk hurling any future of a permanent Palestinian state into permanent limbo.

“We’ve seen a rise in violent clips—clips with a little more hatred in the messages being broadcast in the past few months,” says Marcus. “By the time of the elections, Palestinian television was showing more variety—children’s programs, sports. Now so-called education programs dealing with ‘historical’ programs are bringing academics talking about why Israel has no right to the land, about the delegitimization of Israel.” 

Despite its militant reputation, Hamas’ commitment to civic responsibility over the years – particularly in Gaza – has paid off in the form of overwhelming support in the last election. Officials with the new government say the Palestinian media will serve as a mouthpiece, reflecting a side of Hamas not commonly known to the outside world. “It is not to our advantage to broadcast messages against Israel or America,” notes Youssef Rezqa, Palestine’s new Minister of Information under Hamas. “We want to correct the international image of Hamas through the media. There is so much about Hamas that has been forgotten because of this political panic.”

Freedom of the press remains a concern – though by no means does this make the Palestinian territories an exception in the region. About one month after Hamas officially took office, the Palestinian Journalists’ Union reported alleged death threats to seven Gaza-based journalists. The threats – received by telephone, email and fax – were said to have been signed by Hamas. Several Palestinian reporters have been beaten over coverage of the Fatah government in the past, and a journalist who ran a government-funded magazine was killed in 2004. Regional impediment to free speech and reporting is frequent and journalists across the region often suffer disciplinary action with regard to negative coverage of ruling regimes – regardless of whether or not it is true.

Meanwhile, as noted at the beginning of the article, Hamas enticed international audiences with the debut of its own official channel, Al Aqsa just prior to the January elections. In 2003, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority had granted Hamas a broadcasting license for radio and television in Gaza. The Voice of Al Aqsa, as it was called, would quickly become the most popular radio station in the Gaza strip. It took another two years for the group to establish its television network. Modeled after Hezbollah’s Al Manar satellite network in Lebanon, Al Aqsa broadcasts from a secret location in Gaza to homes in the two territories. Israeli satellites do not show the Hamas-run network.

Prior to its cancellation, Al Aqsa served as a window into a world Hamas supporters say is greatly misunderstood. Children’s programs featured dancing actors in larger than life fuzzy animal costumes, singings songs that would appeal to children anywhere. The network featured cultural and “historical” programs which served as a mouthpiece for a group that has been suppressed even by the Palestinian government under Fatah. After Hamas’s stunning victory in January’s election, Al Aqsa has begun experimental transmissions, according to Rezqa, but remains limited to an extent since the media is still under the auspice of the president.

Hamas says it is the responsibility of the new government to establish guidelines for “appropriate” programming as based on the conservative demands of society. “Some foreign music videos, for example, we feel are against our morals,” explains Ghazi Hamed, editor in chief of Hamas’s El Rasala (the Message) newspaper and spokesman for the Islamic party. “We want to put a frame that the media is not just for entertainment but to educate the people. It’s a cultural weapon. It talks of our morals, of our national struggle against Israel.”

Under Palestinian law, the President remains the highest authority over the public media. Fatah officials are concerned, however, that when President Mahmoud Abbas goes through parliament to pass any legislation related to the media, his minority faction will not get a word in edgewise. “There will probably be a struggle,” admits Shaath. “I think Hamas will try to take over the radio and television from the president. Even when the president tries to implement laws, they will be stopped by parliament if Hamas doesn’t like them.”

As for funding, the PA’s largest donor—the European Union—has granted emergency funds as the United States threatens to freeze financial transfers to the Hamas-run PA. In theory, the money will go directly to support welfare issues, particularly to those in Gaza who are in dire need of assistance. Shaath says that funding to the media in recent years has come directly from the Palestinian authority. Not so, say Hamas authorities, who claim they will turn to the other Arab nations for help. “It is shameful for the Palestinians to submit. Our morals and values are more important than money,” says Hamed. “If we get assistance, great, but it doesn’t mean we should obey their demands. I think we can recruit money from other sources, from the other Arab and Muslim countries.”

Regardless of the source of funding, Hamas now has the opportunity to present itself in a new light. If their televised messages reflect their hostility, it could jeopardize progress that has been made in the struggle for peace. Says Kabha: All in due time. “I think we will see changes step by step.”

About Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama is a senior correspondent for the Egyptian Daily Star. She also freelances as a field producer for the Associated Press Television Network (APTN). Until December 2003, Vivian was the producer for NBC News. Before NBC, she worked for WPRI-TV in Providence, Rhode Island as a producer and reporter. She started her career as an assistant producer for CBS News Documentary Unit and as a freelancer for her hometown newspaper. Vivian is a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey with a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Theatre.

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