GAZA CITY — Outside a darkened radio studio on a Tuesday afternoon, it was five minutes to showtime. And the Hamas media man had just arrived.
Ibrahim Daher, director of Hamas-controlled al-Aqsa radio, peered into the studio, where an announcer chattered into a microphone. Images of masked men firing rockets and machine guns flashed on nearby computers and televisions. Everything, Daher said, looked perfect.
“This is our new studio, where we now do all of our broadcasts,” said Daher, who has steered al-Aqsa’s news coverage in the Gaza Strip for more than a decade. “During the war, an Israeli missile destroyed our old station — the second time Israel has targeted us — so we had to move here. The Israelis try to destroy al-Aqsa, but they cannot.”
The al-Aqsa media operation — which includes a TV station, a production company and a Web site — has massaged and promulgated the Hamas narrative since the days of the second Palestinian uprising and today represents one of the most resilient aspects of the movement. While budget deficits have devastated other parts of the Hamas-led Gaza government, its media wing has hummed from breezy offices overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
In radio-crazy Gaza, where more than a dozen local stations compete for the ears of 1.8 million residents, the airwaves carry the emotional and political rhythms of life. But no other station has the reach and influence of al-Aqsa, which is essentially Gaza’s official state media, analysts said. During Hamas’s recent war with Israel, it was the go-to source for news. And now, as Israel and Hamas wage a media war over the conflict’s winners and losers, the al-Aqsa team appears to have kicked into overdrive.
“Hamas is very good at media,” said Gaza political analyst Talal Okal. “People listen to them every day, and every day they speak frankly and fondly about Hamas. Because of the radio and television, many people believe in Hamas.”
But, he added, al-Aqsa doesn’t reflect all the facts — just those that make Hamas look good.
In the eyes of many Palestinians, Hamas looks very good right now. A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed a surge in Hamas’s popularity after the conflict, which killed more than 2,100 Gazans and more than 70 Israelis. Despite the uneven death toll, 79 percent of Palestinians said Hamas had won the war.
Whether al-Aqsa can claim credit for that is unclear.
“There’s a tremendous emotional component to living in a place like Gaza during a war,” said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now that it’s right after the war, those numbers” may drop.
But Daher, behind a broad oak desk on a recent day, predicted Hamas’s public approval would last — thanks in part to al-Aqsa.
“We believe we are the leading reason behind Hamas’s popularity,” he said. “In any Hamas action, we spread the word about it and then stop any rumors about the party. Many people listen to us across the Gaza Strip.”
Al-Aqsa’s strategy for covering news is simple, Daher said. “Our policy has always been to keep silent about certain news.”
“If there was bad news during the war, or something went wrong, we just kept silent about it,” he said. “And now we mostly keep silent about the blockade, and that Hamas wasn’t able to lift it during the war,” he added, referring to Israel’s partial siege of Gaza.
And although Daher didn’t acknowledge it, al-Aqsa has historically carried more-militant themes as well.
In late 2006, months before Hamas violently seized power in Gaza and kicked out Fatah, the Palestinian political faction that governs the West Bank, the strip seethed with unrest. On al-Aqsa radio, Hamas called Fatah members “mercenary death squads” and “coup plotters.” And Fatah called Hamas “child killers.” Onlookers feared that the rhetoric could incite a civil war.
“If we wanted, we could burn down Gaza,” Daher told the Associated Press then. “Radios play at incitement. There’s no neutral radio in Gaza; it’s all factional.”
Once Hamas — an Islamist group that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization — seized control of Gaza, al-Aqsa took aim at Israel in a children’s television program called “Tomorrow’s Pioneers.” Critics say the show, which featured a Mickey Mouse-inspired character, was a thinly veiled attempt to incite violence against Israelis.
Such programs have given fuel to pro-Israel think tanks, such as the Middle East Media Research Institute, that scour Palestinian media for what they say is terrorism propaganda. Pro-Palestinian groups also scrutinize the Israeli media for bias.
During the recent conflict, that long-simmering media clash reached full boil.
While Israel compared Hamas to the Islamic State, al-Aqsa TV broadcast a slick music video that rollicked through several frames of rockets, masked fighters and bedraggled Israelis. “Exterminate the cockroach nest,” Hamas singers crooned in Hebrew. “Expel all the Zionists. . . . Rain upon them many rockets. Make their world into a horror.”
In Gaza City, al-Aqsa radio broadcast segments that encouraged Gazans to endure the fighting — until an Israeli airstrike destroyed its studios.
Some Gazans said they derived hope from al-Aqsa’s reports, but others doubted their veracity.
“We aren’t supernatural human beings,” local journalist Abeer Ayyoub said. “We’re normal, and they put a lot of pressure on us to continue fighting. . . . We were very tired.”
That sentiment reflects the complexities in Gaza, where several residents expressed pride over Hamas’s willingness to fight Israel but were embittered by the war’s lack of results.
Amna Abu Harbeed said al-Aqsa radio couldn’t obfuscate Gaza’s harsh realities: high unemployment, widespread destruction and dim prospects for change.
“This wasn’t a victory at all, like Hamas says,” she said on the crowded street below al-Aqsa’s studios. “This was a defeat. What did Hamas liberate? Nothing! We lost a lot, and this was a disaster for the Palestinian people.”
Daher conceded that Gaza has significant problems. But he said that doesn’t mean al-Aqsa needs to talk about it.
“The main thing we stress is the activity of the resistance, and how much people support it,” Daher said. “We aren’t interested in showing other things, like any success by the Israelis or how businesses were hurt by the war, or Gazans who have fled the city because of it.”
He thought for a moment. “We choose what we cover.”