A notable gap—in all the recent coverage of Gaza—is news about HAMAS media organs of the most traditional types: radio and TV. It seems likely that their studios in Gaza City are rubble heaps; it seems just as likely that some service airs at some times from hidden locations, mobile transmitters, webpages, or foreign host sites. No one seems to be asking. There is of course interest in social media; there have been informative articles on HAMAS accounts, as on Telegram, the company a Russian exile runs from a well-settled base in Dubai.
“Voice of Al Aqsa” radio got its start two decades ago. HAMAS made its first director Ibrahim Daher, apparently still in charge. The Times of Israel referenced him on 23 January 2023. Al Aqsa TV station, for its part, came online a little later, in early January 2006 just before HAMAS won Gaza-wide elections. It was and is directed by Fathi Hamad, who made statements over his system on 1 December 2023. Both men are thus veteran HAMAS party executives, running what have become government media to an audience who have only limited choices of media and fewer yet politically.
It is apparent that the Al Aqsa stations have effect. HAMAS has been the unflinching governor of two million. Ibrahim Daher once boasted that he aims to make HAMAS look good, and need not report all the facts if they discolor a rosy picture. In Gaza, he argued in 2006, “Radios play at incitement. There’s no neutral radio in Gaza; it’s all factional.” This Al Aqsa radio chief had another revealing boast: “If we wanted, we could burn down Gaza.” He added in a 2014 interview: “The main thing we stress is the activity of the resistance, and how much people support it. We aren’t interested in showing other things…”
Mr. Daher was not out of the official line of march when he said all this to reporters visiting Gaza City; instead, he is among those charged with setting that line. He is exactly the authority figure whose words groom popular views under the Gaza despotism. Like terrorism itself, media policy for HAMAS is deliberate, and a government man like Daher deliberates and checks up the line with the bosses.
So does Fathi Hamad, a former Minister of the Interior and now long in the post of Al Aqsa TV director. On 7 May 2021, he set up a stage near the Israeli border with Gaza and commenced yelling on air, heating up the Palestinian audience while posing with masked guerrillas in HAMAS colors and demonstrating with his left hand how to cut the artery of a Jew with a knife. This is easy enough, he shouted—one can get a knife for only 5 shekels. In dry political science, this passes for “public diplomacy” and “political messaging” by one of the more sophisticated of HAMAS leaders. An outsider must be forgiven if it only reminds him of the ferocious “bladed weapon” paeans and pictures that ISIS/Islamic State made famous. A knife is indeed cheap, and best for murder, because it’s so easily obtained and so omnipresent in so many crafts and trades. Fatih Hamad and HAMAS are “on message” with the Islamic State: ISIS e-magazines have depicted these techniques, and ISIS videos have gloried in the results. HAMAS would not want to miss an opportunity.
Horrid speeches on Al Aqsa TV have been common enough that the U.S. Treasury Department designated this a terrorist entity as far back as 2010, and it remains showing on the 20 Dec. 2023 list. Four years ago, the Netanyahu government officially caught up, branding Al Aqsa television as “terrorist,” which some called irritating or surprising. If there was branding, there has also been bombing: Al Aqsa TV was destroyed by Israel in November of 2008 and again in November of 2018. The “Voice of Al Aqsa” radio was also knocked down by an Israeli missile years ago; the station moved and continued. At moments such as these, having a donor with full pockets (Iran) is the difference between continuing the hot wars of words or falling quiet.
Radio and TV media arms of HAMAS have a direct parallel in Hezbollah, to the north in Lebanon, where Al Nour radio (“The Light”) and Al Manar television (“The Beacon”) have run for decades, reaching throughout the area and gaining international auditors over the world wide web. Poetry, chants, news specials, polemic, suicide bombers’ last will and testament videos, and battle footage are all part of the programing there also. Then too comes the hate speech and provocations, and these have sometimes required the stations to pick up the pieces after a visit by Israeli air power. Doubtless, it is Iran’s famous subsidies that keep Hezbollah media alive.
The fanatics who started this new war by invading Israel are not wholly irrational, however. From TV Al Aqsa, Politburo member Fathi Hamad explained this December 1st that his Palestinians “are now preparing to liberate Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque…preparing to establish the Caliphate, with Jerusalem as its capital.” That policy statement is concise, meaningful, and consistent with the HAMAS charter of 1987/1988 that damns any two-state solution. Iran and Hezbollah are making their own such efforts, for their own caliphate. Of course, were Iran to clear the board in the Middle East and have its way, the naïve Sunni guerrillas and terrorists in Gaza would be exiled as apostates or forcibly converted. And, of course, Shia would be brutally handled if the reverse occurs and Sunnis such as HAMAS, ISIS, and Al Qaeda win. But any talk of “the day after” is presently inconvenient. This is a looming doorway in the Salafist movement globally; it leads downward to dungeons; ISIS alone dares to point to the door and defame the Shia; most Sunni Salafists (such as Al Qaeda and HAMAS) prefer to keep that door closed to view.
Dr. Randall Bowdish, my coauthor in the book The Terrorist Argument (Brookings), had more detail on Hezbollah media and policy in his chapter, but our larger point is underscored by HAMAS activity since the book appeared in 2018: Powerful militant groups use a range of media; social media is only one of them. When a new, higher-tech medium becomes available, it does not mean the disuse of older forms but an addition, frequently. HAMAS has not only social media and radio and TV, but, beginning on the low end of technologies, HAMAS also has these forms of influencing:
- A network of articulate spokesmen. At the moment of the 7 October attacks, Ali Baraka explained on Russian Today TV the two-year preparation for the Gaza massacres and the ingenious factory system underground that makes so many rockets of different types and useful ranges. And he thanked Russia and Iran for their support. HAMAS has good old-fashioned diplomats.
- Public demonstrations and marches, which cost the Gaza government little and are guaranteed good foreign media, as well as theater for their own Al Aqsa stations. As in Cuba, the mass media can get thousands out into the street to rail against foreign “occupation” troops that…well….are not there.
- Interviews, which HAMAS executives such as Khaled Meshal, Ghazi Hamad, and Ismail Haniyeh may do with foreign media. These cost nothing and come with what legitimacy the foreign media channel offers. Then the “spots” can be downloaded for nothing onto social media by HAMAS and endlessly recycled.
- Posters and wall murals that inform, exhort, or glorify a named “martyr.”
- Print media, such as booklets. As one example, “In Memoriam” eulogized a suicide bomber who devastated a Jerusalem bus on 25 February 1996.
- Websites, which are easy to set up and very cheap. In his important book HAMAS, scholar Mathew Levit found at least 20 to be watched, including one directly influencing children. A new report this 19th of October indicates a server in Russia called Iroko Networks is helping. News of three years ago indicated Samak Saraj of HAMAS was directing a cyber warfare center out of Turkey. Its targets included the Palestinian Authority, which is an enemy of HAMAS; PA people were driven out of Gaza with guns as soon as HAMAS won in 2006. Turkey—yes, our NATO ally—has also just now been exposed by The New York Times as a finance base for HAMAS.
Ultimately, Al Aqsa mass media are a strategy, a political and psychological strategy that is common in low-intensity conflict. Al Aqsa TV and radio personalities are rational actors in a long line of such, 20th– and 21st-century militants and terrorists who compete for public opinion and goodwill even as they use shock tactics and blood and theater to demand attention.
Vladimir Lenin started a Russian newspaper, Spark, and the Bolsheviks became as good at self-advertisement and image control as anyone in modern times. In the 1950s, the brilliant polemicist Frantz Fanon wrote radio text for the “Voice of Fighting Algeria” run by the National Liberation Front, and he penned essays for their newspaper El Moudjahid. Malaysian Maoists had a radio studio safe-havened in Hunan, China staffed by as many as a hundred, and the “Voice of Malayan Revolution” broadcast daily between 1969 and 1981. The FMLN, a powerful communist insurgency, rattled El Salvador throughout the 1980s in many ways; one was via airwaves; Radio Venceremos moved about the country with a few personnel and simple mobile transmitters. The Tigers of LTTE ran a TV station for several years, and radio for several decades; before that, Tamil nationalist terror infrastructure saw its safe havens invaded by Sri Lankan military power in 2009, allowing democracy to continue in the little island state.
Christopher C. Harmon is a Professor with The Institute of World Politics and the author of many books about terrorism and counterterrorism.