Hamas Launches Television Network

After a sweeping victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, the militant Islamist group Hamas has launched a new TV network. Its programming includes ideologically tinged children's shows, strident news talk, and religiously inspired entertainment.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Fresh from a sweeping victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, the militant Islamist group Hamas has launched a new TV network in the Gaza Strip, al-Aqsa TV. Hamas hopes to expand its reach, including a trace of ideology in its children programming, news talk, and religiously-inspired entertainment.

NPR's Erik Westervelt paid al-Aqsa TV a visit.

ERIK WESTERVELT, reporting:

His children call-in show's a big hit on Hamas's three-year-old radio station, Voice of al-Aqsa. Next month, Hazan Sharawai(ph) plans to bring his show, Paradise Gardens, to Hamas Television. The children's voices are sweet and nice. The words? Well, let's just say it's not Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of children singing)

WESTERVELT: With soul and blood we redeem al-Aqsa, the kids chant happily, referring to the mosque in East Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site. On the path of righteousness, they sing, we'll proceed to al-Aqsa. Known to his fans as Uncle Hazan, Sharawai asked the children what they did on their school break and if they're studying hard in school. He encourages one little girl, you can be anything you want. How are you, doctor? But then, Uncle Hazan's kids' show gets down to business. It's ideological time. Who do you support for parliament? Hazim asks his young callers.

Mr. HAZIM SHARAWI (TV Personality, al-Aqsa TV, Gaza): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child (Caller to TV Show): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SHARAWI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Who do you want for the elections? The dark and the handsome? he asks. No! We want the honest and the strong, the child says, her mother audible in the background, feeding her lines. The good person, the child adds. Vote for the ones who pray and help the poor.

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SHARAWI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Calling his child callers sprouts of faith, Hazim calls on his kids to quote carry the banner of Islam, the right path, to respond to the aggressors, a code word for Israel.

Mr. SHARAWI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: C'mon kids, we want to create a world revolution and spread Islam and the word of God. This soft-spoken, 27-year-old grew up in a Hamas run mosque where he eventually taught children to read the Koran. A few years ago people told Sharawi he was good with kids. Soon, a Hamas radio star was born. In his new TV studio, Hazim says he wants all Hamas children to know quote "the true map of our homeland which includes land now in Israel."

Mr. SHARAWI: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SHARAWI: (Through translator) Because, you know, Israelis, our enemies, are trying to bring a false picture about what is our homeland, so we tell the child that Jerusalem's ours as Haifa and Gaza, and there are lots of refugees in the diaspora because of the occupation occupies our land.

WESTERVELT: Sharawi's show is so popular in Gaza, he says a potato chip and a candy company have asked Uncle Hazim for his endorsement. His appearance at Hamas rallies draws thousands of kids. So far, al-Aqsa television broadcasts only eight to twelve hours a day. There are Koranic readings followed by cartoons, religious lessons and some strident political programming promoting Hamas candidates and the group's network of charities. Hamas TV director Fathi Hammad calls this the station's experimental period but he has big plans for all kinds of shows. There's what you might call Hamas' version of American Idol, something called A Night on the Air in which loyal Hamas kids will compete to sing the best militant, patriotic song. In a live show where kids battle it out to memorize the Koran, he says, are also in the works. Hammad hopes Hamas's own entertainment shows help change the group's image.

Mr. FATHI HAMMAD (Director, al-Aqsa Television, Gaza City): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. HAMMAD: (Through translator) To change the perspective about us among the world, believing that we are terrorists. We will prove to them that we are people under occupation, resisting and struggling to get his rights and not as selfish terrorist people.

WESTERVELT: Hammad says al-Aqsa eventually plans a wider satellite feed to spread the Hamas message across the entire Middle East. It already faces stiff competition from al-Manar, the TV network of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Islamist movement. Hezbollah's satellite channel has broadcast from Lebanon for years. Palestinian analyst Selah Abdul Shaffi(ph) sees Hamas's TV station as a sign the group is changing, moderating and seeking political legitimacy.

Ms. SELAH ABDUL SHAFFI (Palestinian Analyst): Hamas having TV station and planning to have a satellite TV station, this is not Hamas that is willing to continue arms struggle. They know Apaches within 15 minutes, they can knock down their TV station, so this is a party that's preparing itself to establish visible, above-the-ground institutions.

WESTERVELT: But to many Israelis, Hamas TV is just another attempt by an unreconstructed terrorist group to whitewash its image. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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