Hizbullah sharpens its weapons in propaganda war

Lebanese guerrilla group's satellite television station has gone 24/7 and plans to broadcast in Hebrew.

BEIRUT

Nineteen months after Hizbullah's fighters succeeded in driving Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon, the Lebanese organization is employing a weapon of a different kind against the Jewish state: a 24-hour satellite television station.

Each day, a familiar collage of images flashes across the screen to the tune of martial music: men dressed in camouflage uniforms waving their rifles in triumph, a funeral procession of chanting Palestinians, Israeli soldiers aiming rifles at stone-throwing Palestinian children. Often there is the distinctive voice of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, vowing the destruction of the "Zionist entity."

The station's name, Al Manar, means the beacon. Every day in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, thousands of Palestinians tune in to Al Manar to receive inspiration and guidance from Hizbullah. The television station represents the only serious challenge to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite station for popularity among the Palestinians. Al Manar's message is simple: "Jihad [holy war] is the only way to salvation and the experience of the Islamic and the Lebanese resistance is the best proof," explains Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy leader. It is a message that Hizbullah's leaders have repeated again and again since the Palestinian intifada began 15 months ago.

Hizbullah's yellow flag flutters alongside banners of mainstream Palestinian groups at funerals and demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians listen avidly to tapes of Sheikh Nasrallah's speeches.

Hizbullah's popularity among the Palestinians stems from its successful 18-year war of attrition against the Israeli army in south Lebanon. Israel's unilateral withdrawal in May 2000 was widely regarded in the Arab world as the first Arab victory against the previously invincible Israelis.

For many Palestinians, wearied by years of seemingly fruitless peace negotiations with Israel, the Hizbullah model of "armed resistance" has enormous popular appeal.

"Al Manar is an important weapon for us," says Nayyef Krayyem, Al Manar's chairman. "It's a political weapon, social weapon, and cultural weapon."

During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended three weeks ago, Al Manar broadcast a historical drama on the life of Ezzieddine al Qassem, an Arab guerrilla leader who fought British and French rule in the 1920s and 1930s. Costing $100,000, "Ezzieddine al-Qassem: A story of Jihad and Resistance" was Al Manar's most ambitious project to date.

The mini-series also has a contemporary context. Ezzieddine al Qassem is the name of the Palestinian Hamas Movement's military wing, and the story of one man's attempt to oust colonial occupiers has a powerful resonance for the besieged Palestinians.

The station produces around 70 percent of its programs, which include talk shows, religious programs, children's shows, and dramas. "We abide by a general policy that our programs should meet Islamic standards," Mr. Krayyem says.

Al Manar's $10 million annual budget, has increased 10-fold since 1991, the year the station was launched. The funds come from institutions and individuals either as payment for commercials or donations. But Krayyem admits that Al Manar's annual losses are huge. "Our investors are not thinking of profits. Their motivation is political and religious," he says, declining to identify them. Despite the losses, the station is building a new million-dollar headquarters in Hizbullah's stronghold in south Beirut.

When the intifada broke out in September 2000, Al Manar increased its hours of broadcast from four a day to 18, and then again to 24 last January.

The station is often the first to break news, relying, according to Krayyem, on a network of Palestinian correspondents, rather than Hizbullah reporters. Breaking news - especially attacks and casualties - are immediately flashed across the bottom of the TV screen.

Since Sept. 11, the US has pressured Lebanon to crack down on Hizbullah, which it views as a terrorist organization. The Lebanese government has refused, arguing that Hizbullah is a political party with a legitimate military wing, which fought Israel's illegal occupation of south Lebanon. Krayyem says that the station broadcasts speeches by Hizbullah leaders defending the party against accusations of terrorism and has closely followed the war in Afghanistan.

Long ago Hizbullah learned the value of propaganda. The organization fought a classic guerrilla war against the Israeli forces, combining prowess on the battlefield with a deft propaganda campaign.

Fighters often videotaped their attacks against Israeli troops. Footage of deadly operations sometimes would appear on Al Manar before the Israeli army had notified the families of the dead.

"These videos had a huge psychological effect, not just on Israeli soldiers, but also on Israeli civilians," says Hassan Ezzieddine, the head of Hizbullah's media relations department. "They helped create a climate in Israel for demanding a withdrawal from south Lebanon."

In 1996, Al Manar also began broadcasting clips in Hebrew, addressing Israeli soldiers and civilians and warning them of the dangers of staying in south Lebanon.

The Hebrew Observation Department monitors Israeli broadcasts and studies the Hebrew press online. The information is distributed to Al Manar editors for inclusion in broadcasts. Al Manar has plans to launch a daily Hebrew news program.

Hizbullah believes that to destroy one's enemy, it is essential to understand that enemy first. "We are in a very real conflict with the Israeli enemy," Mr. Ezzieddine says. "Consequently, we must realize and understand the nature of this enemy.... The more we know them, the more we know their weak points. This makes it easier for us to confront them."

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