Talk radio gives Palestinians a voice

Radio shows in Gaza have taken on increased importance since Hamas took over in January.

It's 7:05 on Monday evening, and the engineer at El Shebab radio cues up music with a dark orchestral flourish and a drum march that sounds as if it could have been lifted from the soundtrack of a Hollywood thriller.

It's the intro for "First Class Issue,'' a twice weekly call-in show that is one of the most popular radio programs in the Gaza Strip. Yousef el-Ustaz, a former teacher, introduces the topic of discussion: the economic strain in Gaza and how Palestinians who haven't gotten their salaries in two months are coping.

"If you want to say anything about this," Mr. Ustaz begins in a deep announcing voice that matures him beyond his years, "if you want to give an opinion, if you have a question for our studio guest, you can call us."

With the tension sharpening daily between the Islamist militant group Hamas and the secular, former ruling Fatah Party over how to share power after a January election swept Hamas into power, talk-radio programs like First Class Issue - which airs on a station affiliated with Fatah - are becoming an increasingly influential gauge of sentiment on the street in Gaza.

In the impoverished coastal strip where the threat of anarchy and internecine violence have filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the central government authority, the talk shows give ordinary Palestinians a stage to rant and challenge politicians. The broadcasts figure as a democratic buttress in a society increasingly ruled by the power of the gun, say analysts.

"The radio is colorful, powerful, and influential. People in Gaza don't have an avenue to express their opinion, so these shows give them an opportunity to talk, to shout, and even to insult," said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based economic consultant. "This is good because, via the radio, they learn democracy. When they start to express their opinion and talk, people start to become more aware of the issues on the ground."

Representatives of Hamas and Fatah on Wednesday signed a cease-fire after three gunmen were killed and 12 Palestinians were wounded during two days of clashes in southern Gaza. It was the worst violence since Hamas took over.

In the years since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, pirate radio stations linked to Hamas, Fatah, and Islamic Jihad have become the most important media format, providing real-time accounts of Israeli attacks and offering a mouthpiece to Palestinian in need.

Local radio is unbound by the regulations followed by Voice of Palestine radio and television, and retains a homegrown immediacy that Arab satellite television channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya can't offer.

Back in the studio of El Shabab radio - a station funded by Fatah's Shabeeba youth movement - the telephone lines came to life as the station broke to air a recording of the Islamic evening call to prayer.

"We have no money to pay our rent or our store debts," complained a listener named Abul el-Munid after Ustaz returned from brief pause. "I ask this government to pay the salaries, and if it can't pay the salaries, it must stand for another election."

A second listener accused former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, a Fatah appointee, for laying the seeds of the crisis: "He had a very bad policy during his tenure of taking many loans from the banks, and inflated the expenses of the ministry."

Hosts like Ustaz have become celebrities in a place where the cult of personality is normally reserved for militant "martyrs" assassinated by Israeli or Palestinian strong men.

But the radio host says his fame comes with a disturbing drawback: In recent weeks, he's gotten several death threats. In a place like Gaza, that sort of menace isn't to be taken lightly, so the station's security guards are armed with hand grenades and machine guns. Ustaz says he carries a hand gun and keeps an AK-47 assault rifle at home.

"It's normal for journalists in Gaza to carry guns," he explains. "Some accuse us of spilling gasoline on the fire. But I am broadcasting the problems of Palestinian society and the Palestinian street."

In the months following January's parliamentary vote, the focus of Ustaz's programs has shifted from Israel to the bitter rivalry between Fatah and Hamas.

"Because of the grave situation of the Palestinian Authority, people are eager to raise questions and demands," says Fathy Tobail, a director at the Palestinian State Information Service, a government-affiliated media research office. "And there are no restrictions by the government, unlike other Arab countries. With less control from the government on the radio stations, people become more eager to raise their issues."

According to a year-old survey, Hamas's Al Aqsa Radio channel ranks No. 3 in listeners, behind the two Fatah stations. The radio station has a TV affiliate, and Al Aqsa station manager Raed Abu Dayer says plans are under way to begin a Hamas satellite network.

But Mr. Abu Dayer, who hosts his own talk-radio show, explained that he doesn't consider himself a journalist who chases breaking news. "I am looking to help serve the Islamic media," he says. "We are trying to defend ourselves in this media battle ... and to present our own view through an Islamic perspective."

It's not surprising then, that talk-radio listener allegiances mirror political party loyalty. At a coffee house in Gaza City, Ziyad Abu Beif, a member of the presidential guard, explained why El Ustaz is his favorite show host.

"It's our radio station," he says. "It's the Fatah youth movement."

That's not to say the divide between Islamic radio and Fatah's more secular format is unbridgeable. Nasser Abu Houn, who wears the corporate suit and smile of a TV news anchor, jumped to Islamic Jihad's Al Quds rRdio from a popular talk-radio program at Fatah's Al Huriyeh Radio because of a falling out with a station manager.

Now he steers clear of discussing clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Al Quds program manager Kamal Abu Nasser explained why.

"People are not so mature to discuss these matters on the radio," he says. "At this time, people might start fighting if people begin arguing on the radio."

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