Propaganda war for hearts and minds of Palestinians
Hamas and Fatah are wrestling for media control as a means of legitimising their policies, writes Ben Lynfield
Leaders of the radical Hamas movement, which controls the Palestinian cabinet, complain of an unpleasant experience every morning: scrutinising the Palestinian newspapers and the official Palestinian radio station to find that - despite their overwhelming electoral majority - the Hamas viewpoint is given short shrift.
So it was last weekend, when the al-Hayat al-Jadida daily newspaper reported on its front page the 'confessions' aired on Jordanian Television of three men the station identified as Hamas members involved in weapons smuggling and a plan to target Jordanian officials and tourists.
There's much at stake in the Jordanian accusations, which depict Hamas as a movement undermining the stability of other countries at a time when the Hamas-led government is battling for survival and recognition in the face of an international aid freeze that has left it unable to pay the salaries of 150,000 government workers. Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, doesn't have a track record of exporting its violent jihad, or 'sacred struggle', beyond the borders of Israel and the occupied territories. It has strongly denied the Jordanian claims. 'They are a lie no one can believe,' Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman told the Associated Press.
But such denials were nowhere to be found in al-Hayat al-Jadida, which ran an accompanying article on the presentation by Jordanian authorities of 'information and documentation' of Hamas weapons smuggling.
Al-Hayat al-Jadida is owned by the Palestine Investment Fund, which is in turn controlled by Hamas' rival, the moderate Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah movement. Another daily, al-Ayyam, is edited by Akram Haniya, an adviser to Mr Abbas. The third and largest daily, al-Quds, also generally gives more prominent coverage to Mr Abbas and Fatah than to the cabinet, independent analysts say.
'There is a sort of bias,' said Danny Rubinstein, veteran Palestinian affairs analyst for Israel's Haaretz newspaper. 'The media gives more space to Hamas than it did before the election, but not the amount they deserve as the elected majority.'
Switching on the Voice of Palestine radio station offers little consolation to Hamas leaders. While the Hamas viewpoint is always given on its popular Yawm Jadid (New Day) morning news show, pro-Fatah guests invariably outnumber Hamas representatives, according to Hani Masri, a columnist for al-Ayyam who ran as an independent in the January elections and sometimes appears on the show.
Tensions between Fatah and Hamas have been rising since Hamas defeated Fatah in January's legislative elections and Mr Abbas asserted his broad constitutional powers in the face of the first Hamas-run cabinet, led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.
The two groups have been struggling over control of the security forces. The rivalry boiled over into clashes that killed three and injured 20 in Gaza last week, raising fears of civil war. The street violence was accompanied by media warfare, with Hamas using its popular internet sites to blame Fatah for the clashes and Fatah using the Palestinian news agency, Wafa, to similarly accuse Hamas. Fatah is relatively weak on the internet.
In April, days after Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal infuriated Fatah by speaking of Palestinians plotting against the government, the pro-Hamas Palestinian Information Centre (PIC) website ran an article elaborating on that theme. It quoted what it claimed was a Fatah source as saying three key Fatah figures in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, Samir Masharawi and Rashid Abu Shbak, had agreed on assassinations of Hamas and Palestinian Authority figures, 'with the goal being to show that the government cannot control the security situation'.
Last week, the PIC highlighted statements by Hamas MP Yassir Mansour about a fire at the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah, attributed widely to an electricity fault. Mr Mansour said the blaze might have been part of a plot by 'conspiratorial agents', a veiled reference to Fatah elements.
Simultaneously, on Wafa, unnamed Fatah leaders in Gaza were quoted as saying that the Hamas government's refusal to endorse an Arab League peace plan 'serves the Israeli government by enabling it to say there is no Palestinian partner' for peace talks.
The 2002 plan calls for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel inside its pre-1967 borders. Arguing that the 'entire national project is in danger of being erased', the Fatah leaders called for allying with other factions and 'for the entire homeland to actively muster pressure on Hamas'.
The PIC has been at the forefront in defending the government's refusal to recognise Israel, even at the cost of losing foreign funding and not being able to pay Palestinian Authority employees. 'Yes to hunger, no and a thousand nos to submission,' it wrote.
Hafez Barghouthi, editor of al-Hayat al-Jadida, dismissed the Hamas charges of media bias. 'We also publish articles in favour of Hamas, but what we've found is that they're very sensitive to criticism, they don't want another opinion voiced.'
After Hamas' electoral victory, Mr Abbas issued a presidential decree placing the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority under the president's control, a major sore point for Hamas. 'We've told him many times that the television and radio should be under the government's control,' cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamed said. 'We want the media to be independent.'
Mohammed Abu Tir, a senior Hamas leader, said: 'The television and radio do not express the opinion of the Palestinian people. They represent a particular angle.'
Anger at Mr Abbas' continued hold of much of the media is just part of a larger Hamas frustration. Because of a system in which the presidency carries the heaviest weight, their parliamentary majority has not translated into complete or even decisive political clout.
Still, in the battle for minds, Hamas enjoys a major advantage in that it has a huge influence over mosques, and Friday sermons by preachers sometimes voice Hamas accusations of a Fatah conspiracy. Fatah leaders, for their part, charge that the latest Gaza violence was caused by Hamas 'incitement' against the movement in mosques.
'Neither side has a real majority [among the population], they're about equal in strength and each side must give up a bit,' said Mr Masri, the al-Ayyam columnist. 'Fatah must stop believing that it will return to power if Hamas falls and accept partnership. Hamas must change its programme and recognise the Arab League plan. Without concessions, there might be no other path than civil war.'