Al-Aqsa: Palestine's defiant TV channel
Branded by some as a terrorist channel for its anti-Israeli messaging, Al-Aqsa TV’s buildings in Gaza are consistently bombed and its journalists targeted in every conflict with Israel. Established in 2005, it continues to operate from temporary offices since its headquarters were destroyed in 2014 by an Israeli airstrike. From this base it has an impressive viewership spanning much of the Arab world and North Africa.
Mohamed Thuraya is the head of Al-Aqsa and is therefore responsible for content. He is defiant on the accusations of anti-Israel bias. “We need to show the free world our issue with Israel, to show them the truth; to show them what is going on here,” he says. “If we didn’t have occupation, the message of our channel would change completely.”
Thuraya, who has worked at the channel for 10 years, and led the operation for the last three, has a team of 500 people working across Al-Aqsa media’s business units. This comprises a TV station and radio station, Shehab News Agency and a cable channel that directs its messages to prisoners held in Israeli prisons. The station used to have reporters based in territories around the MENA region, but due to harassment and arrest most of its workforce is predominantly Gaza-based.
The organisation has three missions, Thuraya explains: to ask people to stay in their lands, to activate personal resistance, and to remind global Palestinian refugees to remember their land and their “right of return”. Thuraya creates daily schedules according to what’s happening around the country. The most popular segment, “Palestine Today”, discusses political issues facing the territory. It has religious shows, hourly news bulletins, a programme for women in Palestine, and one highlighting Israeli media coverage on Palestine.
Mohamed Thuraya, General Manager of the Al Aqsa TV station photographed in his office.
Al-Aqsa’s dedicated channel for prisoners held by Israel, some of whom have access to cable TV, sends messages of support to the inmates, and broadcasts programmes on how to be patient, how to conduct hunger strikes, and how to cope with life in prison. It also films and airs footage of their families so they can remain connected. Another part of keeping up the morale of prisoners is to broadcast the weekly prisoner protest at the International Red Cross building in Gaza City.
“We need to show the free world what is going on here” – Mohamed Thuraya
This does lead to some fairly bombastic reporting, as I discover while riding in a car with Al-Aqsa cameraman Ahmed Nsar and his driver on the way to film this protest. The military music playing on the radio includes rocket and bombing sounds, talk of the “liberation” of Jerusalem, destroying Israel and references to the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. Ahmed was injured in the 2014 war, and four Al-Aqsa video journalists were killed. The faces of the dead now adorn posters in the newly renovated office lobby.
When Mohamed Thuraya is asked about last year’s missile strike, he is again resolute in his response. “Israel is hearing our message,” he says. “When they fire at us, when they destroy my buildings, it means my message has reached them. The Israeli occupation knows how to destroy, and we know how to live.”
After Al-Aqsa’s radio building was completely destroyed in 2014 it moved to the dingy low-rise block in Gaza City with no bathroom and the usual issues facing Gaza. These include an intermittent supply of electricity, which averages four to five hours per day. In their offices nobody flinches at the power cuts; the lights go out and a noisy generator kicks back in every five minutes.
Al-Aqsa is the most popular of Gaza’s radio options, employing the most reporters and boasting the widest social media presence. It was established 12 years ago, before Hamas came to power, and currently employs 95 people.
Ibrahim Daher, head of Al-Aqsa radio, also disputes the claim that the station is a tool for Hamas propaganda. He says this stems from its association with Hamas, which the US and Israel have branded a terrorist organisation. (Hamas also part-funds the station, along with private donors from outside Gaza.)
Daher insists Al-Aqsa follows international media regulations. He says they hire journalists who have graduated from universities with good degrees. “This organisation is targeted and bombed. It is a crime and the international community says nothing,” he says.
“ The Israelis are killing us every day, but we are resisting. we are ready for anything. We have a cause, we have a right.” – Mohamed Thuraya
Raji al Hams, head of public relations and also their best-known presenter, is enthusiastically recognised on the streets of Gaza and strongly associated as the face of the channel. He explains the association between Hamas and Al-Aqsa: “We have the resistance thinking, fighting the occupation, which is the result of the bad  Balfour Declaration. This is exactly the Hamas thinking. That’s why some people say Al-Aqsa TV belongs to Hamas, and this is an honour for us.”
This attitude, shared by everyone Esquire speaks with at the station, does of course invite controversy. Todd Gutnick is the director of media relations and public information at The Anti-Defamation League, based in America and founded in 1913, “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all”. Not surprisingly, he believes Al-Aqsa should be labelled a terrorist organisation for producing content that “encourages suicide attacks against Israelis”. He tells Esquire: “In recent years, many Arabic-language TV channels, including Al-Aqsa TV, have become more sophisticated. While there is clear evidence of their promotion of violence and support for terrorism, when they broadcast news, Al-Aqsa TV tries to stick to facts. The bigger problem is with the overall nature of the coverage rather than specific characteristics. Their specials, articles and general attitudes are all based on a profound one-sided and inflammatory anti-Israel narrative.”
Dr Nashat Aqtash from the media department of Birzeit University in Palestine takes a more nuanced view. He explains that “most of the Palestinian media belong to a political party. In this case we, as Palestinian researchers, do not trust any information from such media. But when it comes to facing occupations we have one choice between occupation or Party media. When the choice is to listen to Israeli fabrications and lies or to get information from Al-Aqsa, we trust Al-Aqsa.”
Dr Nabil Dajani, a media studies professor at the American University of Beirut, offers a wider perspective on the problems of reporting on Palestinian issues. “One of the most serious encroachments on the ‘freedom of expression’ in our present time is forcing a global perspective to this term. If someone criticises Israel then they become ‘anti-Semitic’ and if they defend or support a movement struggling for independence from a pro-Western country, they are branded a ‘terrorist’.”
It seems that while the occupation continues, so the messaging of Al-Aqsa will court controversy. “I wish that life in Palestine and in the Gaza strip would be as it is in England, Australia, and the USA. I want to have a country with no problems,” explains Mohamed Thuraya. Unfortunately the conflict is far from any resolution.
“I want to send a message to the world,” he continues.
“The Israelis are killing us every day but we are resisting. Our resistance is not just about shooting and killing; just to stay here in this country is a form of resistance. We are ready for everything; we, the Palestinian people, have nothing to hide. We have a cause, we have a right. We love life, we don’t want to die; death is imposed on us.”