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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The recent fighting between Hamas and Fatah did not just play out in the streets of the Gaza Strip. The rival groups also pummeled each other over the airwaves, calling each other's fighters "mercenary death squads," "child killers" and even "Zionists."
The harsh rhetoric, coupled with the stations' ability to quickly rally their armed supporters in the streets, has led to fears that the local disc jockeys could fan the flames of the recent violence into a full-blown of civil war.
"If we wanted, we could burn down Gaza," said a smiling Ibrahim Daher, director of Aksa Radio, the voice in Gaza of the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Hamas and Fatah have been locked in a power struggle since the Islamic group won legislative elections last January, gaining control of most of the Palestinian government from the long-ruling Fatah. The tensions have routinely erupted into fighting, most recently earlier this month after a drive-by shooting killed the children of a senior security official loyal Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. That round of fighting killed 17 people.
During two weeks of violence, Hamas' Aksa Radio and Fatah's Radio Shabab enraptured listeners as they reported fierce clashes and angry marches, and gave airtime for their respective leaders to abuse their opponents. Callers routinely incited loyalists against rivals.
On Radio Shabab, callers described Hamas gunmen as "child killers" - a reference to the drive-by shooting - or as "the mullahs" - a barbed jab at the Islamic group's close ties to Shi'ite Iran.
Hamas' Aksa Radio rarely reported aggression by Hamas gunmen, despite deadly assaults on Fatah targets. The broadcasts regularly labeled opponents as "mercenary death squads" and "coup plotters."
One senior Hamas official called his rivals "Zionists" - a virtual death sentence in Gaza's militantly anti-Israel society. In another report, an Aksa correspondent reported - falsely - that Fatah gunmen were firing at their own supporters in the southern town of Khan Younis.
"Radios play at incitement," said Daher. "There's no neutral radio in Gaza, it's all factional."
Even so, Daher and all the other stations said they tried not to incite people against each other.
Ibrahim Abu Naja, head of a mediation committee that got Hamas and Fatah to halt fighting, saw things differently, saying radio was capable of inflaming passions to the point of civil war. Many times, Abu Naja said, he demanded that radio stations tone down their rhetoric.
"We are aware of how major a role radio plays in creating tensions and provoking fighting," he said.
The medium had traditionally played a far different role in radio-crazy Gaza, where 15 stations vie for the ears of 1.4 million Palestinians living on a narrow strip of Mediterranean coastline. The programs go beyond the traditional music and news shows, providing crucial services in Palestinian society.
One of the most popular shows is a call-in program for families of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. The programs link families with their imprisoned relatives, and the conversations are often heart wrenching. Children tell their imprisoned fathers they're behaving well. Tearful mothers remind their sons to dress warmly, while gravelly voiced fathers send greetings. The conversations often bring the radio hosts to tears.
More recently, radio has also become an effective weapon in the battle against Israel. In November, after Israel ordered a Hamas commander to evacuate his house, saying it would be bombed in 15 minutes, Aksa Radio came to the rescue.
It called on people to flock to the house to prevent the bombing. Crowds gathered on the roof, and the house was saved. The tactic was used to save four other targeted houses.
With a lull in the recent infighting, the radio stations have toned down as well. But with no political solution in sight, the radios may yet wage another battle.
"Radio is in every house, every car and every street. It can cause a revolution or quell one. That's a dangerous role," said Salah al-Masri, director of Al-Quds Radio, funded by the radical Islamic Jihad.
"I bet you, in a few hours, I can orchestrate a protest. The question is what kind. We can launch a protest against the Israeli occupation, or at (Abbas), or fire rockets," he said.
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