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Chronicling a surge in violence, and keeping Hamas in the picture

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GAZA CITY >> The presenters at the Hamas-run Al Aqsa satellite channel have ditched their gray suits for black pants and hoodies, emulating the look of demonstrators in the occupied West Bank.

The channel has even converted its studio set to look like a West Bank protest site: There is a mural of Israel’s concrete separation barrier, complete with barbed wire, and of a pile of flaming tires spewing smoke.

In times of crisis, Palestinians have flipped to Hamas’ mouthpiece station for their news, even though it broadcasts out of Gaza City, far from the action of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flaring in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

And so Al Aqsa TV has edged itself closer to the conflict, at least visually, and is broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage as a way for the Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza, to remain relevant even as it prevents local militants from joining the fray by firing rockets into Israel and risking another escalation here. It is also a way for Hamas to challenge its long-standing rival, Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, whose security coordination with Israel is frequently criticized on Aqsa programs.

"The chief engine of the intifada is not Hamas," Raji al-Hams, the host of the evening political program "This Is Palestine," said, "but we are a supporting column."

All of Al Aqsa’s programming these days is devoted to chronicling the stabbings, vehicular attacks and clashes with Israeli forces that have surged in the West Bank, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities since the start of October.

In the past six weeks, Al Aqsa has blared from isolated Gaza into places like the Bethlehem living room of Iman Hassan, a housewife who in quieter times prefers Turkish soap operas, and Ayman Halawani’s electronics store in East Jerusalem.

"It shows the truth about what is happening while also encouraging people to go out and fight the occupation," Halawani said. "You really feel very nationalistic after watching it for a while."

There are no reliable ratings of Palestinian television viewership in the past month. But Khaled Shbair, director of the station’s new-media department, said that since the uprising began in October, the number of daily visitors to its website had increased 20 percent, to 120,000.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that during the summer-long battle between Israel and Gaza Strip militants last year, a quarter of all Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem said they watched Al Aqsa. That was more than the 20 percent who reported tuning in to the channel run by the Palestinian Authority, and double the viewership of Ma’an, a respected independent outlet. (In quieter times, like this past September, 15 percent said they watched Al Aqsa.)

The Gaza-based station, with a budget of $5 million from donors its operators would not identify, has become more influential as Israel and the Palestinian Authority have pressured West Bank broadcasters to tone down their reporting. The Israeli military authorities recently shuttered the Hebron-based Radio Hurriya, and the Palestinian Authority closed the West Bank office of the London-based newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed for asserting that the Palestinian government had detained people for protesting against Israel.

Yossi Kuperwasser, who recently left Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, where he was in charge of monitoring the Palestinian news media, said that to describe Al Aqsa’s programming "as incitement is downgrading how grave the situation is."

An Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do otherwise, said he recently tuned in to the channel and saw a studio guest praise a woman who tried to stab an Israeli security guard in East Jerusalem, then flash a Quranic verse encouraging Muslims to fight.

But he said he had also noticed some effort to tone things down. When youngsters on a children’s show said they wanted to kill Jews, "the host said, ‘Not the Jews, the Zionists,’" he recalled, adding that Hamas’ social media content and Friday sermons were "far more hateful."

!~neIP~!Incitement, of course, is not a one-way street.

Israeli news organizations reported last week that the hawkish website Arutz 7 had added a game to its children’s section called "Beat the Terrorist," in which users are given nunchucks, umbrellas and selfie sticks to beat back attackers dressed in Hamas green and carrying knives, rifles or firebombs. Arutz 7 removed the game — in which players get three lives, represented as Stars of David, and earn 10 points for each kill — but it remains available elsewhere online.

The Al Aqsa channel, founded in 2005 and named for the mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City at the epicenter of the latest violent upsurge, has itself been a focus of tensions. Israeli officials denounce the channel as a prime inciter of violence; Israeli airstrikes have targeted its offices four times, and five cameramen have been killed in the field covering clashes.

Al Aqsa first attracted international criticism in 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza and its weekly children’s show featured a giant rodent named Farfour, who preached in a high-pitched rant against the United States and Israel.

One day recently, presenters tried to keep the drumbeat of war fresh as they broadcast from the new set, which shows a masked Palestinian holding a knife dripping blood over a Star of David. Beneath was a hashtag in Arabic that translates to #theintifadaofjerusalem.

Mohammed Hamza, in a sweatshirt emblazoned with "We Are All Jerusalem" and the required kaffiyeh, took viewer calls on the topic "How Can the Intifada Be Supported?"

"This occupation can be fought with a rock, a knife, a bomb, a rocket — all that," Hamza said as a red banner flashed across the screen with the news that a Palestinian who had tried to run over an Israeli police officer in the West Bank city of Hebron had been shot dead. "And all who can resist, even with their words, in all ways, that is a holy struggle against this occupation."

The bottom-right corner of the screen had a box containing a Star of David that kept exploding to reveal the faces of slain Palestinians.

A woman called to ask that the station broadcast fiery speeches by the masked spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, known as Abu Obeida, saying, "It would give a lot of support to the people in the West Bank." Another viewer raged against Abbas’ government for not participating in the uprising.

Hamza nodded. "We have many embassies and consulates around the world, and they are all absent from their role of defending Palestinians," he said.

"The enemy does not see us as factions," he added, referring to Israel. "He just wants to kill Palestinians."

After his show, there was a foot-stomping song so rousing that one presenter joked that he was worried about stabbings in the studio.

"We are part of this people; we speak in their language; we speak what is in their hearts," Hamza said of the youths fomenting the uprising. "If the occupation wants to call it incitement, fine, it’s incitement. But it’s an occupation that demands that I am hit and killed, and also demands that I sit quietly."

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