Local Radio Stations, on the front line

With electricity becoming a rare commodity in Gaza strip, and Israel's relentless air assaults over the last seven days, an older media form gains momentum, serving as the primary news source for the Strip's residents. Menassat's Olfat Haddad writes about local radio stations and their role in reporting the war on Gaza - a role that will become increasingly important as Israeli ground troops move into northern the Gaza Strip.
Although radio towers like this one in Gaza are being targeted by Israel, radio has been the most consistent outlet for news in the Strip these last seven days. ©IMEMC

GAZA CITY, January 3, 2009 (MENASSAT) - "Breaking news, dear listeners, Israeli warplanes just bombed a target in the Tal-el-Hawa area, west of Gaza, more details as soon as we get in touch with our reporter on the scene". This is how one local radio station – unnamed for safety’s sake - started its coverage of an Israeli air raid west of Gaza City.

Less than 2 minutes later, I heard the reporter's voice coming through the airwaves saying, "Yes in fact the Israeli air raid targeted a mosque in Tal-el-Hawa completely destroying it, after hitting it with four missiles- there are definitely casualties...we'll confirm with medical sources and give you the details as soon as we get them…"

Local Palestinian radio stations operating on the FM waves have become a sort of last resort for Palestinians to get information about targeted locations, amounts of damage and number of casualties from Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages - all of which is poised to get worse as the Israel military moves into the northern Gaza Strip.

These radio stations, with their modest capacities, compared to the reach of other media, have been reporting extensively and comprehensively all over the Gaza Strip, from north to south, 24 hours a day non-stop, since the beginning of the Israeli attack began on December 27.

Despite repeated threats of bombing by the Israeli air force, the radio crews have not backed down, instead, they evacuated their locations and are moving around in mobile units equipped for transmission, working from anywhere, under any circumstances.

I've heard the tired voices of the radio broadcasters on the airwaves, doing their professional best to get the most practical information to those hiding in their homes from the regular crush of missile fire.

Ironically, journalists like me totally rely on these FM stations for exact bombing locations, casualty estimates, news of incoming aid supplies, and medical information. Photographers stake their reputations on their broadcasts: where’s the next shot?

You can’t help but hear the scratchy, at times frantic radio broadcasts booming out of the driver’s cabs of ambulances and fire-trucks as paramedics and firemen from local stations guide themselves to bombing sites through a combination of sound sources – CB radios and FM radio tuners.

Like soldiers on the front lines, I’ve seen Gazan radio correspondents risking a chance of  being hit with Israeli missiles just to arrive on the scene before anyone else.

And what has surprised me and many of colleagues is that partisan affiliations have disappeared in the field, especially for radio reporters. In truth, you wouldn't know who is Hamas and who is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) or who is Islamic Jihad – with the tragedy unfolding in front of them, they are driven to get the information and broadcast it on perhaps the cheapest and most accessible of all of the various forms of media. 

The Israeli military has targeted some radio stations like the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa radio links, and most stations that have been targeted have either re-started their radio signals or other stations have been there to pick up the slack - continuing to bring people the news.

As well, the Israeli attacks have not always been military in nature. Since day one of the Israeli air assaults, the Israeli military has been hijacking the airwaves - broadcasting misinformation about the facts on the ground as part of a psychological operations campaign directed at all Gazans. “Anyone hiding weapons in their home is a target of the Israeli army,” said one recent Israeli broadcast – adding to the fear that Gazans have of not knowing where the next missile will strike.

So I see and hear this battle over the airwaves as being a battle of will to pass through this period with dignity – and the FM radio stations in Gaza have been helping to win this battle.