In October, a popular video-sharing website abruptly shut down. Notices circulated on the Web explained that the site’s operators had been forced offline but were “making necessary arrangements” to relaunch. That was unwelcome news to some of AqsaTube’s most devoted followers, however.
Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center had been monitoring and reporting on AqsaTube, pressuring its Internet service provider at the time, the French company OVH, to cut off the site because of its alleged ties to terrorism.
AqsaTube’s logo and modular design unabashedly ape its namesake, YouTube. But while the business model is unoriginal, this imitation’s selling point is its unique theme: Palestinian resistance. The other half of AqsaTube’s name evokes various emblems of the movement: the al-Aqsa mosque, Hamas’ television network al-Aqsa TV, or the West Bank’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
The site is mainly in Arabic with an occasional smattering of English, such as a fuzzy subtitled video of a resistance fighter threatening retaliation against the Israeli city of Sderot – or a colorful flashing ad for “AqsaTube Live Chat – join with us now!”
The layout is studded with the visages of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and other heroes of the struggle. Categories include “Palestinian heritage,” “Quds brigades” and Hamas-produced children’s shows.
Although OVH squelched the AqsaTube site following media inquiries, the site re-emerged days later, this time hosted by a Russian firm and displaying fresh videos, according to Israel’s Information Center report.
In the Israeli-Palestinian saga, the AqsaTube controversy is a snapshot of a media landscape where nationalism and violence collide with popular culture.
Many Americans have little concept of political media in the Muslim world beyond news flashes of ominous al Qaeda videos. But mass communication has long been integral to more traditional resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, which run extensive information networks on television and online.
In October, Hamas was reportedly featured at the National Exhibition and Festival of Digital Media in Iran, showcasing Internet communication as a vehicle to advance the Palestinian cause.
Eager to portray AqsaTube as a terrorist threat, Israeli watchdogs point to user-uploaded videos that glorify armed revolt, including menacing montages of masked soldiers and low-budget military training footage. Yet many AqsaTube videos defy the caricature of “jihadism” that corporate media have seared into the Western public’s imagination. Thumbnail menus percolate with pop videos, cartoons, cultural programs, even soccer match highlights. The open, crowd-sourced pastiche reveals more about the globalization of media culture than about users’ political agendas. That might explain why clips of the Arabic soap opera “Bab al-Hara” have drawn more traffic than martyr videos have.
Faisal Devji, a humanities professor at the New School specializing in modern Islamic thought, says Hamas has been spun into a powerful brand and is now “franchised and dispersed, rather than being directed by central command.”
AqsaTube’s content is user-driven, but its structure and background remain elusive. There appears to be no direct link to Hamas’ official media apparatus. According to an October BBC report, al-Aqsa TV denies affiliation with the site, and AqsaTube’s registration information was tied to an apparently falsified contact in Dubai.
At the same time, AqsaTube’s reach spans far beyond Hamas’ political locus in Gaza.
The largest share of the site’s traffic, about 30 percent, comes from Saudi Arabia, and more visits are drawn from Kazakhstan, Syria and the United States than from the Palestinian territories, according to the Web analysis service Alexa.
Gad Barzilai, a professor of international studies, law and political science at the University of Washington who focuses on Israeli-Palestinian issues, says Hamas and Hezbollah use the Web strategically to engage communities across the Arab diaspora, “because then we’re talking about political support, we’re talking about media support. It’s mainly for political leverage within the Arab-Muslim region.”
Gary Bunt, an Islamic Studies professor at the University of Wales, Lampeter, who tracks new media in the Muslim world on VirtuallyIslamic.com, sees AqsaTube as a marketing tool for divergent political factions. By enabling users to reach a global audience with both “official and unofficial” viewpoints on Arab struggles, he says, “There appears to be a greater awareness of the implications and effects of placing content online and the most effective ways of generating an impact among diverse site visitors.”
AqsaTube’s Web presence embodies Hamas’ strengths as well as its weaknesses. Despite flaring violence in Gaza, Devji believes the group’s recent rise as a political institution – through the electoral process and its social service network – has brought legitimacy but perhaps dulled its rebel clout.
“They realize suddenly that they’re no longer at the forefront or the cutting edge of Islamic politics,” he says, and as extremists touting global jihad attract notoriety and media fascination, Hamas is “starting to look conservative.”
Could the militant viral videos on AqsaTube stem from a more radical vector within the movement? In waging their media war, Devji says, some Hamas instigators could be stealing from the playbook of groups like al Qaeda – whose spectacular jihadist theatrics have catapulted them to global fame.
But he adds that media posturing may have little to do with ideology. Even if Hamas’ mission still centers on resisting Israeli occupation, supporters are nonetheless “pushed or pulled more and more into a more global way of seeing their own national struggle.”
Though devoted to a single cause, AqsaTube represents a complex form of digital democracy. On the Web frontier, cross-cultural exchange and agile technology are changing the way popular movements in Muslim and Arab societies define themselves.
“One of the myths is that these people in Hamas are rigid and tied to an ideological agenda, and don’t deviate from that,” says Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada, a U.S.-based independent news site covering Israeli-Palestinian issues. “The reality is, they operate just like any other political and social movement. They’re very, very sensitive to public opinion. They’re very sensitive to international opinion.”
Electronic Intifada speaks to a broader media surge of independent Muslim and Arab voices, propelled not only by ideology-driven sites, but also alternative news outlets, activist social-networking platforms and dissident Egyptian bloggers.
As a product of pro-Palestinian activism, AqsaTube projects more hype than substance. But it’s a sign that a volatile conflict zone is being occupied by a new kind of political community.
“AqsaTube can be seen as an attempt at carving a space for Hamas and its affiliates in the multimedia environment of the 21st century,” says Lina Khatib, a lecturer on Middle East media and politics at the University of London. “This environment is a transnational and multiplatform one. The line between local politics and global politics is blurred.”
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.