The underground voice of Hezbollah that Israel is still unable to silence

The Times

(5 August 2006) - EVERY NIGHT of this 25-day-old conflict, Israeli warplanes have tried to destroy Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar. Every night they have failed.

Somehow the satellite network continues to pump out its potent mix of news and propaganda from makeshift studios, its continued survival a deepening embarrassment to Israel's much-vaunted military, and a growing inspiration to Hezbollah sympathizers. The station's five-storey headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut was bombed in the first hours of the war, injuring five staff. But the skeleton team working that night knew the evacuation drill and the location of a back-up studio, so al-Manar was off the air for only ten minutes.

For the next three nights the jets returned, pounding even the rubble with 500lb bombs after rumours that al-Manar was broadcasting from an underground bunker.

The station's technicians move their satellite dishes around more rapidly than Hezbollah fighters can shift their rocket launchers, and the question being asked in Israel is why its military, backed by its formidable intelligence services, cannot silence the voice of the Shia militia.

Ibrahim Farhat, al-Manar's public relations director, said: 'We knew this day was coming, so we took suitable precautions across all of Lebanon.'

Mr Farhat said he had no idea how many studios were still operating, and cannot or will not say how al-Manar manages to avoid giving away its satellite signal, but insists: 'We consider it our duty to carry on, even if it costs us our lives.'

He said that several of the station's installations had been hit, but that normal service always resumed within seconds. Israel cannot destroy the international satellite al-Manar uses, as it is shared by Western broadcasters, so it must find the station's own up-link satellite dish carried around on pick-up trucks, or target its clandestine studios and staff.

Mr Farhat said that al-Manar's 350 employees had been told they did not need to come to work, but insisted that no one had stayed away. Staff keep in touch through pay-as-you-go mobile phones that cannot be traced, and a fleet of cars ferry them to that day's studio. The station's message is crude and unrelenting: The 'resistance' is winning, its enemies are hurting.

Aside from constant footage of its fighters charging through fields and loading their Katyusha rockets, there are images of dead Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah's own 'martyrs' slain on the battlefield, all accompanied by stirring martial music. Every few minutes images of Sheikh Nasrallah appear, being hugged by fighters, or stroking the face of one of his men being lowered into a coffin. Extracts of his speeches are repeated almost every hour. A weatherman stands in front of a map. He points to where Hezbollah missiles have landed, and zooms in on the latest damage done to Lebanon.

The station pirates Israeli TV pictures, supplying its own insulting commentary in Hebrew. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, is depicted wearing a Nazi armband and a Hitler-style moustache. President Bush has blood dripping from his lips. But it does not solely broadcast propaganda. Al-Manar was the first to report the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers on July 12, an hour after their abduction. It was the first to report that an Israeli naval ship had been hit by a Hezbollah missile, and that Israeli commandos had launched a raid on Baalbek this week. It regularly reports the deaths of Israeli soldiers before they are confirmed by Israel.

Sheikh Nasrallah's latest broadcast on Thursday night was filmed by his own cameraman, and al-Manar was given an hour's notice that the tape was on its way. When it appeared, householders turned up the volume so that people in the street could listen. West Beirut came to a virtual standstill during the 40-minute address.

But Mr Farhat denies that the station takes orders from Hezbollah. 'If we do not believe a story that Hezbollah gives us, we won't run it,' he said. Al-Manar first broadcast in 1990, has an annual budget of $15 million (8 million) and asserts an audience of 200 million across the Muslim world.

U.S. companies such as Pepsi-Cola and Procter & Gamble used to advertise until al-Manar was blacklisted by the White House as the world's only terrorist TV station. The most damage Israel has been able to inflict has been to interrupt its broadcasts by superimposing its own message on the screen.

The past three weeks have turned al-Manar's broadcasters into local heroes. Fatma al-Birri, a newsreader, said: 'When I'm on the air I feel like I am battling the enemy alongside Hezbollah fighters, though we sit on our armchairs while they fight battles.'

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