Israel blacklists Hamas station said to use on-air cues to recruit terrorists

Israel blacklists Hamas station said to use on-air cues to recruit terrorists

Shin Bet says Al-Aqsa TV presenters in Gaza conveyed clandestine messages to direct terror in West Bank; IDF bombed channel’s headquarters in November, but it kept broadcasting

A newscaster on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television station places a mug on his desk in what the Shin Bet security service says was a secret code to an operative in the West Bank. (Screen capture: Al-Aqsa TV/Shin Bet)
A newscaster on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television station places a mug on his desk in what the Shin Bet security service says was a secret code to an operative in the West Bank. (Screen capture: Al-Aqsa TV/Shin Bet)

Israel on Wednesday officially designated as a terror organization a Hamas-run Palestinian television network accused by the Shin Bet security service of using on-air cues to direct terror attacks and recruit terrorists in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, signed a decree proscribing Al-Aqsa TV in accordance with Israel’s counter-terror law, his office said in a statement.

“This decision comes at the recommendation of the Shin Bet and the Defense Ministry’s National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing, after the Shin Bet revealed terror group Hamas’s use of the satellite channel ‘Al-Aqsa’ to recruit operatives,” the statement said.

The Shin Bet last month accused the broadcaster and Gaza-based journalists of acting as agents of Hamas’s military wing, and passing clandestine messages to terror operatives in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by using quotes from the Quran or subtle gestures by the presenters. The Shin Bet named two presenters who it said conveyed messages from Gaza via signals on air.

The Shin Bet said the plot was a key factor in the decision made by the Israel Defense Forces to bomb Al-Aqsa TV’s headquarters in Gaza in November.

A ball of fire above the building housing the Hamas-run television station al-Aqsa TV in the Gaza Strip during an Israeli air strike, November 12, 2018. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)

Israel has also long accused Hamas and other terror groups of using the special status granted to journalists as a cover for nefarious activities.

Al-Aqsa TV’s reporters have frequently praised violence against Israelis and rocket attacks on the Jewish state.

In 2010, the US government designated the station as a terror group.

For several years, the Gaza-based Hamas operatives involved in the plot have been working to recruit Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to join their ranks and carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, the Shin Bet said.

“Hamas’s efforts to inspire these activities, despite its repeated failures, indicate a strategy that was chosen by the heads of Hamas to try to imperil the stability of the West Bank at any price,” a senior official in the agency said in a statement.

The security officer warned that those efforts represented a “significant and immediate threat to the stability of the region.”

In one case, a recruit was passed a message by a newscaster placing a cup of tea on his desk and repeating a line from a song.

“By watching the broadcast, the operative in the West Bank received the validation of the things that the Gaza Strip operative had told him,” the Shin Bet said.

According to the security service, Israel first came to realize that Hamas was using Al-Aqsa TV in this way in October 2018. That led to the decision to bomb the station’s headquarters the next month, during a large flareup between the IDF and the Strip’s terror groups, which had fired some 500 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel within 24 hours.

At the time, the IDF said it had demolished the Al-Aqsa TV headquarters in “response to the terror attack that the Hamas terror group is leading against Israeli citizens.”

Palestinians check the damage of the Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV station building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, November 13, 2018. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Israeli aircraft first fired a “warning missile” at the multi-story headquarters, which was captured live on air as personnel fled the building, before firing a number of missiles to flatten the building.

Shortly after the razing of the station’s building, the Hamas-affiliated outlet appeared poised to close, but was kept on air at the last minute, broadcasting from another location, thanks to an influx of money from the terror group.

Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh declared in a statement at the time that Al-Aqsa TV’s broadcast would not be halted. He also said a “clear and direct decision” was made to keep the channel on air, without elaborating.

The Gaza City-based channel has said the damages amounted to some $4.5 million; it also said that its financial crisis had been “partially resolved.”

Israel also bombed the outlet’s headquarters in December 2008, during the first war to break out in Gaza in the wake of the 2005 disengagement.

Judah Ari Gross and Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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