- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Talk radio has emerged as an increasingly influential weather vane as Palestinians cope with unpaid salaries resulting from an international embargo against their Hamas-led government.

“We have no money to pay our rent, or our store debts,” complained a listener named Abul El Munid. “I ask this government to pay the salaries and if it can’t pay the salaries, it must stand for another election.”

A second caller blames the crisis on a former Palestinian finance minister: “He had a very bad policy during his tenure of taking many loans from the banks and inflated the expenses of the ministry.”

The complaints come in rapid succession on the twice weekly show, “First Class Issue,” which airs on the station affiliated with the Fatah party.

On a recent program, host Yousef El Ustaz introduces the topic: How Palestinian civil servants who haven’t gotten their salaries in two months are coping.

“If you want to say anything about this,” Mr. El Ustaz begins in a deep voice, mature beyond his years, “if you want to give an opinion, if you have a question … you can call us.”

Broadcasts such as his have become a democratic buttress in a society increasingly ruled by rival militias and subject to perilous shootouts in broad daylight.

“The radio is colorful, powerful and influential. People in Gaza don’t have an avenue to express their opinion, so these shows give them an opportunity to talk, to shout and even to insult,” says Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based consultant.

“This is good because via the radio they learn democracy. When they start to express their opinion and talk, people start to become more aware of the issues on the ground.”

In the years since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, radio stations linked to Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad have become the most important media format, providing real-time accounts of Israeli attacks and offering a mouthpiece for Palestinians in need.

Hosts like Mr. El Ustaz have become celebrities in a place where the cult of personality is normally reserved for militant “martyrs.”

But radio fame comes with a disturbing drawback: In recent weeks he’s gotten several death threats. In a place like Gaza, that sort of menace isn’t to be taken lightly, so the station security guards who serve tea are also armed with hand grenades and machine guns.

Mr. El Ustaz says he carries a hand gun and keeps an AK-47 assault rifle at home.

“It’s normal for journalists in Gaza to carry guns,” he explained. “Some accuse us of spilling gasoline on the fire, but I am broadcasting the problems of Palestinian society and the Palestinian street.”

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