(AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Hamas IDF

Will “Fist of the Free” manage to compete with marquee entertainment traditionally aired during Ramadan?

By Wafaa Shurafa, Associated Press

The Palestinian terrorists scrambled out of the tunnel and attacked an Israeli tank in broad daylight as gunfire and explosions echoed across the Gaza frontier.

This time it wasn’t the start of another war, but an action scene filmed for a TV series produced by Hamas, the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The 30-episode series, titled “Fist of the Free,” presents the fighters as scrappy heroes outwitting a better-armed Israeli military. Unlike “Fauda,” the hit Israeli drama that deals with some of the same subject matter, it is unlikely to get picked up by Netflix.

It’s the latest such production by the media arm of Hamas, which has invested heavily in its offerings despite an Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza since the Islamists seized power in 2006.

The shows are aired on Hamas-run TV, and “Fist of the Free” will debut during the upcoming month of Ramadan, when viewership soars after the dawn-to-dusk fast and networks across the Muslim world debut big-budget offerings. Ramadan begins on April 2.

Hamas hopes to gain a wider viewership by offering the rights for free to channels in Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Turkey. But it will struggle to break through the Ramadan lineup, when production houses across the region crank out top-quality dramas with marquee actors.

“Fist of the Free” is also likely to face barriers online, as Facebook, YouTube and streaming services censor content perceived as inciting violence.

Last year, two Saudi specials during Ramadan broke new ground in normalizing Israel and Jews.

“Exit 7,” a comedy series, featured one episode in which the main character discovers that his son is in contact with an Israeli boy online. The episode showed Israel in a favorable light.

A fictional drama called “Umm Harun” (Mother of Aaron) spotlighted the lives of Jews living in the Persian Gulf and their relationships with Muslims.

Palestinians objected to the sympathetic portrayals, while other critics said “Umm Harun” would strengthen demands for reparations by Jewish refugees from Arab lands. But the shows and the conversations they sparked trended on Arab social media.

Hamas may be worried that with the Abraham accords, more such shows will be produced this year.

‘Series Centers on Our Struggle With the Enemy’

“The idea of our films and series centers on our struggle with the enemy,” says Sadi al-Attar, assistant director of the Hamas production. He says the latest show is a response to “Zionist aggression.”

The “Fist of the Free” storyline centers on a real-life botched Israeli raid in Gaza in 2018. An undercover unit disguised as Palestinian aid workers aroused suspicions in a town near the border. When their cover was blown, a gun battle ensued in which seven Hamas fighters and an Israeli commander were killed.

In real life, the undercover unit was detected by local residents, the death toll was lopsided and Israel successfully evacuated 16 personnel. In the dramatization, Hamas outwits the Israelis and scores a major victory.

Al-Attar rejects any comparisons to “Fauda,” which centers on an undercover Israeli unit that poses as Palestinians and conducts daring raids against militants. That series presents complex characters confronting moral tradeoffs but has been criticized for its far-fetched plot twists and for reducing Palestinians to the bad guys in a cop drama-like shoot-’em-up.

“We are not responding to them in their Fauda program,” al-Attar said. He acknowledged having watched a few scenes of the Netflix thriller, calling it “lying and misleading.”

The group has produced seven series and several movies centered on the conflict, most of them aired on its Al-Aqsa satellite TV network during Ramadan.

In 2017, it built an entire movie set based on Jerusalem’s Old City, including a replica of the Dome of the Rock — part of a holy site that is sacred to Jews and Muslims and has been a persistent flashpoint for Palestinian violence.

Al-Attar declined to say how much was being spent on the latest series, which he said was funded by donations.

There were no cranes on set, so overhead shots were taken by drone or by a cameraman sitting on another man’s shoulders. Crew members used their camera batteries to detonate mock explosives. The filming took place at a Hamas military base near the frontier.

The cast is recruited locally, from a population that has had little contact with Israelis since the Hamas takeover and the tightening of the blockade.

Zohair al-Bebisi, a 64-year-old who has never set foot in Israel, was cast as David, an Israeli commando tasked with sneaking into Gaza to recover high-tech equipment captured by wily Hamas militants.

“It’s the first time I play the role of an Israeli intelligence officer,” al-Belbisi said as he rested between takes. He described his character as “very cunning,” with a knack for getting out of dangerous situations — until his luck runs out.

Spoiler alert: David is killed by friendly fire.

The propaganda goes largely unchecked inside Gaza, where Hamas does not tolerate dissent. Since taking power in 2006, Hamas has jailed journalists and activists, banned newspapers, shuttered rival TV stations and restricted movie screenings.

Its rivals in the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority have also cracked down on dissent in Judea and Samaria.

United With Israel staff contributed to this report.