It looks at first glance like a typical block in Gaza: concrete facades spray-painted with political graffiti, collapsed roofs, and a battered United Nations sign. But looking a bit closer, you notice that there's something a bit too orderly, a bit too purposefully neglected, about the row of dilapidated buildings. The U.N. sign seems hastily painted on. Nearby is a fish pond.
Welcome to Hamaswood, one of the first movie sets owned by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Hamaswood -- or, as the locals call it, the Asdaa Land for Artistical and Media Production -- is a small studio city near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis. Less than a city block in size, Asdaa's movie set is much smaller than any Hollywood studio, and it boasts a few features that you wouldn't find in Cinecittà: for example, the fish pond as well as goat yards and cow yards, not intended for animal films but as money making livestock. As it turns out, running a terrorist movie studio involves problems that Samuel Goldwyn would never have dreamed of.
Despite the challenges, owning your own studio seems to be all the rage in the Middle East. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, is a key part of the group's information warfare strategy. Al-Manar is more than just a mouthpiece; it brings Hezbollah's message to a wider audience through broadcasts that range from news programs to a quiz show in which contestants are tested on their knowledge of martyrs. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the TV station itself has been labeled a "terrorist organization" by the United States.)
Hamas already runs a modest media empire, its reach stretching to newspapers, radio, and satellite television. But Asdaa represents an ambitious foray into the world of film and entertainment, a medium that could prove an even more potent propaganda tool -- if Hamas can just get it off the ground.
Although the executive director, Abed Al Aziz Monsour, says production space at Asdaa isn't reserved exclusively for Hamas, it's clear that the current filming plans revolve exclusively around the conflict with Israel. Asdaa recently completed its first major production -- a two-hour documentary on Imad Akel, a Hamas activist who was killed by Israeli forces in 1993. The film used a professional director, but the dialogue was written by Mahmoud al-Zahar, a cofounder of Hamas. Rather than a Hollywood feature film, it's more like straight-to-DVD; Asdaa plans to sell copies of the movie to help cover production costs. Whether the studio's spaghetti Western production values can compete with the pirated Hollywood blockbusters and Egyptian movies popular in the Middle East is unclear, since the film is still unreleased.
But competition from more mainstream studios is just one of the problems facing Asdaa at the moment. Asdaa's director's office is bare-bones: just a meeting table stacked high with Asdaa-produced newspapers describing the city's work and activities. Seated behind the room's one luxury, an executive-style wood desk, Mansour outlined some of the roadblocks to building the huge studio that Hamas originally envisioned. Asdaa, he explained, sustained several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage during Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which took place between December 2008 and January 2009. The strikes heavily damaged the administrative building, blowing out windows and doors, and totally destroying the fish pond.