Abu Obaida: Spokesman as hero

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 7 Nov 2023

Abu Obaida, spokesman of Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, has become a ubiquitous social media presence, reports Amira Howeidy

Abu Obaida:  Spokesman as hero

 

A photo of Egyptian children glued to their TV screen watching a man whose face is covered with a scarf is making the rounds on social media.

The children, seated on the floor and sofa of their living room, are aged between eight and 10, and the man absorbing their attention is Abu Obaida, spokesman of Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. A red kuffiya covers his head completely, except for a narrow opening that barely reveals his eyes. A black bandana tied around his forehead carries the Qassam logo.

At some point during the month-long war on Gaza, the faceless nom de geurre in military fatigues emerged as both a symbol of Palestinian resistance and an Arab national hero, occupying a point where politics, history, and pop culture intersect.

The trending image of the children similarly encapsulates Arab sentiments and the less explored ramifications of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza on Arab consciousness. Instead of PlayStation, children are learning about war and occupation through the brief military statements of Abu Obaida.

The image comes with a variety of captions, the most popular borrowed from the classic chant at Palestine solidarity demonstrations: “Every generation reiterates it: Israel is the enemy.”

Another caption concludes that Abu Obaida’s “influence on an entire generation of Arabs and Muslims” exceeds a century’s worth of sermons from the minbar of Saudi Arabia’s Medina Mosque because “he teaches them manhood and they teach acquiescence.”

Very little, if anything, is known about Qassam’s military spokesman. His earliest known media appearance was in a 2005 documentary on Al-Qassam Brigades produced by Al-Jazeera following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. A face covered in a black balaclava, he is introduced as the spokesman of the military group’s new media unit.

The following year he appeared with more considered optics, wearing a red kuffiya and flanked by two militants, their own faces concealed in contrasting green kuffiyas. Yet though Abu Obaida has been the group’s sole spokesman for 18 years, his image only acquired symbolic weight during Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. His 5-to-10-minute statements have provided to-the-point updates on political and field developments since 7 October, in candid language replete with religious references and occasional use of sarcasm.

His appeal, observers say, stems from the credibility of his statements which followed Al-Qassam’s surprise military incursion on 7 October.

In a column titled “Why Do Arabs Love Abu Obaida”, Al-Masry Al-Youm writer Ahmed Al-Derini attempted to explain his popularity.

Confident and unrepetitive, Abu Obaida’s words are put to action, he wrote. As Abu Obeida disparages and undermines the enemy, his words are backed by footage and documented evidence of military humiliation on the ground.

“Arab discourse towards Israel has oscillated between the fiery speeches of the 1960s and the cold, sterilised expressions of diplomacy [of today]” when Israel is no longer “the enemy” and Arab discourse has adapted to co-exist with the Israeli occupation.

The reality into which Abu Obaida arrived “with statements that come with action” was “an Arab desert lacking both”.

A month into the war and Al-Qassam has built an image of military resilience, courage, shrewdness, and strategic creativity in a conflict with one of the world’s most powerful armies. While Israel has had no images or footage to broadcast of military victories against Hamas and its armed wing, Al-Qassam has been broadcasting content straight from the battlefield of its attacks on Israeli forces in Gaza.

In one widely circulated video with footage from a bodycam, a Qassam fighter appears to emerge from an underground tunnel before approaching an Israeli tank on foot and placing an explosive device that destroyed the tank and probably killed the fighter. Released on 2 November by Al-Qassam’s media unit, the footage is captioned with an explanation saying the fighter placed the explosive device from “point zero” — meaning point-blank range — a point emphasised by the editing in a red triangle.

The red triangle, which occurs in a lot of Qassam footage to highlight military targets, has quickly evolved into a symbol of resistance.

Elements in Al-Qassam videos quickly surfaced in pop culture as symbols of Palestinian resistance. The red triangle has gained traction, projected on the Palestinian flag then pointing to a tank that will be destroyed. It has been used as a stand in for the slingshots that characterised the first Intifada in 1987, transforming over the decades to the red triangle used in Al-Qassam’s 2023 videos. Even the expression “point zero” has now been incorporated in the political lexicon as a reference to resistance and resilience.

While Abu Obaida’s presence in pop culture can be traced to a few songs dating back to 2021, the space he now enjoys on social media is unprecedented, far exceeding that of any other figure in the history of Hamas.

One of the most popular entertainment references to Al-Qassam’s spokesman appeared on the Facebook page of Egyptian journalist and author Ahmed Al-Fakharani, followed by more than 32,000 people.

“It seems she’s into bad boys.

That should be easy

Dude, she’s saying Abu Obaida” he quipped on 17 October.

In another post Al-Fakharani wrote: “Statement from Al-Qassam: Abu Obaida is in a relationship.”

Al-Fakhrani, who describes himself as “in disagreement with Islamists”, says he has only admiration and respect for Al-Qassam and their spokesman. “We live in a state of defeat and impotence of the Arab regimes,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly, which is why “we need Abu Obaida’s confident discourse.”

Others caution against misreading Abu Obaida’s popularity.

He is a spokesman who reports on field developments, not a military commander or politician, argues Mohab Adel, a researcher in Palestinian and Israeli affairs in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The interest in Abu Obaida is associated with the escalation between Hamas and Israel, and because this wave of escalation is intense it is only normal that his media presence gains momentum, especially on social media.”

In the absence of opinion polls gauging the public mood on Israel’s war on Gaza there isn’t enough evidence to assess the extent of the Palestinian resistance’s popularity in the Arab world. What is beyond dispute is that many have found it necessary to convey the war’s visceral impact on them via social media.

In a viral Facebook post on 3 November, Ahmed Al-Tabeeb posted a still image of one of Al-Qassam’s videos showing what looks like the tip of an RPG pointed towards an Israeli military tank, marked with a red triangle.

“Walking next to a coffee shop you hear applause and cheering,” he wrote, “and you think Al-Ahly has scored a goal against Pyramids. Then you look at the TV screen and this is what you see.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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