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Reaching hostages and prisoners, through Israeli and Palestinian radio

Radio Ajyal producer Mohammed Daher listens to a caller during a weekly radio program in which Palestinians send messages to their relatives in Israeli prisons.
Maya Levin for NPR
Radio Ajyal producer Mohammed Daher listens to a caller during a weekly radio program in which Palestinians send messages to their relatives in Israeli prisons.

TEL AVIV, Israel, and RAMALLAH, West Bank — Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian families know nothing about the fate of their relatives — Israelis held captive in Gaza and Palestinians jailed in Israel — during the Israel-Hamas war.

No phone calls. No letters. Just a few short Hamas hostage videos and limited lawyers' visits to Israeli prisons. Even as diplomats try to reach a cease-fire deal for their release, it is an ongoing source of anguish for the families.

So Israeli and Palestinian radio stations are broadcasting their voices, hoping their loved ones hear them.

Some have.

"People tell you, 'If she listens to you right now, what would you say? What would you want her to hear?' And I always feel like, OK, no way she can hear me," says Gil Dickmann, whose cousin's wife was a captive in Gaza. "But it turns out that, thanks to the fact that radio is such an analog platform, it was possible."

Distances are short. Airwaves know no borders. Broadcast towers are reaching across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Reaching Israeli hostages in Gaza

The Israeli government says 253 Israeli and foreign hostages were taken from southern Israel to Gaza in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that began the war. It's the largest number of civilians taken hostage in Israeli history. Some of the hostages are soldiers.

105 hostages were released by Hamas in late November, in an exchange for Israel releasing 240 Palestinian detainees from prison. Several of the released hostages said their guards allowed them to listen to Israeli radio while they were held in Gaza.

Dickmann's relative, Yarden Roman-Gat, is one of them.

She was taken captive in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which Israel says killed some 1,200 people. She was held in a Gaza home. When she returned from captivity, she told her family she had heard Dickmann's voice on Israeli public radio, during a broadcast that was part of a memorial program for victims of the attack.

Gil Dickman holds half a dog tag that reads, "Our heart is held hostage in Gaza." Dickman's relative, Yarden Roman-Gat, heard his voice on Israeli public radio when she was held captive in Gaza.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Gil Dickmann holds half a dog tag that reads, "Our heart is held hostage in Gaza." Dickmann's relative, Yarden Roman-Gat, heard his voice on Israeli public radio when she was held captive in Gaza.

Hearing that broadcast is how she learned what had happened to her family: Her mother-in-law had been killed. Her sister-in-law had also been taken hostage. And her husband and child had survived the Hamas attack.

It's also how she knew her family understood she was being held in Gaza.

"She said that that was one of the most important things for her while she was in captivity, keeping her strong, knowing that her husband and child are still alive and that we fight for her," Dickmann says.

Some of the released hostages say they didn't have any access to a radio or TV in captivity. But the fact that some did has made Israeli radio stations rethink how to broadcast now. Israel estimates 103 hostages are still being held alive in Gaza and that 29 are dead.

"I got so excited, I had tears," says Danny Zaken, the head of Galei Zahal, Israeli Army Radio, the country's most-listened to broadcaster, about the moment he heard that Israeli radio broadcasts had reached hostages in Gaza.

Since then, Army Radio has been airing voice messages every day from Israelis to their relatives held captive in Gaza, just in case they could hear them.

Army Radio's main mission during the war is to reach Israel's soldiers in Gaza, Zaken says, and raise morale by airing personal voice messages from soldiers and their families. The station has distributed about 1,000 small portable transistor radios to Israeli soldiers, who are not allowed to carry cell phones when they enter Gaza.

The director of Israeli Army Radio, Danny Zaken, poses for a portrait outside his office on Jan. 8.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
The director of Israeli Army Radio, Danny Zaken, poses for a portrait outside his office on Jan. 8.

In January, it also piloted an AM radio channel, after discontinuing it many years ago, because the AM frequency is better able to penetrate enclosed environments like reinforced safe rooms for soldiers and civilians along Israel's southern and northern borders — and potentially, Zaken says, Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Israel's top drive-time morning show on the most popular music channel, Army Radio's Galgalatz, with 1.3 million listeners, dedicates the second song of every hour to a specific Israeli hostage in Gaza.

"I really think that they are listening to us," anchor Hadar Marks told her listeners one recent morning. "I hope that the songs that we dedicate to them give them air and strength."

Radio host Hadar Marks speaks on air during Israel's top drive-time morning show on the country's most popular music channel, Galgalatz. She plays songs dedicated to Israeli hostages in Gaza. "I really think that they are listening to us," Marks says.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Radio host Hadar Marks speaks on air during Israel's top drive-time morning show on the country's most popular music channel, Galgalatz. She plays songs dedicated to Israeli hostages in Gaza. "I really think that they are listening to us," Marks says.

That morning, she played a Hebrew oldie for Chaim Peri, a 79-year-old hostage. It was "We Will Meet," a nostalgic song from the 1980s by one of Peri's favorite artists, the late Israeli singer-songwriter Arik Einstein.

"We will meet and things will be good," Marks said, addressing Peri by name. "I hope you can hear this."

Broadcasting to Israeli prisons

Turn the dial to Palestinian radio, and you'll hear something similar.

Radio Ajyal, the most listened-to radio station for Palestinians, airs a weekly show called "Messages of the Prisoners," in which a host reads aloud messages and plays voice recordings from the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Broadcasting to 1.2 million listeners on 11 frequencies from its main studio in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Radio Ajyal is one of three Palestinian radio stations airing such programs for years. Israel has jailed many thousands of Palestinians on charges and convictions ranging from killing Israelis to plotting attacks to alleged incitement on Instagram. Palestinians consider them political prisoners.

Since the war began, Radio Ajyal has been flooded with calls and voice messages, because there has been a surge of Israeli arrests.

The exact number is unclear. Palestinian prisoner advocates estimate Israel has detained more than 6,000 Palestinians since the start of the war. The Israeli legal aid group HaMoked says roughly 3,000 Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank, have been arrested.

Deema Ali, 18, holds up her phone with an image of Israeli soldiers in their home during the arrest of her father Ala Al-Din Ali.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Deema Ali, 18, holds up her phone with an image of Israeli soldiers in their home during the arrest of her father Ala Al-Din Ali.

In addition, many hundreds of Gaza residents are believed to be held in Israeli military detention, arrested in connection with the Oct. 7 attack or during Israel's military assault in Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.

As of Feb. 1, there are 8,928 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails, according to Israeli prison figures, nearly the highest number in a decade in a half. The majority are being held without charge or are awaiting sentencing.

"It's horrible, after Oct. 7, inside the Israeli prisons," says Radio Ajyal's editor-in-chief, Walid Nassar. "These messages are very crucial for the prisoners inside the prisons when they can't reach...outside communication."

Since the war began, Israel has cut off nearly all communication with the world outside the prison walls. According to the Israeli prison services and legal aid groups, Palestinian prisoners are no longer allowed family visits, the International Committee of the Red Cross no longer has prison access to deliver letters between families and prisoners, and lawyers are given minimal access to meet prisoners.

The Israel Prison Service says the wartime measures are for "operational" reasons, and to prevent prisoners from coordinating attacks from inside prisons. Israel has not reported any attacks directed from inside prisons since Oct. 7. Palestinian prisoner advocates call the new crackdown in prisons a policy of revenge, following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack and taking of hostages.

Five days into the war, Israeli soldiers stormed the Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank, and took away Ala Al-Din Ali as his family looked on. It is the sixth time Israel has arrested him. In the past, Israel accused him of having ties to Hamas, which the family denies. Israel says it has conducted sweeping arrests of Hamas activists since the war began.

Left to right: Rawan Ali, 39, Lama Ali, 16, and Deema Ali, 18, in their home in Jalazone, a West Bank refugee camp, on Jan. 5. The father of the family, Ala Al-Din Ali, is being held by Israel in administrative detention after being arrested Oct. 12 as the whole family watched.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Left to right: Rawan Ali, 39, Lama Ali, 16, and Deema Ali, 18, in their home in Jalazone, a West Bank refugee camp, on Jan. 5. The father of the family, Ala Al-Din Ali, is being held by Israel in administrative detention after being arrested Oct. 12 as the whole family watched.

Many detainees, like Ali, are held as "administrative detainees" without charge, a tactic criticized by human rights groups. Israel says it is needed to prevent future attacks.

Ali's 18-year-old daughter, Deema, sent Radio Ajyal a short voice message that the radio station played recently. Addressing her father, she wanted him to know: Everything at home is fine. University is good. Don't worry about us.

She has no idea if he's heard it.

"We have no connection to reach to him or to speak with him," she says. "Where's the human rights? Where's the prisoner rights? Even the lawyer can't reach to him."

Israeli prison authorities say they have confiscated television and radio sets from prisoners, and cut off the electricity from the sockets in prisoners' cells.

"Radio is not allowed," says Raed Abu Hommus of the Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex Detainees Affairs. "If they found a radio, you will be isolated."

During a recent live broadcast of "Messages of the Prisoners" on Radio Ajyal, a prisoner released in the November exchange called into the show. Lama Khater, a blogger, had been arrested previously by Israel on allegations of association with Hamas, and was among those arrested after Oct. 7 and held on "administrative detention" without charge.

The host of the program, Ala'a Al-Amleh, asked Khater on air whether prisoners are still able to hear the radio show inside jail.

Radio host Ala'a Al-Amleh and audio producer Mohammed Daher listen to a caller during a live radio program which broadcasts messages from Palestinians to their families in Israeli prisons.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Radio host Ala'a Al-Amleh and audio producer Mohammed Daher listen to a caller during a live radio program which broadcasts messages from Palestinians to their families in Israeli prisons.

"To some extent, until I left, there was a possibility to listen to the radio. The problem now, especially in the period since the war began, is that the constant search operations and confiscation of radios perhaps prevent everyone from listening," Khater said. "But sometimes, even in the same section, if there is one radio, and one person hears it, they might share it with the rest of the cells."

The radio program usually runs for 90 minutes, but that day, it ran for three hours straight, to broadcast the deluge of messages prisoners' families sent in.

Like the Israeli hostages in Gaza, it's unclear whether Palestinian prisoners have access to radio today.

"Maybe there are smuggled radios," says Abu Hommus, the prisoner advocate. "They come searching every two or three days. So I don't think that in every division there [are] more than one or two radios."

But families still send messages over the airwaves. It's a platform to speak, and you never know who may be listening.

Not the same wavelength

For Palestinian and Israeli families, the concern is not knowing about their loved ones held forcibly in extreme and difficult conditions.

Anguish has grown as some Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees have died or been killed while being held. There are growing allegations of physical abuse against Palestinians in Israeli jails and of sexual abuse against Israelis in Hamas captivity.

When asked, the Palestinian and Israeli radio directors both resist a comparison of their initiatives.

"These messages are very crucial for the prisoners inside the prisons when they can't reach outside communication," says editor in chief of Radio Ajyal, Walid Nassar, at the station in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Jan. 8.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
"These messages are very crucial for the prisoners inside the prisons when they can't reach outside communication," says editor in chief of Radio Ajyal, Walid Nassar, at the station in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Jan. 8.

Nassar, Radio Ajyal's editor in chief, questions whether Israeli hostages held deep underground in tunnels can hear the radio at all.

Zaken, the head of Israeli Army Radio, says the capture of the Israeli hostages should not be equated to the incarceration of Palestinians.

"I can't do any comparison between these two populations, these two groups, hostages and prisoner terrorists. It's totally different. Here, it's civilians mostly, hostages. And the Palestinian prisoners, most of them are terrorists," he says. "In war against terror, you have to do some measures. Among them is a lot of arrests. That's part of the war."

But the Israeli radio director acknowledges why Palestinian families would reach out to their loved ones through messages on the radio.

"I can understand what they're doing," he says.

Maya Levin and Alon Avital contributed to this story from Tel Aviv, and Nuha Musleh contributed from Ramallah.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 2, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Gil Dickmann as Dickman.
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.