GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Saraa Barhoum picked at the buttons on her pink bellbottom jeans as she twisted on a chair inside the bustling new Hamas television headquarters. The afternoon light bounced off the sparkly outlines of butterflies on her frilly top, and a colorful hijab framed her 11-year-old face.
Saraa wants to be a doctor. If she can't, the young star of Hamas television’s best-known children’s show said, she'd be proud to become a martyr. Saraa says little Jewish girls should be forced from their homes in Israel so that Palestinians can return to their land.
With the show’s producer helpfully offering written tips during an interview, Saraa didn’t get into how she hopes to die for her cause, be it suicide bombing, fighting the Israeli military or some other way. She carefully sidestepped any suggestion that she's subtly calling for the destruction of Israel.
"Israel says that we are terrorists," Saraa said minutes before an interview with her was interrupted by an errant Israeli airstrike that slammed into an apartment building on the adjacent block. "But they are the ones that must stop their attacks against us and our kids."
Saraa is the sweet face of “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” a weekly, hour-long Hamas television children’s show best known for bringing the world a militant Mickey Mouse look-alike and then having him killed off by an Israeli interrogator.
With her jarring mix of innocent charm and militant rhetoric, Saraa is at the center of the militant Islamist group’s increasingly sophisticated campaign to become the dominant force in Palestinian politics.
"Hamas is fighting a political war for the hearts and minds of the West Bank and Gaza Strip," said Robert A. Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and the author of "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism."
"They are trying to show that they are the true heart-and-soul of the community, all the way down to an 11-year-old-girl," Pape added.
Since it went on the air last year in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-funded al Aqsa television has gained momentum and expanded its audience to include the West Bank.
Taking a lead from Hezbollah’s al Manar television station in Beirut, Hamas is using al Aqsa to promote its agenda and challenge its rivals, in this case Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his fractured Fatah allies.
During its decisive June military showdown with Fatah in Gaza, Hamas used its television station to broadcast footage of Fatah leaders joking with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials. The message was clear: Fatah is in bed with America. After Fatah lost Gaza to Hamas, Fatah forces laid siege to al Aqsa's offices in the West Bank and arrested several employees.
The station, which operates with a license from the Palestinian Authority, also features religious lessons, cartoons, advice shows and militant music videos. One video hailed a female suicide bomber whose young daughter vows to follow her mother's example.
"Tomorrow's Pioneers" sparked an international furor in April when it began featuring Farfour, the Mickey Mouse look-alike who sounded more like Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than a Disney character.
Mustafa Barghouti, then serving as the Palestinian Authority's information minister, called the show a "mistaken approach" to helping Palestinians and tried unsuccessfully to force the show off the year.
The Israeli government and activists who monitor Palestinian programming accused Hamas of poisoning the minds of young children with the show.
After two months, Farfour was beaten to death on the show by an Israeli interrogator. Nahoul, a larger-than-life bee, is now carrying his message.
"A lot of people in Palestine have died as martyrs, and lots of Palestinians hope to be martyrs," Saraa said of Farfour's demise. "This is one of the ends."
Asked if she hoped one day to be a martyr, Saraa instinctively nodded her head.
"Of course," Saraa said. "It's something to be proud of. Every Palestinian citizen hopes to be a martyr."
Saraa helps deliver similar messages to Palestinian children from a Hamas TV set filled with colorful numbers and pictures of kittens. During the show, Saraa fields calls from Palestinian children who warble songs about Islam, liberating Jerusalem and finding answers in the barrel of a machine gun.
On one show, she cut off a caller who was singing about surrendering herself, presumably to God's will.
"We don't want to surrender," Saraa told the caller. "We want to resist."
The show has provided new fodder for Israeli activists, who say that Saraa is the true face of Hamas, an extremist group that's using an innocent front to conceal its real agenda.
Hamas television officials defend the show, saying it's designed to help young children connect with their country and their God.
Israel and the United States both have pressured the Palestinian Authority to change school textbooks, radio shows and television programming that are seen to be fueling anti-Israeli hatred.
On the show, Saraa offers moral lessons to viewers and urges them to do what they can to fight Israeli occupation. After some prodding in an interview, Saraa offered a personal message for Israeli girls her age.
"They have to leave," she said. "This is our country. They kicked us out and stole our happiness. This is a natural result."
Within minutes, an explosion hit the building, rattling windows and sending Saraa and the staff rushing outside. At first, no one was sure if it was an accident or an Israeli airstrike. Then, it became clear that the blast was caused by an Israeli missile that missed a car filled with militants and slammed into an empty bedroom on the top floor of a three-story apartment building.
Standing outside the Hamas building with her producer protectively putting his arm around her shoulders, Saraa looked pensive and anxious. Hamas camera crews and an ambulance rushed down the block. Saraa kept quiet and gazed down the street. The coached revolutionary rhetoric disappeared. Instead, she looked like any frightened young girl caught up in events beyond her control.
Then, after it was clear that no one had been killed in the airstrike, Saraa and her producer headed back upstairs to prepare for the next episode of “Tomorrow’s Pioneers.”