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Palestinian video game strikes Israel’s nerve

A new video game developed by a Brazilian of Palestinian origin has raised controversy among Israelis who claim the game encourages the killing of Jews.
Palestinian children wearing protective face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus play video games in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 22, 2020.

Palestinians have always wished that the heroes that resisted the Israeli occupation do not end up dead, injured or imprisoned. But this is far fetched on the ground given Israel’s military superiority.

But a new video game has made this a possibility — albeit in the virtual world.

Fursan al-Aqsa: The Knights of the Al-Aqsa Mosque lets users play as Ahmad al-Falastini, an armed Palestinian fighter from the Gaza Strip. 

Ahmad is a university student whose dream was to get married and have a family. But unfortunately, his dreams were cut short when he was arrested by Israel and spent five years in prison. While there, he learns that all his family members were killed in an Israeli raid.

Once he is released from prison, Ahmad joins a resistance movement called Fursan al-Aqsa (The Knights of al-Aqsa) and receives firearms training. In the game, he carries out operations against the Israeli army’s positions only, and does not target civilians, according to the game's website.

Al-Monitor spoke to Nidal Nijm, a 37-year-old Brazilian of Palestinian origin who developed the game.

Nijm’s family hails from the Palestinian village of al-Qubab, southeast of the Israeli city of Ramle, whose residents were displaced in 1948. His father was born in 1959 in al-Amari refugee camp to the south of al-Bireh city in the West Bank. 

Nijm said his father was a former Fatah fighter who fought in Lebanon before he emigrated to Brazil following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. “I have no connection to any political or military party, group or organization,” he stressed.

He said, “It was my father who first introduced me to video games when I was 12. He told me to study and learn so that one day I could produce a video game about the Palestinian resistance."

Nijm emphasized that he is not anti-Semitic and rejects the accusations leveled against his game. He noted that he is a Brazilian, born and raised in Brazil where he learned that every person has the right to live freely.

Commenting on the purpose behind the game, Nijm said, “Through the game I want to show the world that the Palestinian resistance never was and never will be terrorism. I also wanted to break the cliche of portraying Arabs and Muslims as terrorists in video games.”

On the accusations that the game incite to killing Jews, he said, “I don’t expect my game to be sued because this game is legally registered with the Brazilian government. It was accepted by Steam [online game platform] and other major gaming platforms.” 

He added, “It does not contain hate speech against Jews. It is just a war game against Israeli soldiers who are the enemies of the Palestinian people because they occupy the Palestinian territories.”

Israel’s Jerusalem Post reported Sept. 29 that the game encourages fighting the Israeli army.

On Oct. 3, the local Al-Quds newspaper quoted Israel’s Channel 7 as saying that Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Saar contacted YouTube requesting to remove the video from the entire network. YouTube eventually decided to make the video unavailable in Israel only.

Nijm expects the game to succeed once it is officially released in December, saying, “I am sure it will be a huge success on Steam, because the players who tested my game’s demo loved the game and enjoyed it very much.”

Saed Hassunah, a social media expert and blogger from the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “Fursan al-Aqsa got a lot of traffic on Steam, which is well known for its games. It is a Palestinian achievement to see a game on Steam, particularly since the Israelis consider that the game is against them and breaks the cliche that Arabs and the Palestinians are terrorists.”

He said that the work on developing the video game started in 2009.

Hassunah expects Fursan al-Aqsa to compete with other major video games. But, he noted, this will mainly depend on the game’s monthly updates, which require advertisements and money, unless Palestinian authorities or businessmen will fund the game’s updates.

He pointed out that the Palestinian side did not promote the video game in the media, which is mainly covering Israel-related political issues. He said the game only drew the attention of some Arab and Palestinian media after the Israeli media reported about it.

Saji Mowannis, a 21-year-old English translation student at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, praised the game and found it a good alternative to her favorite game, PubG, which she said is not in line with the Islamic beliefs as it involves idols, nudity scenes and exaggerated killings.

She expects the video game to succeed because it involves symbols of the Palestinian cause, such as the keffiyeh, and it starts with the Palestinian national anthem

Mowannis believes teenagers will mostly play the game, especially those who took part in the return marches at the eastern border of the Gaza Strip, to release the anger they have against Israel.

Ahmed al-Sheikh, a 27-year-old communications engineer who graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The video game was developed using UDK Engine [Unreal Engine 3], which stands out for 3D creation and is known for its quality graphics, accuracy and details of the game. This makes the player more engaged in the game.”

He noted that the fact that the video game will be released in several versions for Xbox, PlayStation and Android will allow a large segment of users to play this game. 

Sheikh expects the game to be downloaded on a large scale by Arabs and Muslims who support the Palestinian cause, and out of curiosity by others due to the Israeli incitement against it. He, however, noted that the video game's success depends on whether it will continue to be updated and developed and on ensuring the users’ interaction by allowing multiple players to play together.

He explained that all popular video games are about wars where weapons are used, such as PubG, Fortnite and Call of Duty, which makes the claim that Fursan al-Aqsa encourages killing obsolete. 

Sheikh added, “Those who already have a mind for killing do not need a game to kill. For me, the reason is unconvincing.” 

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