Israel says it will shut down Al-Jazeera, accusing broadcaster of ‘incitement’
The channel has denounced communications minister’s comments, and vowed to fight any attempts to shut its offices in court
Al-Jazeera has denounced Israel’s decision to close the Jerusalem bureau of Qatar’s flagship satellite network, saying the measure was “undemocratic” and it will take legal action.
Israel’s decision to shut the network’s offices follows in the footsteps of four Arab countries that have aligned against Qatar in what has been a months-long political dispute over Doha’s politics and alleged support for extremists.
The channel and its affiliate sites have been blocked in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain. Israel has long accused the network of unfavourable bias and inciting violence.
On Sunday, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara announced he would revoke the press credentials of Al-Jazeera journalists, effectively preventing them from working in Israel, and move to block its transmission from the country.
“Freedom of expression is not freedom to incite,” he said, according to a ministry statement. “Democracy has limits.”
A legal amendment will need to be made to adopt the measures, the ministry statement said, with the law updated to reflect the “current geopolitical reality.”
Al-Jazeera has said it was unclear when the Israeli government would act on Kara’s request and the channel has said it will fight any attempt to close its office in the courts.
“Al-Jazeera denounces this decision made by a state that claims to be ‘the only democratic state in the Middle East,’” the network said.
“Al-Jazeera stresses that it will watch closely the developments that may result from the Israeli decision, and will take the necessary legal measures.”
Al-Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara noted the irony of Israel following the lead of Sunni Arab states.
“Those dictatorships now dictate to Israel what it does about press and press credentials,” Bishara said during a broadcast. “Israel is taking its cues from Arab dictators.”
Kara, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, said he has asked cable and satellite networks to block Al-Jazeera transmissions and is seeking legislation to ban them altogether.
But commentators suggest that implementing such a ban would be highly unlikely.
The Israeli parliament is on break and such legislation would face stiff objection and take a long time to materialise. Additionally, many Arabs citizens of Israel watch Al-Jazeera broadcasts through private dishes rather than traditional transmission.
The Government Press Office, which issues press credentials in Israel, said it has asked security officials for guidance on Kara’s request.
Al-Jazeera, which rose to prominence by airing messages of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was the first Arab satellite news channel to offer a range of views outside of the heavily censored state media across the region, and extensively covered the 2011 Arab Spring.
It also was the first Arab-owned news outlet to host Israeli officials and commentators.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his support for the move, having publicly vowed to close down the channel’s Jerusalem bureau last month.
He has been attempting to rebuild his following among right-wing voters after agreeing to remove metal detectors at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem last month, which was seen by some Israelis as a capitulation to Palestinian worshippers after a two-week-long stand off. He also accused the channel of incitement; however, his office declined to give specific examples of content it deemed to have stoked tensions.
The announcement also came just days after Netanyahu’s former chief of staff agreed to testify against him in relation to allegations of fraud and breach of trust, throwing his continued tenure into jeopardy.
Al-Jazeera has previously accused Israel of siding with four Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are imposing an economic blockade on Qatar and have severed diplomatic relations with the country. They accuse Qatar of backing terrorism and have demanded the shutdown of Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan have closed Al-Jazeera offices in recent months, while the channel’s signal has been blocked in the United Arab Emirates.
“The collusion by Netanyahu with his Arab autocratic neighbours leaves little doubt that free independent media and truth are ready to be sacrificed as collateral damage in the power politics of the region,” Al-Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid Omary, wrote in an opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Since its inception, Al-Jazeera has provided Israel with a rare conduit for airing its viewpoints to Arab and Muslim audiences and participating in dialogue with them.”
While it has never been banned from Israel, the channel has faced similar criticism in the past. During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, then foreign minister Avigdor Liberman also called for the channel to be closed.
“Changing the law in order to shut down a media organisation for political reasons is a slippery slope,” the executive secretary of Israel’s Foreign Press Association, Glenys Sugarman, told the news agency Reuters.