Israel readies bill to shut Al Jazeera office

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Israel’s parliament is to pass a law granting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu powers to close the local operations of Al Jazeera, a news network authorities have long accused of anti-Israel bias.

The bill marks the latest escalation in a long-running dispute between the Israeli government and the Qatar-headquartered satellite channel, which Netanyahu’s allies say has close ties to Hamas in Gaza — a claim Al Jazeera denies.

Founded in Doha in 1996 and funded in part by the Qatari government, the network says it broadcasts to more than 150 countries and is available in more than 430mn homes. It is one of the few media outlets with reporters on the ground in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s party Likud said on Monday that the prime minister asked the coalition’s chief whip Ofir Katz to ensure passage of the law enabling the closure of Al Jazeera in Israel. The coalition is aiming for the bill to be adopted, clearing its second and third readings, by Monday evening.

“The law gives the prime minister the authority to close the channel’s broadcasts in Israel,” the statement said, adding that once it was passed, Netanyahu would “take immediate action to shut down Al Jazeera in accordance with procedure set out in the law”.

Israeli criticism of Al Jazeera was stepped up in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel that, according to Israeli officials, killed 1,200 people and triggered the war in Gaza.

Israeli communications minister Shlomo Karhi on October 15 said he would seek cabinet approval to shut down Al Jazeera’s local operations, accusing the channel of pro-Hamas incitement and of exposing Israeli soldiers to attacks. He alleged it was a “propaganda mouthpiece” and said it was “unconscionable” that Hamas spokespeople were using the network to broadcast messages.

But the following month Israel temporarily abandoned plans to shut down the network, reportedly fearing it would undermine mediation efforts by Qatar to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

Israel’s relationship with Al Jazeera has long been difficult. In 2008 it announced a “boycott” of the broadcaster, accusing Al Jazeera of bias in its coverage of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Israeli government officials declined interview requests from the network and denied visa applications for its staff.

In 2017, Israel announced plans to shut down Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau and revoke press cards for its journalists, accusing the channel of inciting violence — though it later walked back from the measures.

In 2022, Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known Palestinian-American journalist working for Al Jazeera, was killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Jenin. The Israeli military later acknowledged there was a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers unintentionally killed her.

Since the war in Gaza broke out last October, Israel has accused journalists working for the broadcaster of assisting or even commanding Hamas units in their fight against Israel — a suggestion it has vehemently denied.

In February, one of the network’s reporters Ismail Abu Omar and cameraman Ahmad Matar were injured in a drone strike near Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town. The broadcaster condemned what it called “deliberate targeting” of the journalists by Israeli forces.

At the time, a spokesman for the Israeli army claimed that Abu Omar served as a deputy company commander in Hamas’s Eastern Khan Younis Battalion, as well as working for Al Jazeera. He also said that on the morning of October 7 he infiltrated Israel and filmed inside Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the places Hamas attacked.

Shortly afterwards, Al Jazeera issued a statement “condemn[ing] the accusations against its journalists and recalls Israel’s long record of lies and fabrication of evidence through which it seeks to hide its heinous crimes”. Al Jazeera said its employment policies “stipulate that employees are not to engage in any political affiliations that may affect their professionalism”.

Abu Omar was not the only Al Jazeera casualty of the war. In December, its Arabic journalist Samer Abudaqa was killed and his colleague Wael Dahdouh, the network’s Gaza bureau chief, was wounded in an Israeli attack in Khan Younis, southern Gaza.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 95 journalists and media workers had been killed in Gaza since the war began. Gazan health officials estimate the overall death toll to be more than 32,000.

Al Jazeera declined to comment on the proposed Israeli law. The government in Qatar also declined to comment.

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s expert on Israel-Palestine, said the law would represent an “alarming escalation” of Israel’s efforts to “clamp down on voices critical of its human rights abuses against Palestinians”.

He said that with the Israeli government blocking international journalists’ access to Gaza, Al Jazeera had become a “critical source” of information about the situation in the enclave, and any move to restrict the network would “mark a further assault on the freedom of the press” and “limit the ability of people round the world to know what’s happening on the ground in Gaza”. 

Via

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