Israel’s communications minister declared war on Al Jazeera Sunday, pledging to shut down its local broadcasts, revoke its press credentials, and close its Jerusalem office, a brazen broadside aimed at the popular Arab media outlet.
Ayoob Kara, the communications official, said barring the state-owned Qatari outlet was necessary because it “supports terrorism,” a likely reference to its broadcasts of interviews with groups like the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated the proposal, accusing Al Jazeera of “incitement” against Israel. Last month, Netanyahu accused Al Jazeera of encouraging Palestinian violence against Israel in response to Israeli security measures outside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Press freedom advocates denounced the proposal as a step toward censorship and the latest sign of deterioration in press freedom throughout Israel, whose security forces allegedly beat journalists covering July protests in Jerusalem and have launched frequent raids on Palestinian media outlets in the West Bank.
“I don’t think Israel can continue to boast an image of being the sole democratic country in the region at the same time they are following authoritarian governments in banning Al Jazeera or using Al Jazeera as a pawn in political conflicts,” said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Israelis are proud of having a robust media ecosystem, full of debate and harsh criticism aimed at its leaders. But the flip side of Israeli democracy is Israel’s military occupation in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, where the ability of journalists to do their jobs has come under attack. In 2016, Israel jailed seven Palestinian journalists in the occupied West Bank — a number that put them ahead of Saudi Arabia.
“Israel has been practicing censorship under the guise of fighting terrorism for a long time,” Mansour told VICE News.
While foreign media associations have denounced Israel’s attacks on Al Jazeera — the International Federation of Journalists called it a “witch hunt” — Israeli editorial boards have paid little attention to the issue, though the liberal Haaretz ran an op-ed by Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief criticizing the broadsides against Al Jazeera.
Israeli security forces’ record on press freedom appears to have only worsened in recent weeks. Last month, journalists flocked to Jerusalem to cover the Palestinian protests that erupted after Israel installed metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. But journalists found themselves besieged by Israeli security forces, blocked from access to key sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, and thrown out of the area if they managed to get through police lines.
“There were [also] far too many of cases of journalists being attacked with pepper spray in their faces, with stun grenades,” said Glenys Sugarman, the executive secretary of the Foreign Press Association, a group that advocates for journalists working in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Earlier this month, her organization filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court over the violent tactics.
Then, on July 29, Israeli army forces raided the offices of PalMedia in Ramallah, seizing documents and six storage devices. The army said it did so because the company broadcasts “incitement to terrorism.”
One week later, Kara, the communications minister, called a press conference to announce Israel would be joining other states in the region, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in banning Al Jazeera. (Full disclosure: I have freelanced for Al Jazeera English.)
Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, has been a thorn in the side of authoritarian states in the Middle East for its broadcasting of Islamists and dissident activists, though the channel does not criticize the country that owns it. In June, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states placed Qatar under siege until it changes its foreign policy — and one of their initial demands on Qatar was to close Al Jazeera.
But Al Jazeera shows no signs of going away — not in Qatar, and not even in Israel. Israel’s communications minister needs the cooperation of the Israeli parliament, Israel’s broadcasting regulator and the Israeli Government Press Office, which handles press credentials, to fully enact his proposal. And media experts in Israel said it was unlikely he would gain that authority.
“The minister of communications has no authority to withdraw channels in Israel. The only thing he can do is go to the regulatory authority in Israel, and this authority would never take off a channel from Israeli television without a very strong factual basis,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the head of the Media Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Altshuler told VICE News the decision is as much about political optics as it is about shutting down the news outlet. Lurking behind Kara’s announcement is the predicament of his party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister appointed himself communications minister in 2014 but was forced to resign in February because of an Israeli police investigation over charges he colluded with the head of an Israeli newspaper to get favorable coverage.
“Netanyahu had to appoint someone as minister of communications. He appointed [Kara], a weak person, a loyal person to Netanyahu, without any prior experience in media regulation,” said Altshuler. “This guy said to himself, ‘I must catch some public attention. I must be considered as someone who can do something.’”
In addition, attacking Al Jazeera is an easy way to appeal to the Likud Party’s right-wing base.
“It is a populist message,” said Altshuler. “Of course, the extreme right in Israel would be happy with that.”