Israel’s Shutdown of Al Jazeera Highlights Long-Running Tensions

When Israel ordered Al Jazeera on Sunday to shut down operations there, the network had a reporter covering a government meeting in West Jerusalem, another in an East Jerusalem hotel room, a third in northern Israel to cover clashes on the border with Lebanon and a fourth in Tel Aviv.

But the cameras stopped rolling when Walid al-Omari, the network’s bureau chief in Ramallah, in the West Bank, ordered all of them to go home. Israeli authorities descended on a room used by Al Jazeera in the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, confiscating broadcast equipment. Israeli television and internet providers cut off its channels and blocked its websites, though people were still able to find it online.

Al Jazeera, the influential Arab news network, says it will continue reporting and broadcasting from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But its departure from Israel marks a new low in its long-strained history with a country that much of Al Jazeera’s audience in the Arab world and beyond sees as an aggressor and an occupier.

The shutdown order, which lasts 45 days and can be renewed, was a break long in the making. Mr. al-Omari said that soon after the Israel-Hamas war began in October, the network stopped using an office in West Jerusalem, saying that far-right Israelis had used intimidation tactics against the staff there.

The network has played a major role in amplifying stories of the killing and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, heightening worldwide outrage at Israel’s conduct. Many defenders of Al Jazeera argue that its work is so strong that Israel wants to intimidate and censor it.

But its focus on bloodshed in Gaza has also generated controversy, with some Arab analysts saying it cheerleads for what it portrays as legitimate armed resistance to Israel, and presents commentary from Hamas officials and fighters with little critical pushback. The network is backed by the government of Qatar, which allows Hamas political leaders to live and operate in its country.

That makes it a compelling target for critics in Israel and beyond who say it is, at best, presenting a one-sided view of the war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Al Jazeera of inciting violence against Israel and harming Israel’s security.

“We knew it was a question of time,” Mr. al-Omari said of the shutdown in an interview on Tuesday. Israel’s government, he said, had long pursued what he called “a war against Al Jazeera.”

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel and the devastating Israeli military campaign in Gaza that followed, Al Jazeera has relied on its network of journalists in the territory — the most robust of any news outlet — to produce a steady stream of harrowing and emotionally charged reporting.

Its broadcasts about Gaza’s spiraling hunger crisis fill the screens in many Arab households. Its videos of agonized parents clutching their dead children and bodies being pulled from the rubble flood social media.

With other foreign news media blocked by Israel and Egypt from gaining access to Gaza, no outlet with Al Jazeera’s global audience can match the breadth of its coverage there.

Al Jazeera has seven correspondents stretching from north to southern Gaza, according to its managing editor, Mohamed Moawad, along with a large team of camera people, producers and others. He said in an interview that Israel was “trying to delegitimize our coverage because we are the only organization covering it from inside.”

“They want to conceal what’s happening in Gaza,” he added.

Shuruq Asad, spokeswoman for the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, said that without Al Jazeera’s journalists in Gaza, “we couldn’t have known anything, and they have paid for this with their lives.”

“Unfortunately our badges, vests and helmets in Gaza did not provide any protection for us,” Hisham Zaqout, an Al Jazeera correspondent in Gaza, wrote in a WhatsApp message.

Israeli authorities did not specify their reasoning for barring Al Jazeera except to say that it harmed Israel’s security. But given that the network can continue broadcasting from Gaza and that its mainly Arab audience can still view the channel using virtual private networks or YouTube, many Israeli commentators called the move symbolic at most.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which appealed the order with Israel’s High Court, said its limited practical effect “suggests that it was made to shut down critical voices and to mark Arab media and its viewers as a fifth column.”

Experts who track the network say its mix of searing footage from Gaza and on-air commentary echoing many of Hamas’s claims boosts support for the group’s actions, not just sympathy for Palestinians. That applies especially to its Arabic-language channel; it also has channels in English and other languages.

“The fact that it just gives the primary platform to Hamas, Hamas officials, Hamas spokesmen, et cetera, the fact that it cuts off any voices that are critical of Hamas — it has basically made it such that on Al Jazeera, Hamas is really the spokesman for the Palestinian people,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a Palestinian affairs analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.

Al Jazeera rejects accusations that it is a mouthpiece for Hamas, saying in a statement that Israel’s ban is a “criminal act” that violates “the basic right to access of information.”

The closure of Al Jazeera’s operations has added fuel to allegations, denied by Israel, that Israel is attempting to hide the devastation in Gaza.

“Israel is trying to control the narrative, and it is trying to deprive even the Israeli audience from seeing the atrocities in Gaza,” said Jamil Dakwar, a law professor at New York University and a founding attorney of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Sunday’s decision drew condemnation from rights advocates. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Matthew Miller, said on Monday, “We think Al Jazeera ought to be able to operate in Israel, as they operate in other countries.”

Analysts who follow Al Jazeera’s coverage say the network differentiates itself from other Arabic-language channels by broadcasting Israeli officials’ news conferences and inviting Israeli analysts and officials to appear on air.

But in general, Al Jazeera tends to embrace views held by many Arabs, broadcasting analysis “that glorifies the act of resistance” against what it portrays as “aggression by the occupation settler army,” that is, Israel, said Mahmoud Khalil, a media studies professor at Cairo University.

He added that Al Jazeera’s military analysts often exaggerated Palestinian battlefield successes and downplayed Israeli gains.

Mr. al-Omari, of the Washington Institute, said the network had also elided the worst of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, helping to give rise to persistent denials among some Arabs of some of the bloodiest acts that Palestinian attackers had committed there.

Early in the war, Al Jazeera posted to social media a video released by Hamas that purported to show its assailants taking care of children at an Israeli kibbutz they had attacked on Oct. 7, leaving out the context: They had killed the children’s mother. It attracted 1.4 million views on Facebook.

Asked about the video, Mr. Moawad said that the network had also aired live footage of an Israeli military spokesman saying that Hamas attackers had taken women and children from the kibbutz.

“We air and broadcast footage from both sides without editing to ensure our viewers are up-to-date with the developments and have heard both sides,” he said in a statement.

Al Jazeera has been banned in other countries, including Arab states who accused the network of biased reporting and support for Islamist political movements — some of them violent — that those countries have suppressed.

For many Arabs wary of Islamist groups, Al Jazeera’s amplification of Hamas voices is a turnoff, said Mr. Khalil, of Cairo University.

Ms. Asad, of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, said that imbalances or omissions in coverage should not be grounds for a ban, which critics of the decision said put Israel in the same category as other authoritarian governments that have cracked down on unfriendly news media.

“No one has the right to close Israeli television or to silence CNN or to silence anybody,” she said.

Reporting was contributed by Adam Rasgon and Johnatan Reiss from Jerusalem, Emad Mekay from Cairo, and Iyad Abuheweila from Istanbul.

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