Israel orders Al Jazeera to close its local operation and seizes some of its equipment

The network has reported the Israeli-Hamas war nonstop since Oct. 7 and has maintained 24-hour coverage in the Gaza Strip.
Al Jazeera's Master Control Room unit
Posted at 2:19 PM, May 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-06 14:19:30-04

Israel ordered the local offices of Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite news network to close Sunday, escalating a long-running feud between the broadcaster and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line government as Doha-mediated cease-fire negotiations with Hamas hang in the balance.

The extraordinary order, which includes confiscating broadcast equipment, preventing the broadcast of the channel's reports and blocking its websites, is believed to be the first time Israel has ever shuttered a foreign news outlet operating in the country.

Al Jazeera went off Israel's main cable and satellite providers in the hours after the order. However, its website and multiple online streaming links still operated Sunday.

The network has reported the Israeli-Hamas war nonstop since the militants' initial cross-border attack Oct. 7 and has maintained 24-hour coverage in the Gaza Strip amid Israel's grinding ground offensive that has killed and wounded members of its staff. While including on-the-ground reporting of the war's casualties, its Arabic arm often publishes verbatim video statements from Hamas and other regional militant groups.

"Al Jazeera reporters harmed Israel's security and incited against soldiers," Netanyahu said in a statement. "It's time to remove the Hamas mouthpiece from our country."

Al Jazeera issued a statement vowing it will "pursue all available legal channels through international legal institutions in its quest to protect both its rights and journalists, as well as the public's right to information."

"Israel's ongoing suppression of the free press, seen as an effort to conceal its actions in the Gaza Strip, stands in contravention of international and humanitarian law," the network said. "Israel's direct targeting and killing of journalists, arrests, intimidation and threats will not deter Al Jazeera."

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The Israeli government has taken action against individual reporters over the decades since its founding in 1948, but broadly allows for a rambunctious media scene that includes foreign bureaus from around the world, even from Arab nations. It also blocked the foreign broadcasts of the Hezbollah-affiliated, Beirut-based Al Mayadeen news channel at the start of the war.

A law passed last month allows the government to take action against Al Jazeera, Netanyahu's office said.

Israeli Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi later published footage online of authorities raiding a hotel room Al Jazeera had been broadcasting from in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to one day have for their future state. He said officials seized some of the channel's equipment there.

"We finally are able to stop Al Jazeera's well-oiled incitement machine that harms the security of the country," Karhi said. His office said it would bar Al Jazeera from operating in Israel for at least 45 days, a measure that can be renewed.

The ban did not appear to affect the channel's operations in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, where Israel wields control but which are not sovereign Israeli territory.

The decision threatens to heighten tensions with Qatar at a time when the Doha government is playing a key role in mediation efforts to halt the war in Gaza, along with Egypt and the United States.

Qatar has had strained ties with Netanyahu in particular since he made comments suggesting that Qatar is not exerting enough pressure on Hamas to prompt it to relent in its terms for a truce deal. Qatar hosts Hamas leaders in exile in Doha.

The sides appear to be close to striking a deal, but multiple previous rounds of talks have ended with no agreement.

In a statement Sunday, Hamas condemned the Israeli government order, calling on international organizations to take measures against Israel.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel criticized the order.

"With this decision, Israel joins a dubious club of authoritarian governments to ban the station," it said. "This is a dark day for the media." The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists similarly warned the move represented an "extremely alarming precedent for restricting international media outlets working in Israel."

Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director, criticized the Israeli order as "an assault on freedom of the press."

"Rather than trying to silence reporting on its atrocities in Gaza, the Israeli government should stop committing them," he added.

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Israel has long had a rocky relationship with Al Jazeera, accusing it of bias. Relations took a major downturn nearly two years ago when Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh was killed during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank.

Those relations further deteriorated following the outbreak of Israel's war against Hamas on Oct. 7, when the militant group carried out a cross-border attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. Since then, the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed over 34,000 people, according to local health officials there, who don't break figures down into civilians and combatants.

Israeli media largely has avoided the plight of those in the Gaza Strip, instead focusing on the Oct. 7 attack, the hostages held there and tales of Israeli military heroism.

Meanwhile in December, an Israeli strike killed an Al Jazeera cameraman as he reported on the war in southern Gaza. The channel's bureau chief in Gaza, Wael Dahdouh, was wounded in the same attack. Dahdouh, a correspondent well-known to Palestinians during many wars, later evacuated Gaza but only after Israeli strikes killed his wife, three of his children and a grandson.

Al Jazeera is one of the few international media outlets to remain in Gaza throughout the war, broadcasting bloody scenes of airstrikes and overcrowded hospitals and accusing Israel of massacres.

Criticism of the channel is not new, however. The U.S. government singled out the broadcaster during America's occupation of Iraq after its 2003 invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and for airing videos of the late al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

Al Jazeera has been closed or blocked by other Mideast governments.

Most notably in 2013, Egyptian authorities raided a luxury hotel used by Al Jazeera as an operating base after the military takeover that followed mass protests against President Mohammed Morsi. Three Al Jazeera staff members received 10-year prison sentences, but were released in 2015 following widespread international criticism.