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Israeli Cabinet Votes to Shut Down Al Jazeera’s Operations in the Country

Israel moved on Sunday to shut down local operations of Al Jazeera, the influential Qatari-based news network, in an unusual step that critics denounced as anti-democratic and part of a broader crackdown on dissent over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Al Jazeera, a major source of news in the Arab world that has often highlighted civilian suffering in Gaza, of harming Israel’s security and inciting violence against its soldiers. Israeli officials did not immediately provide examples of Al Jazeera content it claimed posed a threat.

In a statement, Al Jazeera called the decision a “criminal act” and said that “Israel’s suppression of the free press to cover up its crimes has not deterred us from performing our duty.”

The shutdown order is initially for 45 days, with the option of a 45-day extension, according to the Ministry of Communications. It is directed at halting Al Jazeera’s ability to transmit from Israel, and to be seen there; it was not immediately clear if, or how, the closure might affect the network’s reporting in the Gaza Strip and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have called the network a “mouthpiece” for Hamas, which led the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel from Gaza that set off the war. That day, Al Jazeera repeatedly covered statements from Hamas officials calling for a violent uprising in the West Bank.

Israel has frequently criticized Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language coverage, accusing it of amplifying Hamas’s message and reporting uncritically on the militants’ calls for violence.

But while there was concern that the closure order might have a chilling effect on other news outlets in Israel, it was unclear if it would have much practical impact beyond Israeli boundaries.

“Does anyone understand what they even want?” Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab member of Israel’s Parliament, said of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government. Members of Israel’s Arab minority have been watching Al Jazeera for decades, she said, and have not taken up arms against the state.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Ms. Touma-Sliman said. “Today it’s Al Jazeera, tomorrow it’ll be who knows who.”

In any case, she said, anybody in Israel who still wants to watch Al Jazeera will find a way to do so.

Equipment at an Al Jazeera office in Jerusalem was confiscated on Sunday.Credit…Jamal Awad/Reuters

Pointing to the government’s diminishing tolerance for freedom of expression, Ms. Touma-Sliman noted that in November, she was suspended from all parliamentary activities for two months after publicizing press reports about Israeli forces attacking Gaza’s main hospital. The military had denied the accounts.

The closing of Al Jazeera had been under discussion in Israel for weeks. Journalism organizations on Sunday denounced it as a blow to press freedom. Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the decision, which it called repressive. The Foreign Press Association representing Israeli and Palestinian journalists working for the international news media said Israel had joined “a dubious club of authoritarian governments” that have banned the station.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent human rights organization, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to halt the measures against Al Jazeera, saying that it had witnessed attempts to limit freedom of the press and freedom of protest in Israel throughout the war.

The closure order was a rare move for the Israeli government, though it also shuttered a Lebanese channel, Al Mayadeen, in November. Al Mayadeen is affiliated with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed organization that has been involved in tit-for-tat strikes across Israel’s border with Lebanon since the start of the war. It was closed for two months.

There were signs that Israeli officials were moving quickly against Al Jazeera.

Israel’s communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, said in a video statement that the network’s “equipment would be confiscated.” The Israeli police accompanied government officials who confiscated equipment at an Al Jazeera office at a hotel in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and closed the office.

Israel’s main cable provider, HOT, said it had stopped carrying the network. And the Communications Ministry said in a statement that access to Al Jazeera’s internet sites would also be blocked, a measure that appeared to have come into effect on Sunday night.

Al Jazeera has long had a tense relationship with Israel, and it grew worse with the killing of one of its correspondents, the veteran Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, in the occupied West Bank two years ago. A New York Times investigation found that the bullet that killed her had been fired from the approximate location of an Israeli military convoy.

A 2022 memorial in the West Bank for the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The timing of the closure order raised questions with critics contending that Mr. Netanyahu might have been acting on political interests rather than on matters of national security.

The shutdown could have broad ramifications: Qatar, which helps fund the network, has been helping to mediate cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas, which include the release of hostages seized in Israel on Oct. 7. The Qatari government did not immediately comment on Israel’s action.

On Sunday, Israel’s National Unity party — which is led by Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet — said in a statement that it supported the move against Al Jazeera but questioned its timing. The party said that the timing could “sabotage” the negotiations and that the decision stemmed from “political considerations,” a possible reference to Mr. Netanyahu’s need to mollify hard-line members of his governing coalition.

The war in Gaza has taken a toll on Al Jazeera’s own employees and their families. In October, Wael al-Dahdouh, the Gaza bureau chief of the network’s Arabic-language service, was told live on air that his wife, a son, daughter and infant grandson had been killed in central Gaza, where they had been sheltering. In January, his eldest son was killed in an Israeli airstrike, according to the authorities in Gaza.

Liam Stack, Adam Rasgon and Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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