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Al-Jazeera's Jerusalem office, August 29, 2017 (Mahmoud Ibrahem/Andalou Agency/Getty Images)
(Mahmoud Ibrahem/Andalou Agency/Getty Images

Jerusalem Notebook: Al Jazeera in Israel – To Ban or Not to Ban?

Lela Gilbert

In the scorching heat of a troubled Jerusalem summer, the government of Israel announced that it intends to shut down Qatar-based Al Jazeera News Service.

Shuttering a large and well-known news outlet in a democratic nation is not to be taken lightly. This is especially true when that nation is the Jewish State, which the world consistently holds to a higher standard of conduct than its Muslim neighbors.

Israeli Minister of Communications Ayoub Kara has declared that Al Jazeera will be shut down – a decision confirmed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Kara has also announced that Al Jazeera correspondent Elias Karram’s press card has been revoked, pending a hearing.

On August 22, Israel National News reported,

Forty-year-old Elias Karram, a resident of the northern town of Nazareth, lost his press credentials … following an order by Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) to shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in Israel, due to the Qatar-based media outlet’s history of anti-Israel incitement.

Government Press Organization Manager Nitzan Hen revoked Karram’s press pass after the GPO reviewed a May 2016 interview Karram gave to the Islamist Dar Al-Iman outlet. During the interview, Karram declared himself a “Palestinian journalist,” despite his Israeli citizenship, and said that his work at Al Jazeera is “an integral part of the resistance” against Israel.

Accusations about Al Jazeera’s complicity with terrorists are nothing new, and the network has been under careful Israeli scrutiny. But for years, its freedom to report and broadcast has continued unabated. Last year, Israeli terrorism expert Mordechai Kedar carried on his years-long disapproval of Al Jazeera’s presence in the Jewish State. He put it this way:

Israel knows exactly how to keep hostile media outside its territory: Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV channel and Iran’s El-Alam TV network are not allowed to work from within the Jewish State. Al Jazeera should be given identical treatment. I once discussed this with a well-known Israeli lawyer and asked him if there is a legal basis for ejecting Al Jazeera from Israel. He answered in the positive, because no foreign media outlet has legal standing in the state of Israel, and all the foreign media based in the country are here only because Israel permits them to be. Israel does not even have to explain why it ejects any of the foreign media, and since none have standing in court, they cannot sue the state to allow them to remain.

Despite complaints similar to Kedar’s by commentators and politicians alike, Al Jazeera has for years kept up its controversial reporting in Israel. Some cynics even claim that Israel only allowed it to exist for the sake of good Israeli publicity.

But the rage and rioting that exploded in Israel following this July’s terrorist killing of two police officers on the Temple Mount exponentially raised the Al Jazeera debate’s volume by several decibels.

On July 14, three terrorists from the Arab-Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm – all claiming the same name, Muhammad Jabarin – made their way to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount around 3 a.m.

They smuggled guns and a knife into the area surrounding the al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Around 7 a.m., they opened fire, killing two Israeli police officers, Haiel Sitawe, 30, and Kamil Shnaan, 22, who were guarding one of the Temple Mount entrances. Neither of the victims was Jewish; both were Druze police officers from the Galilee.

The three terrorists were shot dead.

The double murder motivated Israel to install metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount. To most western observers, the only question regarding the metal detectors was, “Why on earth weren’t they there in the first place?”

Certainly those all-too-familiar security devices are in use around the world, including at numerous Muslim holy sites across the Middle East.

Meanwhile, “in Mecca,” reported Lev Haolam, “there are more than 5,000 CCTV cameras and over 100,000 people employed to provide security during the annual Hajj. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia faces terrorist threats and has upgraded its security in recent years. In 2015, the International Business Times reported that Saudi Arabia was “issuing pilgrims with electronic bracelets” and was increasing the number of cameras.”

Nevertheless, the installation of metal detectors on the Temple Mount inspired massive riots, serious injuries and even murders, not to mention a dangerous escalation of tensions across Jerusalem and well beyond Israel’s borders. Many thousands of enraged Muslims rioted, chanted anti-Jewish and death-to-Israel slogans in Turkey, Jordan, Yemen and Malaysia.

This uproar emanated from a widely held belief that Israel is stealthily changing the status quo of Temple Mount access. So a recycled rumor took flight across the world that the Jews were about to seize the site, ban Muslims, destroy the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa Mosque, and construct a Jewish temple.

Without a doubt, Al Jazeera has done its share of propagating that decades-old and baseless lie: “Al Aqsa is in danger!” This is particularly so in its notoriously hateful and dishonest Arabic language reports.

In the meantime, another news story provides related background. Just weeks before the Temple Mount crisis, Qatar (home base of Al Jazeera) was formally boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for its support of terrorism. In the process of ending diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, these Islamic states also banned Al Jazeera.

It is well known that both Qatar and Al Jazeera are deeply influenced and financially entangled with the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas; this has caused some countries to ban the news source either temporarily or permanently. Israel has reason to agree. Dan Diker at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs explained to NBC News,

Al Jazeera has been guilty of terrible and fundamentally unprofessional reporting that uses incitement to please their radical paymasters in the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, referring to two Islamist organizations based in Gaza and Egypt respectively.

Israel is saying, “Enough is enough,” and that you cannot exploit our democratic system in order to assault our democratic country via your propagandistic and radical-Islamic reporting.

Israel has repeatedly stated its case regarding claims of Al Jazeera’s record of incitement to violence, broadcasting of anti-Israel propaganda and support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel movement.

And unsurprisingly, myriad voices have repeatedly been raised to protest Israel’s impending Al Jazeera ban. Opinion writers and analysts on all sides have brought forth various arguments expressing concern about press freedom, free speech and inappropriate censorship of journalists.

For example, Freedom House, a Washington-based non-governmental organization, said that Israel “hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected.” However, “due to ongoing conflicts with Palestinian groups and neighboring countries,” it added, “media outlets are subject to military censorship and gag orders, and journalists often face travel restrictions.”

For Israel, surrounded by large and powerful Muslim countries, the delicate balance between national security, false oppositional media reports, and occasional governmental gag orders placed on sensitive subjects, remains difficult to maintain.

How can a small nation like Israel, with mortal enemies on all sides, keep security secrets, curtail libelous and incendiary rumormongering and still retain press freedom?

The essential reality in all this is that free speech has limitations. All speech is not free. In US law, for example, one of the limitations of free speech involves True Threats. Such threats are words that convey a genuine threat of actual danger; they are not spoken in jest or hyperbole.

Another form of speech that isn’t free is Incitement: words intended to provoke or produce lawless action or actual harm.

Press freedom is an extension of free speech. So, when a news source advances a true threat or incitement that is intended to cause illegal behavior or physical harm, it is illegal under U.S. law.

As for international law, there are also limitations to a totally free press. A section of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights informs nations that they should ban war propaganda which is able to cause “national, racial and religious hatred or incite racial discrimination, hostility or violence. This stipulation does not run counter to the right to freedom of expression, because it conforms to the objectives of the United Nations Organization and the requirements of a civilized society.”

Meanwhile, the most significant argument defending Israel’s right to ban Al Jazeera comes, interestingly, from a former Al Jazeera journalist, Mohamed Fahmy. He provides ample evidence of incitement to violence in Al Jazeera’s weekly sermons of Islamist cleric – and spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood – Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

There are also indications that Al Jazeera reporters are in close touch with terrorist groups.

In a June 2017 Bloomberg article by Eli Lake titled “The Ex-Journalist Who Says Al Jazeera Aids Terrorists,” Mohamed Fahmy, former Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera, explains why bans of his ex-employer make sense. Lake reports,

To begin with, the network still airs a weekly talk show from Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This elderly cleric has used his platform to argue that Islamic law justifies terrorist attacks against Israelis and U.S. soldiers.

U.S. military leaders such as retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded forces in the initial campaign to stabilize Iraq, have said publicly that Al Jazeera reporters appeared to have advance knowledge of terrorist attacks.

Fahmy told me that in his research he has learned that instructions were given to journalists not to refer to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization.

Fahmy believes that Qatar’s neighbors were justified in banning Al Jazeera. “Al-Jazeera has breached the true meaning of press freedom that I advocate and respect by sponsoring these voices of terror like Yusuf al Qaradawi,” he said. “If Al Jazeera continues to do that, they are directly responsible for many of these lone wolves, many of these youth that are brainwashed.”

A separate article in The Tower reported, “[Fahmy] rejected the accusation that, by trying to revoke Al Jazeera press credentials, Israel is violating press freedom.” “They [Qatar] use the press,” Fahmy said, repeating his view that the network engages in “unethical journalism.”

Arguments over Israel’s proposed Al Jazeera ban will doubtless continue. And it may well be, no matter what Israel’s prime minister or minister of communications intend, that the complications involved in pushing an Al Jazeera ban through the Knesset and the Israeli justice system will bog the effort down indefinitely.

Still, the Al Jazeera case is instructive. Freedom of speech and a free press have their limits. True threats, and incitement to violence or illegal activity, are internationally defined no-go zones. These boundaries apply to all journalists, their news services and their editors – here, there and everywhere.

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