On July 27th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his decision to close Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem office and revoke its journalists’ credentials. The announcement brought widespread international condemnation. Press freedom organizations, like PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the move as a threat to free speech and as undemocratic.
Al Jazeera itself denounced the decision “made by a state that claims to be ‘the only democratic state in the Middle East.’” But this decision is only the most recent, and highest profile, example of Israel’s ongoing war against Palestinian press freedom.
Netanyahu’s decision came in the wake of the recent al-Aqsa crisis, during which he accused Al Jazeera of inciting violence against Israelis. Israeli officials often accuse Palestinian political and media personnel of “incitement,” in order to silence Palestinian expression. Such accusations allow Israel to use a combination of archaic laws and military orders to outlaw political and media organizations’ critical of Israel.
Israeli politicians have long sought Al Jazeera’s closure. In June, reports surfaced that Israel was considering closing the Qatar-based and funded news outlet. At that time, Al Jazeera was at the center of the ongoing Gulf crisis, between Qatar and its neighbors, primarily Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Israel has close, but secret, ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and seemed interested in following their lead in shutting down Al Jazeera’s channels and demanding its closure.
The Gulf countries have since dropped their demand to shutter Al Jazeera, but Netanyahu remains firm.
Israel’s attack on Al Jazeera is only part of its extensive battle against Palestinian journalists. According to Freedom House’s 2016 ratings, the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have a free press. The report rightfully placed some of the blame for this on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which both assault and detain journalists without charge. But, it also found that Israeli authorities “engaged in censorship” and “regularly obstructed the work of journalists in the field.”
Some of this censorship included the shuttering of three West Bank radio stations for alleged incitement in November 2015. The Israeli government has also regularly subjected Palestinian journalists to indefinite detention without trial. During the recent al-Aqsa crisis, Israeli forces raided and ransacked several media institutions covering the protests and seized their equipment. Israel accused these institutions of incitement, a charge that the institutions denied.
Israeli forces also use outright violence against Palestinian journalists. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) recorded dozens of beatings of Palestinian journalists by Israeli forces during the al-Aqsa crisis. The victims were both members of local media organizations and employees of international companies like Sky News, Al Jazeera, RT, and Reuters. In fact, MADA documented 228 violations of media freedom in the West Bank and Gaza the first half of 2017. Israel committed 127 of these violations.
Even worse, Israeli forces have used deadly violence against Palestinian journalists. During Israel’s 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least seven journalists in the line of duty according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). One, Hamid Shihab, was killed by a targeted Israeli strike while driving a car “clearly marked as a press vehicle,” according to CPJ. During the 2014 assault, Israel also killed eight journalists who were not working at the time of their deaths.
These deaths made Israel the second deadliest country for journalists in 2014, behind civil war-stricken Syria. Israel has also killed other Palestinian and international journalists while they were covering other Israeli assaults on Gaza and Palestinian protests in the West Bank.
Against this backdrop, Israel’s decision to shutter Al Jazeera is hardly out of character. Rather, it is part of a larger pattern of obstructing press freedom when it comes to the issue of Palestine, through censorship and violence.