French Jews decry Normandy region plan to honor pro-Hamas journalist

Motaz Azaiza to receive Liberty Prize at D-Day event for ‘telling story of those affected by war,’ despite apparent praise for terror group and refusal to condemn October 7

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza (C) joins anti-Israel protesters preparing to march through central London, on May 18, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)
Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza (C) joins anti-Israel protesters preparing to march through central London, on May 18, 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)

On the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, a regional government in France is awarding a prestigious prize to a Palestinian journalist who has accused Israel of perpetrating a “genocide” and defended Hamas terrorists’ atrocities on October 7.

The Region of Normandy faces criticism by local Jews and an international Jewish advocacy group for its plans to give its Prize of Liberty to Motaz Azaiza at a ceremony on June 4, along with a 25,000 euro ($27,000) check.

Azaiza is being honored for his “fight for the right to information, which allows him to broadcast information on the conflict, telling the story of the fate of populations affected by this war,” the region wrote online.

In March, Azaiza wrote on Instagram, where he has over 18 million followers, that he did not think the October 7 atrocities by Hamas terrorists should necessarily be condemned. Some 3,000 gunmen who burst into southern Israel that day, rampaging through communities and going on to murder some 1,200 people and abduct 252.

“If you want a besieged Palestinian to condemn it, you need to declare that you condemn what Israel [has] been doing against Palestinians before the 7th of October, since 1948 and during the genocide, and after it. Palestinians are not or not terrorists, Israeli killing Palestinians everyday like it’s a duty for them. Israel is a terror state,” Azaiza wrote on March 11, after he had left Gaza for his new base in Qatar.

According to the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, some 37,000 Palestinians have died as a result of Israel’s ongoing military operation there, which Israel launched after October 7 to dismantle Hamas’ regime and retrieve the hostages. The unconfirmed data do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 15,000.

Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza stands in a street in central Gaza on December 18, 2023. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP)

According to Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that monitors Palestinian media, Azaiza also posted a message celebrating Hamas terrorists on Telegram.

One image from May posted in an account that Palestinian Media Watch says appears to belong to Azaiza shows a person wearing a balaclava and a Hamas headband kneeling in prayer as the person’s forehead touches an AK-47 assault rifle. “Among the faithful, there are men who have been loyal to their oath [to fight for Allah and sacrifice their lives],” a caption of one photo on the channel reads.

Another shows Hamas terrorists in prayer with the caption: “By Allah the almighty, these angels fight on our side. A message by one of the Mujahidin.”

The Telegram channel has a handle that contains Azaiza’s name and pictures of a person described as his grandmother, among other images. Azaiza has not replied to queries by The Times of Israel on whether he is the operator of the channel.

On X, Azaiza uploaded a picture of Adolf Hitler with his council juxtaposed with a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers.

Motaz Azaiza attends the 2024 TIME100 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 25, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Azaiza used to work for UNRWA, the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, according to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. Israeli officials have long charged that UNRWA ignores its mandate to remain politically neutral, hiring staffers who actively campaign against Israel. A handful of UNRWA employees took part in the October 7 atrocities and thousands more have links to Hamas or other terror groups, Israel says.

On Saturday, he wrote on social media that he is the target of a “smear campaign by Zionists” seeking to cancel his award in apparent response to objections raised by French Jews.

Nassim Lévy, a leader of Normandy’s Jewish community, in a letter to the region’s leaders, called the choice of Azaiza “immoral and inappropriate, seeing as Azaiza is associated and close to Hamas.”

Azaiza left Gaza in January aboard a Qatari military plane, Journal du Dimanche reported. He is scheduled to attend an official event in Normandy along with veterans of D-Day marking the Allied invasion that took place there in 1944.

Very few Gazans are able to leave the Gaza Strip as Azaiza had, a fact that some of his critics attribute to his alleged ties with Qatar, Hamas or both. Azaiza has been featured prominently in Western media, including Time Magazine, which included Azaiza on its list of the 100 most influential people in 2024.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin speaks at the annual European Jewish Association meeting held in Porto, Portugal on May 16, 2023 . (EJA)

On Sunday, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who heads the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, panned the decision to honor Azaiza on a key date in the defeat of Nazism.

Azaiza had been among the topics discussed at a three-day conference in Amsterdam organized by the EJA focused on the explosion of antisemitic hate crimes in Europe after October 7.

“On the anniversary of the Allied invasion to rid Europe of the scourge of Nazism, a jihadist who resides in Qatar and glorifies despicable murderers and incites hatred is honored. It’s another sign of the loss of moral compass spreading throughout the West,” said Margolin.

“We meet the moral blindness in parliaments, universities, streets and sports arena, which is exactly why we scheduled our emergency conference, uniting pro-Israel and Jewish groups, in Amsterdam,” he added.

Anti-Israel activists wield wooden planks before using them to hit students at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 6, 2024. (Courtesy)

Margolin said his legal team was exploring whether the Normandy prize runs afoul of French laws against advocating for terrorism.

“We are not gathering for theoretical discussions this time, but for working out practical ways of fighting back,” he said.

Neither the office of Hervé Morin, the president of the Normandy region, nor the International Institute for Human Rights and Peace, a nongovernmental organization involved with Azaiza’s honoring, responded to The Times of Israel’s requests for a reaction to the criticism.

Enthusiasts wearing replica WWII military attire stand atop US Second World War tanks in a re-enactors’ camp where enthusiasts with replica WWII equipment and attire gather, ahead of commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II “D-Day” Allied landings in Normandy, in Vierville-sur-mer, northwestern France, on June 2, 2024. (Photo by Lou Benoist / AFP)

In a statement to the Journal du Dimanche, however, Morin argued that the controversy doesn’t concern his region because the prize is given out on the basis of a popular vote.

The online vote, sponsored by the region, determines the winner out of three candidates selected by the Institute. Bertrand Deniaud, the Region’s vice president and the person responsible for secondary schools, is scheduled to attend the award ceremony, the Journal du Dimanche wrote.

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