Police seize Al Jazeera broadcast equipment as network pulled off air in Israel

Orders given to cease broadcasting the channel, close its offices in Jerusalem, confiscate equipment, block website; National Unity boycotts vote, saying timing may harm hostage talks

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Police raid the Al Jazeera offices in East Jerusalem on May 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Police raid the Al Jazeera offices in East Jerusalem on May 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Police seized Al Jazeera’s broadcasting equipment from its Jerusalem  offices on Sunday afternoon and the Qatari news channel was pulled off the air in Israel, immediately after the government approved a decision to temporarily shutter the outlet on the grounds that it has harmed national security.

The channel was unavailable on Israel’s two biggest TV providers, Yes and Hot, within hours of the cabinet approving the decision to ban its operations.

Al Jazeera’s English-language and Arabic websites were no longer available online as of Sunday evening on some internet providers.

In parallel, police officers and Communications Ministry inspectors arrived at Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem offices to confiscate the channel’s broadcast equipment and lock the premises.

Video footage sent out by the office of hardline Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who led the charge to ban the channel, showed the Israeli officials entering the office and beginning to document the equipment inside.

Earlier on Sunday, the government voted unanimously to authorize Karhi to shut down Al Jazeera for 45 days, in accordance with a law passed by the Knesset in April allowing the temporary closure of foreign media outlets deemed to be harming national security.

Police officers and Communications Ministry inspectors arrive at Al-Jazeera’s Jerusalem offices to confiscate the channel’s broadcasting equipment, May 5, 2024. (Screenshot, Office of Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi)

Immediately after the cabinet decision, Karhi signed four orders instructing Israel’s television providers to cease broadcasting the Al Jazeera channel, as well as instructions to close the network’s two offices in Israel, both in Jerusalem, confiscate the channel’s broadcast equipment, including cellphones, and block access to the Al Jazeera website in Israel.

“Al Jazeera’s journalists have harmed Israeli security and incited against IDF soldiers,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a joint press release issued together with Karhi’s office following the government decision.

A vote on closing Al Jazeera was postponed on Thursday due to concerns expressed by the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet that closing the Qatari-backed channel could harm negotiations for the release of Israeli hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza, the National Unity party said after the decision was approved. Qatar, which hosts some of the Hamas leadership, plays a central role in the negotiations. National Unity ministers boycotted the Sunday vote.

But Karhi wasted no time in issuing the orders following the cabinet decision, and said that “megaphones for Hamas” would not have freedom of expression in Israel.

“Too much time has passed and there have been too many unnecessary legal hurdles in order to finally stop the well-oiled incitement machine of Al Jazeera, which harms national security,” said Karhi after signing the orders.

“We will act immediately against those who use freedom of the press to harm Israeli security and IDF troops, and incite to terrorism at a time of war.”

A closure order on the door of the Al Jazeera offices in east Jerusalem, May 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In a statement to the press, the minister said that the decision was made “after supporting position papers were received and the prime minister was convinced, in accordance with the law.” The law requires that the security services issue professional opinions that the outlet in question poses a threat to national security.

Netanyahu and Karhi have both claimed that Al Jazeera has caused harm to Israeli national security, but the government has not publicly released the evidence of this claim.

Karhi thanked Netanyahu for his “determination and support against all the odds.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Reuters, Walid Omary, the head of Al Jazeera in Israel and the Palestinian territories, described the government decision as “dangerous” and motivated by political rather than professional considerations, adding that the network’s legal team was preparing a response.

The channel issued a statement following the decision, condemning it as a “criminal” move by the Israeli government.

“We condemn and denounce this criminal act by Israel that violates the human right to access information,” the channel said, adding that it would “pursue all available legal channels through international legal institutions” and claiming that “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 Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign media in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, also condemned the decision to shutter the Al Jazeera news network’s operations in Israel, saying that Israel had joined “a dubious club of authoritarian governments” in banning the station.

“We urge the government to reverse this harmful step and uphold its commitment to freedom of the press — including outlets whose coverage it may not like… This is a dark day for the media. This is a dark day for democracy.”

Under the orders issued by the communications minister, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Al Jazeera’s offices in West and East Jerusalem are to be closed down, cellphones, except those for personal use, are to be confiscated, and so are workstations, cameras, microphones, servers, laptops, external hard drives, video compression equipment and wireless broadcast equipment.

A separate order instructed television providers to stop broadcasting the Al Jazeera channel, and a fourth order instructed television, cellphone and internet providers to block access to Al Jazeera’s English and Arabic-language websites.

An order to shut down a foreign news channel must be brought within 24 hours for judicial review by the president of a district court, who then has three days to decide whether it will go into effect as issued.

The temporary law passed in April allows foreign media networks to be shuttered for a 45-day period, which can then be renewed.

The law itself was passed as a temporary law and will expire on July 31 or earlier, if the declaration of an emergency situation is lifted by the government.

The law gives the prime minister and the communications minister the authority to order the temporary closure of foreign networks operating in Israel and confiscate their equipment if it is believed that they are “doing actual harm to state security.”

It is the communications minister who is empowered to issue such orders, but only after receiving the approval of the prime minister and the security cabinet, and after a professional position paper has been presented to the prime minister and the communications minister by the security services detailing the “factual foundations” of allegations that the channel is causing damage to Israel’s national security.

When the law allowing for foreign news outlets to be shut down was passed in April, Al Jazeera described the allegations against it as “slanderous” and said it held Netanyahu “responsible for the safety of its staff and network premises around the world, following his incitement and this false accusation.”

Although the vote in cabinet was unanimous, the National Unity party led by war cabinet minister Benny Gantz had boycotted the vote, stating afterwards that it supported the measure but that it believed the timing could harm the hostage negotiations, in reference to the position of the Mossad and Shin Bet heads.

In a statement to the press, the party alleged that Sunday’s vote “stems from political considerations.”

Economy Minister Nir Barkat described the Qatari network as “the biggest engine of antisemitism in the world,” and welcomed the decision.

“On the eve of Holocaust Day, the government is sending a strong message against the propaganda arm of the terrorist state of Qatar,” he tweeted. “We will not allow Israel’s enemies to broadcast antisemitic propaganda and blood plots from our territory.”

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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