Karhi plows ahead with plan to squelch Al Jazeera as defense minister backs move

However, Israeli sources say steps against the Qatari-owned channel being frozen due to Doha’s role in negotiating fate of hostages in Gaza

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

Illustrative: The Jerusalem office of Qatar-based news network and TV channel Al Jazeera on July 31, 2017 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Illustrative: The Jerusalem office of Qatar-based news network and TV channel Al Jazeera on July 31, 2017 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said Wednesday that Israel was prepared to shut down Qatari news channel Al Jazeera in Israel and seize its equipment, pending an okay from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said he would back the move.

The decision to push ahead with the controversial closure of the channel, which Karhi accused of working against Israel’s defense interests and fueling anti-Israel sentiment, followed legal and security assessments by the government, he said.

“From our point of view, the orders are ready to remove [Al Jazeera] from [cable TV providers] Hot and Yes, to close [Al Jazeera’s] offices, to seize broadcast equipment from journalists, to revoke the government press passes, to withhold communications and internet services by Israeli companies [to Al Jazeera], everything is ready,” Karhi said during a debate in the Knesset plenum on the issue.

Karhi alleged during his comments in the Knesset that Al Jazeera had “photographed and published” the positioning of IDF forces, “broadcast military announcements by Hamas,” and “distorted facts in a way which incited masses of people to riot.”

He noted that shuttering the channel could not be brought to a vote in the security cabinet without the approval of the defense minister.

“This issue is in the defense minister’s court; after his approval, which we are yet to receive, the request will be brought to the security cabinet for approval,” said the hardline communications minister, who spent much of his first months in office trying to shut Israel’s Kan public broadcaster.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi attends a digital journalism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, January 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Gallant denied dragging his feet, with his office releasing a statement immediately following the Knesset debate that “despite what has been claimed, the defense minister supports restricting the broadcasts and activities of the Al Jazeera station immediately.”

It was not immediately clear when the move would be brought for a vote or if it would have the support of the cabinet.

Senior sources with knowledge of the issue told The Times of Israel and other Israeli media outlets on Tuesday that efforts to shut Al-Jazeera had been mothballed due to the sensitive role being played by Qatar in the negotiations to free the more than 240 hostages being held by terror groups in Gaza.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant addresses the Israeli press from Tel Aviv’s IDF headquarters, October 26, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

The sources cited “diplomatic and security reasons” for pushing off the plan and noted that limiting their broadcast in Israel would not really be effective as the channel could easily be viewed on the internet.

Legal sources also told the Ynet news agency that the channel had not divulged Israeli troop movements and had always complied with the demands of the military censor.

Last month, the government approved initial regulations that would allow Israel to temporarily shut down foreign news channels during the current state of emergency due to the war with Hamas, if it believes the outlet is damaging national security.

Karhi has led the charge to pass these regulations, focusing on Al Jazeera specifically, which he claims has damaged national security since the war began.

Illustrative: An employee of Al Jazeera walks past the channel’s logo at its headquarters in Doha, Qatar, in 2006. (AP/Kamran Jebreili, File)

The regulations would be retroactive, Karhi’s office said at the time, meaning broadcasts by the Qatari-owned channel since the Hamas atrocities of October 7 and the declaration of the state of emergency, could be used as the basis for a decision to shut down the staunchly pro-Palestinian news outlet.

“Israel is at war on land, in the air, at sea and on the public diplomacy front. We will not allow in any way broadcasts that harm the security of the state,” said Karhi, when announcing the approval of the regulations.

“Al Jazeera’s broadcasts and reports constitute incitement against Israel, help Hamas-ISIS and the terror organizations with their propaganda, and encourage violence against Israel,” insisted the communications minister, a member of the hardline flank of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Al Jazeera has denied these allegations.

According to the new regulations, the communications minister can shut down foreign media outlets during a state of emergency, but needs the agreement of the defense minister and the approval of the security cabinet.

The communications minister can then order TV providers to stop broadcasting the news outlet in question, close its offices in Israel, seize its equipment and shut down its website or restrict access to its website, depending on the location of its server.

The decision must be approved by the security cabinet, must be based on legal opinions by the security establishment that the outlet is indeed harming national security, and is subject to the review of a district court.

The court must issue a ruling on the decision within three days — it can approve or annul that order, or shorten the time period for which it is in effect.

Posters showing Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and Arabic that reads, ‘the icon of the Palestinian media, coverage continues, goodbye Shireen,’ while journalists and mourners gather at the Al Jazeera channel office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Such a decision will be valid for 30 days but can be extended for additional 30-day periods. The emergency regulations will be in place for three months, or until the specific state of emergency is formally ended by the government.

Ahead of the legislative process, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara insisted on making changes to a previous version of the regulations proposed by Karhi, so that an order to shutter a foreign news outlet be made only with the consent of the defense minister and be subject to immediate judicial review by the courts.

A report in The Marker said that an even earlier version of the regulations would have given the communications minister sweeping powers over all media outlets, including domestic ones, and allowed him to order reporters and others involved in broadcasts harming state security to be arrested.

Karhi strongly denied his intent to pass such measures.

Carrie Keller-Lynn and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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