Haifa, Israel - Since it launched 12 years ago, Al Jazeera has been one of the few media outlets to regularly present Israeli representatives to the Arab world, but this rare open line of communication is now closed.
The Qatar-based station’s coverage of Israel’s operations in Gaza during February and March hit a nerve with Israeli officials, leading them to stop sending officials on the air. Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari, told the Forward “they started boycotting Al Jazeera’s Arabic output without announcing it. This means they refuse to participate or appear on screen.”
Aryeh Mekel, the Israeli foreign ministry’s spokesman, pointed to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the recent Gaza incursions. “When they showed the situation in Gaza, they did not show what had preceded it — the rockets in the south of Israel,” Mekel said. “There was only the Hamas point of view.”
Government representatives say there is no boycott, but a source familiar with government policy told the Forward that the government has stopped communicating with the network.
Both sides said that talks have been held in a bid to restore good relations but these have hit a dead end. This has left experts questioning whether Israel is taking a just stance against media bias or making a tactical error by snubbing a valuable means of stating its case to the Arab world.
Azizha Noful, a journalist and a master student of Israel studies at Al-Quds University, said, “Israel is making a mistake.”
“Sometimes in the Arab world, not everyone knows what is happening, and some people do believe what the Israelis have to say,” Noful added. “It benefits Israel to be on the screen.”
On the other hand, Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli expert on Arabic media, said that even before relations soured, Israel’s input to Al Jazeera was so minute and so manipulated that it had negligible value. “The amount of poison that they disseminate about us from our home is too dangerous, and something had to be done,” he said.
Kedar, a Bar Ilan University researcher, has, since the current spat, begun appearing as a nonofficial Israeli voice on Al Jazeera. He describes the channel as “the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood” and cites Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah connections, as well as claiming that the station incubates hatred of Israel to dissipate anger about Arab regimes in the Gulf accumulating great wealth. Al-Omari dismissed all these accusations as “nonsense.”
Al Jazeera was started as an Arabic news channel in 1996 in Qatar. It became known universally when it screened video statements by Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders after the September 11 attacks. Al Jazeera now boasts close to 50 million viewers. The channel has studios in West Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, and says it provides objective coverage of the Middle East.
In the past five years, Al Jazeera has launched other channels. The original channel is still known simply as Al Jazeera, but it also runs two sports channels, a kids’ channel and a documentary channel. The most successful addition, made in 2006, was Al Jazeera English, which today claims 100 million viewers. This channel uses the same studios but maintains editorial independence and is not involved in the current dispute with Israel.
Relations between the Arabic channel and Israel have been functional, though on occasion problematic; Al-Omari was detained for several hours on three occasions during 2006’s Lebanon war, because the channel disclosed the area of the rocket attack, violating Israeli military censorship guidelines.
But a particularly raw nerve appears to have been struck during the Gaza operations earlier this year.
“When depicting Israeli attacks, Al Jazeera abuses the situation on the ground by telling lies,” complained Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, to foreign ambassadors during a March briefing on Gaza operations. “Unfortunately, during these attacks, civilians were killed. I am not trying to change facts. But, of course, when it comes to Al Jazeera, everything is exaggerated.”
Last month, Livni met with Al Jazeera station management during a visit to Qatar, but it did not bring about any rapprochement, and both Mekel and Al-Omari said that no more talks are planned for Jerusalem.
Both Israel and Al Jazeera claim there is no room for compromise in their positions. According to Mekel, “We want them to be more balanced, and they don’t agree. They tried to prove that we are wrong. They said our account is not true and that on such and such a date, they spoke of Sderot.”
Al-Omari said that there is no bias to discuss, adding that Israel is uncomfortable with reportage of a humanitarian crisis that it created. He insisted that “our coverage [in Gaza] was full coverage of what was going on there.” He said that there is no scope for negotiation on his channel’s editorial policy.
Palestinian analysts have been quick to point to a tactical error in the “boycott.” Khader Khader of the independent Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre told the Forward: “Al Jazeera is very important in helping to shape many viewpoints in the Arab world. It can help present the Israeli viewpoint, and this boycott is not helping Israel but actually stopping them from making use of this.”
Research that his organization carried last year found that 48% of Palestinians regard Al Jazeera as the most trustworthy TV station.
Keder, however, said Israel has not gone far enough in blocking the channel.
“The right decision would be to close them up, to kick them out of Israel altogether,” Keder said. “The fact they are here, and can send reports with the prime minister’s house in the background, gives their reports an aura of authority. There must be a limit on what we must put up with to be a democratic country.”