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Israel's pledge to close Al Jazeera will prove impossible

Netanyahu was aiming to placate his right-wing base when he first floated the idea.

    Three weeks ago, at the height of the crisis over the metal detectors on Temple Mount, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he was going to act to shut down the offices in Israel of the Qatari-owned international news channel Al Jazeera. Mr Netanyahu claimed that Al Jazeera was involved in inciting the violence in East Jerusalem. Like other things he said at the time, including expressing his support for a death sentence for the Palestinian who murdered three family members in Halamish, it was meant as a gesture to the prime minister’s right-wing base, not a clear policy. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara however has taken his boss’ seriously and announced on Sunday that he was taking steps to closing Al Jazeera down. The problem is, legally it will be impossible to do and will only boost Al Jazeera’s standing in the Arab World for having “stood up to Israel”.

    Mr Kara said he was working to cancel the Al Jazeera staff’s press-cards. For a start there is a lengthy procedure through which the Government Press Office (GPO) goes to cancel press-cards, which includes receiving a security assessment from the Shin Bet. A minister can’t just order the GPO to do so. Even if the press-cards are eventually cancelled, it won’t necessarily hamper Al Jazeera in a major way. GPO cards are necessary to access official events and to obtain work visas for foreign journalists. But you don’t need a card just to film and report on the street and most of Al Jazeera Arabic’s team in Israel are either Israeli citizens or East Jerusalem residents, so they don’t need work visas.

    Other steps announced by Mr Kara include trying to get the police to shut down the satellite communications used by the Al Jazeera bureau. Once again, a lengthy procedure, which even if It works, will not stop the channel from broadcasting from Israel as it has offices in the Palestinian Authority as well, from which it can transfer footage to headquarters in Qatar. The minister has also requested Israeli cable and satellite companies to stop offering Al Jazeera as part of their packages. The companies don’t have to agree and if even they did, most Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza watch Al Jazeera using private satellite dishes, not through Israeli providers.

    Any of these steps can be challenged by Al Jazeera in the High Court and the government is going to have a hard time making the case that all of a sudden it has become threat to national security, after broadcasting from Israel for so many years. If it reaches court, Al Jazeera will almost certainly use in evidence hundreds of interviews given to it by senior Israeli officials, including IDF officers who have invited its crews to film military exercises, using the channel as a way of getting across messages to the Arab World. The government’s legal advisors don’t relish having to defend these steps in court and fully expect to lose.

    Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships have closed down Al Jazeera in their countries, in an attempt to control Arab media and as part of their ongoing feud with the Qataris. Israel has very good reasons not to be happy with Al Jazeera’s coverage – the channel’s coverage is hostile to Israel and has played its part in fuelling Palestinian violence over the years, but as a democracy, it has allowed the channel to continue operating freely. Ironically, it’s Israel’s own leaders who have forgotten that in a democracy they can’t just shut a television channel down.

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