Israel Moves One Step Closer to Dictatorship

This article was originally published in the Forward as “Banning Al Jazeera moves Israel one step closer to dictatorship.” (Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox).

By kicking the Qatar-based news service Al Jazeera out of the country, Israel has taken yet another significant step on the path to what is almost certainly its lowest point, in the eyes of the world, since its founding almost 76 years ago.

The decision was announced Monday, on the basis of a law, passed after Oct. 7 and recently renewed, which gives the prime minister and communications minister the authority to order the closure of foreign networks operating in Israel and confiscate their equipment if they are seen to pose “harm to the state’s security.” But while Al Jazeera poses a significant nuisance to Israel, it cannot be said to constitute any kind of genuine “threat.” 

Meanwhile, by banning the news service, Israel has shown itself ready to employ the typical tactics of an undemocratic dictatorship to keep its own people, and much of the world, in the dark about its own often-indefensible actions.

True, Al Jazeera does not report good news about Israel — or would not, if such news actually existed. It is, however, one of the only news services with reporters on the ground in Gaza unguided by IDF forces. While all the major Israeli news institutions carry the big stories — including Israeli attacks on hospitals, aid convoys and the killing Monday of seven World Central Kitchen volunteers — Al Jazeera is also there to perform the essential service of reporting the smaller, human-scale ones. 

For instance, they recently spoke to a Palestinian mother who recounted the story of carrying her 9-year-old son, who was battling hepatitis, out of Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital on her back to escape a raid by Israeli forces; he died shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, Israel has given Al Jazeera reporters many, many thousands of opportunities to report stories of preventable civilian deaths like this — not to mention the stories of the estimated 75,000 Palestinians so far injured in the war.

It seems all but certain that the implicit threat of stories like these — that they will make Israelis question the war — is the real reason for Al Jazeera’s banning, not, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on X, allegations that the news service “actively participated in the Oct. 7 massacre, and incited against Israeli soldiers.” Communications minister Shlomo Karhi also accused Al Jazeera of “encouraging armed struggle against Israel,” but neither presented any evidence for their claims.

What was mostly unspoken, but apparent, was the role of far-right political pressure from within Israel: The extremist Knesset member Ze’ev Elkin said it was “too bad that the prime minister delayed closing the station at the beginning of the war.” 

Israel had good reasons for delaying that decision: It needed to maintain cordial relations with the Qatari government, on which it depended as the mediating power coordinating negotiations over the fate of the Hamas hostages. As Israel’s leadership seems to care less and less about the fate of those still captive in Gaza, that reasoning has apparently lost power.

Pro-Israel apologists will no doubt argue that Arab-led governments, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have also either closed down Al Jazeera in their countries or blocked their broadcasts.

True — but is that analogy really comforting? Don’t American Jewish leaders call Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East?” It’s one thing to censor particular reports that put one’s soldiers in harm’s way in wartime. No one can argue with that. But to shut down a news service because you don’t like its political orientation? That is the stuff of dictatorship — the kind of authoritarian behavior the same Jewish leaders love to condemn in those Arab governments.

The only opposition to the Knesset vote giving the government the power to shut down whatever news agency it wishes came from the representatives from the two Israeli Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am. “Citizens of Israel, they are trying to put you under a cognitive siege … to block information about things being done in your name,” said Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Sliman before the vote, in which the measure passed 75-10. Netanyahu offered a backhanded, unintentional agreement with that complaint when he explained, “It is impossible to tolerate a media outlet, with press credentials from the Government Press Office and offices in Israel, acting from within against us, certainly during wartime.”

The decision inspired the same sort of familiar criticism that Israel has shown itself more than happy to ignore in recent decades, as the nation has traveled further and further down the road to unapologetic illiberalism. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists described the law as “posing a significant threat to international media,” and said it contributes, in Israel, “to a climate of self-censorship and hostility towards the press.” Emily Wilkins, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, issued a joint statement calling the action “reminiscent of actions taken by illiberal governments to crack down on journalism they felt threatened their hold on power.” 

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which describes itself as the oldest and most influential civil and human rights organization in Israel, called the law a “grave infringement on freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” as “it also prohibits the court from overturning a non-proportional decision, effectively tying the court’s hands from intervening in decisions regarding the closure of media outlets. This is a direct continuation of the judicial overhaul, harming the courts and media outlets, all while cynically using war and security justifications.”

(Statements of “concern” from both the White House and the U.S. State Department came without, of course, any hint of consequences for the unobstructed flow of American economic and military aid to Israel, even as the country continues to thumb its metaphorical nose at President Joe Biden and his representatives.) 

In an official response, Al Jazeera promised that Israel’s “slanderous accusations will not deter us from continuing our bold and professional coverage,” and said it would reserve “the right to pursue every legal step.” The organization also insisted that it would hold “the Israeli Prime Minister responsible for the safety of its staff and Network premises around the world, following his incitement and this false accusation in a disgraceful manner.” 

It was a reminder that Israel has repeatedly proven more dangerous to Al Jazeera than vice versa. Few will have forgotten the killing, in 2022, of the widely respected Palestinian American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces during a raid on Jenin in the occupied West Bank. In Gaza, in December, an Israeli strike killed an Al Jazeera cameraperson; Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wael Dahdouh, was also injured. The following month, another airstrike killed Dahdouh’s son, who was also working for Al Jazeera. Yet another one killed Dahdouh’s wife and daughter along with another of his sons and his grandson. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 95 members of the media have been killed since the war began, virtually all of them Palestinian.

In the first case, the Israelis insisted that Dahdouh’s son was a member of the terror group Islamic Jihad; Al Jazeera denied the charge. The IDF offered no explanation for the second.

Given the lack of concern for the lives of innocent civilians that the Israeli military has shown in the Gaza campaign as it pursues its Hamas targets, it is at least conceivable that these deaths were all coincidental. But it is evidence of just how far Israel has degraded itself, morally and politically, that the accidental killing of an unprecedented number of journalists is the best possible interpretation one can bestow on the actions of “the world’s most moral military.”

That degradation is about to grow. By moving to shield Israelis from the news absorbed, in both horror and sadness, by the rest of the world, the government is drawing Israel to a darker place than any of us might wish to see it go, or one we could have imagined just a few short years ago.

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