Israel to Impose Sanctions on Arab TV Station Al-Jazeera

Israel said Wednesday it would impose sanctions on the influential Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, accusing it of slanted coverage favoring the violent Hamas movement.

Majalli Whbee, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said the government would deny visas to the Qatar-based station's employees and Israeli officials would no longer agree to be interviewed by the network. He did not say Israel would strip foreign Al-Jazeera employees currently in Israel of their visas.

"We have seen that that Al-Jazeera has become part of Hamas ... taking sides and cooperating with people who are enemies of the state of Israel," said Whbee, a Druse Arab. "The moment a station like Al-Jazeera gives unreliable reports, represents only one side and doesn't present the positions of the other side, why should we cooperate?"

Israel was especially incensed by the network's coverage of the most recent round of intense violence in Hamas-ruled Gaza, saying it rarely showed Israeli casualties or Palestinian rocket fire. Three Israelis and more than 120 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of civilians, before the fighting subsided earlier this month.

Walid Al Omary, Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Jerusalem, said Israeli authorities had not informed him of their decision to impose sanctions, and accused Israel of trying to "intimidate Al-Jazeera to influence our coverage."

He denied his station was biased, noting his reporters had also covered a Palestinian shooting attack in Jerusalem last week in which eight Israelis were killed.

"We are not the ones who launch rockets at Israel, and we are not the ones who send F-16s to bomb Gaza," he said.

Israel's Foreign Ministry will send letters of complaint both to the station and to the government of Qatar, Whbee said. Al-Jazeera is largely controlled by Qatar's ruling family.

Although Israel and Qatar have no formal diplomatic relations, Israel allows Al-Jazeera to operate within its borders and grants the station's reporters the same freedoms granted all local and international media.

Stations from other Arab countries that don't recognize Israel, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have crews and reporters in the country, while some Arab and Islamic countries rely on freelance journalists, usually Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. The reporters are accredited by the Israeli government and allowed to cover the news freely.

Israeli media are allowed no similar freedoms in the Arab world.

The moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, based in the West Bank, has also complained that Al-Jazeera supports its Hamas rivals, who govern Gaza. Pro-Abbas lawmakers have criticized the station for providing Hamas spokesmen with long swaths of airtime while giving only minimal time to moderates.

"Al-Jazeera is not fair," said Majat Abu Baker, a lawmaker from Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank. "Al-Jazeera has a soul of religion and it foments conflict among the people. They spread the thoughts of radical Islam in the world."

Hamas officials in Gaza have lauded Al-Jazeera's coverage. At a military parade held after the end of the latest round of fighting, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar publicly thanked the station, and in a speech Wednesday, Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, praised two media outlets: Hamas' own TV station and Al-Jazeera.

Haniyeh criticized the Israeli decision.

"Do you want media just speaking only in your language, talking on your behalf and reflecting only your opinions?" he said.