WADAH KHANFAR IS A 45-year-old Palestinian man who was born in the northern
West Bank city of Jenin and studied engineering, African studies and
philosophy. According to the Davos Economic World Forum, he is one of the most
influential men in the Arab world.
Khanfar left Jenin for Jordan to study
in 1985. He joined Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based Al Jazeera news network, soon
after it was established in 1996, working first as a correspondent in South
Africa, then as correspondent and bureau chief in Baghdad – a position that made
him into one of the most recognized faces in the Arab world. For the past five
years, he has been Al Jazeera’s director general.
In this position,
Khanfar oversees the network that has revolutionized Arab media, and played a
major role in promoting free thinking and democracy in the Arab
Indeed, millions of people throughout the world, and especially
the Arab world, have followed the dramatic broadcasts from Cairo on Al Jazeera
over the past weeks. And when the Egyptian leaders attempted to block Al
Jazeera’s reporting, there were worldwide protests – and the station found
sophisticated technical ways to get their message on the air and broadcast the
scenes of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations throughout
There were demonstrations in Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, too –
but for very different reasons: these were demonstrations against Al Jazeera,
organized by the Palestinian leadership.
And indeed, Al Jazeera’s
handling of the “Palestinian Papers,” which it revealed in January, together
with its reporting from other Arab countries and from Egypt, raise significant
questions regarding its true goals and its role in the Middle
MODERN COMMUNICATIONS – satellites, the Internet, and social
networks like Facebook and Twitter – have amassed unprecedented political power
and are now capable of determining the fate of a regime.
Al Jazeera was
established by the princes of the emirate of Qatar, a tiny and fabulously
wealthy country in the Persian Gulf. Al Jazeera, despite its current prominence,
was merely one of the many satellite stations established during those years.
Today, there are at least 1,000 satellite stations broadcasting in Arabic. In
addition to its influential Arabic broadcasts, Al Jazeera maintains English
language broadcast, a sports channel, a documentary film channel as well as a
sophisticated Internet site and a cellular phone system.
But among the
Arab-language channels, Al Jazeera is unique. Its broadcasting is based on three
principles: 24/7 coverage, immediate response and on-the-spot worldwide
Despite being a product of the Qatari regime, it is viewed as
honest and impartial and has gained the trust of tens of millions in the Arab
Without doubt, Al Jazeera is more open to and aware of the concept
of a free press than any other channel in the Arab world The station wields
tremendous influence – it would not be an overstatement to state that Al Jazeera
is one of the major forces that has promoted the ideas of freedom of speech and
democracy among Arabs.
Of the hundreds and thousands of books, articles
and research projects that relate to Al Jazeera, I choose to quote from Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (then a member of the parliamentary opposition) who,
in 2001, spoke with the Israeli media regarding the role of satellite TV
stations. Contending that these channels would serve the cause of freedom in the
Middle East, Netanyahu declared, “The Arab regimes will not be able to stand up
to the satellites... it will take time, but they won’t be able to stand up to
Netanyahu may have been among the first to predict this trend, and
it would certainly appear that he was right. The military, the security forces, the secret services
– none of them can completely block the communication of ideas. And when these
ideas gain momentum, no one can stop them. Only a year and a half ago, the
Iranian regime barely scraped through a popular revolt, spurred on by Al Jazeera
and social media. Recently in Tunis, the leadership was ousted despite all their
efforts to hold on to their regime, thanks, in no small part, to TV and the
Internet; and Egypt is in turmoil, despite President Hosni Mubarak’s attempts to
close down communications.
And, as a result, the new media, and Al
Jazeera in particular, has run afoul of almost all of the leaders of the Arab
world, who have often closed its local offices. In this regard, Al Jazeera’s
relationship with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is a microcosm of
its relationships with regime leaders throughout the Arab world.
PAST FEW WEEKS, AL Jazeera has played a particularly significant role in
undermining the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, whose legitimacy
on the Palestinian street has been waning for a long time.
The embers of
discontent have been burning, just under the surface, for quite some time, ready
to ignite at any moment. A critical moment came in late December, when the
Palestinian police freed three Hamas members who had been imprisoned for killing
Israeli settlers. Immediately after their release, the IDF raided the former
prisoners’ homes and arrested them. During the raid, a 67-year-old Palestinian
man was inadvertently killed. Speaking with acquaintances in Hebron, I soon
realized that their anger was directed, not at the IDF, but rather at Abbas and
his men who had informed the Israelis.
What a disgrace! was the common
refrain. But the publication by Al Jazeera and the British newspaper, The
Guardian, of the “Palestinian Papers” has dealt the Palestinian leadership an
even harsher blow. The leaked documents – and it’s still not clear who leaked
them – reveal full details about the developments in the contacts between Abbas,
Palestinian negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Sa’eb Erekat and their Israeli
counterparts, including then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-foreign
minister Tzipi Livni.
The documents didn’t reveal much that was new –
most of the information had been already published in different ways in various
Israeli and foreign publications, and some of it had even been published in the
Arab and Palestinian media. But the dramatic way in which Al Jazeera chose to
highlight their publication has been crucial to determining public opinion. Over
four days of intense broadcasting, Al Jazeera highlighted the concessions that
the Palestinian leadership was willing to make regarding Jewish neighborhoods in
East Jerusalem and the purported right of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 to
return to their homes that are now within the State of Israel. To the
Palestinian public, these concessions are perceived as traitorous
The intent of the station is clear: Al Jazeera is out to prove
to the world that the Palestinian leaders are weak, don’t stand their ground,
and had given in to the Israelis on two critical principles, Jerusalem and the
right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
Abbas, Erekat and their
supporters immediately understood the extent of the damage and responded in a
concerted campaign, the likes of which has not been seen on the West Bank. They
organized a full week of demonstrations against the station in the major cities
and a media blitz that included dozens of pictures of the demonstrators and
their supporters, together with opinion pieces and advertisements against Al
The general thrust of the Palestinian spokesmen as they tried to
fend off Al Jazeera’s criticisms is that this station in the emirate of Qatar
serves the Islamic extremists and Hamas. Erekat even accused Khanfar of being a
member of the Muslim Brotherhood who wants to destroy the Palestinian government
AND INDEED, THERE IS A FOUNdation to Erekat’s accusations.
From the day it began broadcasting, Al Jazeera has been accused of being a front
for extremist Islam. After all, its detractors say, Osama Bin Laden gave his
first taped interview, in which he claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks,
to Al Jazeera. But to the viewers, that tape was proof of Al Jazeera’s
importance as a major media outlet, and gave its popularity and reputation a
Many see significance in the name Jazeera, which means
“island” or “peninsula” – a clear hint that the princes of Qatar view themselves
as the spokesmen for the Arab holy lands of the Arabian peninsula, the
birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, the cradle of Islam and the site of the
sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina.
And if all this isn’t enough, one of
the most familiar figures on Al Jazeera is the exiled Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf
al- Qaradawi, who is considered to be one of the most extreme religious leaders
in the Muslim world. Qaradawi has repeatedly praised the shahids (martyrs), who
blew themselves up in suicide attacks in Israel and had consistently preached
against recently deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunis because it
persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera’s broadcasts are
consistently critical of all of the Arab regimes, and thus support the
opposition in the Arab States – and since opposition in Arab regimes almost
always comes from the Islamic radicals, it means that Al Jazeera often supports
radical Islam, whether by design or by default.
In contrast to its
consistent support for movements such as Hamas and Hizballah, the lack of
criticism of the Qatari leaders is quite striking – especially since Qatar has
allowed the US to set up one of its largest military bases on Qatari soil.
Faisel Al- Qassam, a popular host on Al Jazeera, was once asked to explain the
fact that the station never criticizes Qatar. His response, “There’s nothing in
Qatar that is worth any news coverage.”
A common crack heard in the Arab
world is that Al Jazeera has become a television network that owns a small