Pakistani TV sacks journalist for visiting Israel amid Khan incitement

Quraishi visited Israel in May with a delegation of Pakistani-Americans organized by Israeli NGO Sharaka.

 People carry flags as they chant slogans to express solidarity with Palestinian people and to protest against Israel, during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan May 21, 2021 (photo credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)
People carry flags as they chant slogans to express solidarity with Palestinian people and to protest against Israel, during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan May 21, 2021
(photo credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

When Ahmed Quraishi visited Israel last month, he didn’t expect any controversy. After all, he had been covering the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for decades, including for over 20 years as a journalist based in Pakistan. He had interviewed many Israelis and even wrote columns for Israeli and Jewish outlets.

But on Monday, after days of incitement by ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and threats on social media, Quraishi found himself fired from his own show on state TV – and sparking a national conversation on whether Pakistan and Israel should establish diplomatic relations.

Pakistani Information and Broadcasting Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced his contract’s termination for going on the “tour in a personal capacity,” adding that “Pakistan’s policy on Palestine is clear.”

Trip to Israel

Quraishi visited Israel in May with a delegation of Pakistani-Americans organized by Israeli NGO Sharaka, which seeks to cultivate people-to-people ties between Israel and Muslim countries, and American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council.

The group came from the US to discuss interfaith initiatives in the post-Abraham Accords era, with the highlight of the trip being a meeting with President Isaac Herzog.

 Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) carry flags and signs in support of Palestinian people to condemn the diplomatic agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan August 16, 2020 (credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters) Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) carry flags and signs in support of Palestinian people to condemn the diplomatic agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan August 16, 2020 (credit: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

Though Pakistani passports say on them that they are valid in every country except for Israel, Quraishi said thousands of Pakistanis have visited Israel. The fact that Israeli authorities do not stamp passports and give a slip of paper for passport control, instead, has made that possible.

“I’m a Middle East journalist,” Quraishi said, when asked why he joined the delegation. “I have been covering Palestinians and Israelis since I began my career… I participated in events relating to the Abraham Accords while hosting a show on state TV in Pakistan, and I have been openly talking about it and tweeting about it.

“It’s not a secret,” he added. “People know me as someone who supports the Abraham Accords and writes and speaks about it, as well as Palestinian issues.”

“I didn’t think of it as something controversial in terms of Pakistan,” he said of the visit to Israel.

Quraishi pointed to the delegation’s behavior as a clear sign that it was not trying to be provocative; the delegates agreed not to share information about it on social media until the trip was over. When Sharaka did tweet a photo of them at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, they complained, saying they would have preferred a more sober image of their meetings with think tanks and human rights activists, not the fun moments.

However, that image was used as part of a conspiracy theory by Khan, who claimed that he was not voted out of office, but that the US and the Pakistani military were working together against him. Khan recently tried to organize a “long march,” as he called it, of millions of Pakistanis to storm government buildings; the government stopped them.

Meetings and conspiracies

“When the first photos came out of the American-Pakistani delegation, one of Khan’s key aides tagged me on twitter and said… this is proof of the American conspiracy,” Quraishi said. “I was still in Israel, but I responded to her that she herself was part of the [Pervez] Musharraf administration when there were the first official foreign minister-level meetings between Pakistan and Israel and she did not protest.”

In 2005, the then-foreign minister of Israel Silvan Shalom met with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri in Istanbul.

While there was coverage of the accusations against the Sharaka delegation in Pakistani media, it died down within a few days, and Quraishi thought that was the end of it.

Then, Herzog mentioned the delegation at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week – a venue that is often the target of conspiracy theorists.

“This was an amazing experience,” Herzog said, “because we haven’t had a group of Pakistani leaders in Israel ever in such scope and that all stemmed from the Abraham Accords, meaning Jew and Muslim can dwell together in the region.”

Khan held a rally on Sunday, in which he used the Herzog clip and said that the fact that a journalist for state TV – not mentioning Quraishi by name – was part of the delegation was proof that the new government was part of a foreign conspiracy. Khan also implied that the current Pakistani foreign minister met with Herzog at Davos.

That was when things “went haywire,” as Quraishi described it.

“Our media is not very good at sifting through fake news,” he lamented.

After an avalanche of death threats on social media and his sacking from Pakistani state TV, Quraishi has asked the Committee to Protect Journalists for help.

Quraishi also asked Aurangzeb why she fired him, pointing out that in doing so, she confirmed the narrative of her political opponent. She did not answer.

“I think they came under pressure or simply wanted to kill the story and move on, to throw me under the bus and hope that it would die down, and say ‘we stand by the Palestinians, we would never recognize Israel,’ to outdo the ex-prime minister. It was typical populist politics…They both used a journalist to build their own narratives,” he said.

Some good news

Quraishi said that there is some good news stemming from the story.

“Thanks to this Sharaka/AMMWEC Pakistani-American delegation visit to Israel, and the subsequent attempt by the ousted ex-PM Imran Khan to politicize it, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is huge,” he said.

When the Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers met in 2005, the “debate never took off,” Quraishi said, “but it has now. There is increasing chatter by opponents of Pakistan-Israel relations that this damage, from their perspective, has been done.”

Sharaka CEO Amit Deri said that his organization “will continue to advance partnerships between the Arab and Muslim world and the State of Israel.

“Boycotts and extremism lead to regional instability,” Deri said. “We are advancing towards a better Middle East for everyone, in the spirit of the historic Abraham Accords.”

Anila Ali, the Pakistani-American who led the Sharaka delegation and co-founder of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, spoke out in defense of the visit.

“(The president) of Israel received us warmly, and the people of Israel opened up their hearts and homes to us and they knew that we were Muslims and they knew that we were Pakistanis,” Ali told the Associated Press.

When it comes to Quraishi, Ali tweeted: “I stand with free speech. I stand with journalists. I believe a free media is the hallmark of a strong democracy...Inshallah truth will win. You went to Israel... to seek the truth.”