Al Jazeera journalists urge Israel not to close bureau

Al Jazeera bureau chief Walid Omari said the talk of closing the bureau is "unfair."

The logo of Al Jazeera Media Network is seen on its headquarters building in Doha, Qatar June 8, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/NASEEM ZEITOON/FILE PHOTO)
The logo of Al Jazeera Media Network is seen on its headquarters building in Doha, Qatar June 8, 2017.
Journalists at controversial Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, whose future is clouded because of a bitter dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are angry over reports the Israeli government is weighing shutting down their Jerusalem bureau.
Al Jazeera bureau chief Walid Omari said the talk of closing the bureau is "unfair."
"We're working as journalists trying to keep a balance, not be biased towards any side and what's happening here is a kind of incitement towards Al Jazeera," he said.
"Israel is an independent state - if it wants to take steps against Al Jazeera it shouldn't do this because Saudi Arabia is nervous," he said, adding that Al Jazeera would challenge any closure order in the Supreme Court. The station employs 16 people in Jerusalem, 34 in Ramallah and 18 in Gaza, Omari said.
The station frequently interviews Israelis, be they from the right, left, government, opposition or analysts. But supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accuse it of favoring Hamas over his Fatah movement.
Hours after Saudi Arabia and three other Arabian peninsula countries announced the severing of ties with Qatar on June 5, Saudi Arabia closed the Al Jazeera bureau in Riyadh. Jordan later announced its intention to close the Amman bureau. Egypt had already forced Al Jazeera to close in 2013 after seizing its production equipment and transmitter.
According to a report in Ynet, Israel, which believes its image has been harmed by Al Jazeera in the past, wants to take advantage of the momentum building against the station." Israel sees together with Arab states the danger in Al Jazeera and that it is a media in the style of Nazi Germany," defense minister Avigdor Lieberman said Monday.
Ynet said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to weigh closure of the station's offices and that work on the matter by the Government Press Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Shin Bet and the defense establishment had begun.
Saudi Arabia has put Al Jazeera's broadcasts front and center in its dispute with Qatar, which it accuses of supporting Iran and funding Islamist groups. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency accused Al Jazeera of promoting the propaganda of terrorist groups, backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen and trying to create divisions in Saudi Arabia.
The sense that the station serves as a frequent platform for radical groups is backed up by Israeli academic specialists although Arab defenders of Al Jazeera credit it with contributing to a more pluralistic and democratic political discourse.
Orit Perlov, a specialist in social media trends at the Institute for National Security Studies, says Al Jazeera "until now has given completely open space to any group be it Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It was the mouthpiece of every terror organization today. For Qatar, everyone is legitimate."
Al Jazeera, Perlov notes, is the only channel that interviewed Ahmed Hussein al-Shara known as Abu Mohammed al-Julani of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra. "It's not just political Islam, but also more radical jihadist groups. They're close to everyone. They try to hold the rope from both ends. They've had offices of Taliban in Qatar even as they host Centcom (US army central command)."
In Perlov's view, the Saudi pressure will now force Qatar to change Al Jazeera's broadcasts. "Both will climb down. Qatar more than the Saudis. Management of Al Jazeera will be more reformed and professional. The high management will change and there will be some restrictions on what to cover. They will probably list groups allowed to be on air and those not allowed to be. There will be some mechanism with the Saudis asking to approve those interviewed." Qatar will have to agree to the changes because of geopolitics. "They can't replace the Gulf Cooperation Council with Iran and Turkey. It's a tiny tribal state. I can't see them disengaging from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. They need their backing."
Critics say that freedom of expression could be a casualty of such changes. "What the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt want is zero tolerance for any Islamic point of view," says Amman-based Jordan Times columnist Daoud Kuttab. "It's true Qatar gives a lot of airspace to people sympathetic with Islamists but they are part of the general Arab society and you can't deny their existence by shutting them out."
The targeting of Al Jazeera is "partly to squash an independent political voice" he says, noting that Egypt's regime is clamping down on the secular MADAMASR website and others, showing no tolerance for views other than its own. Egypt ranks 161 of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index and Saudi Arabia 168. The UAE is ranked at 119.
"It's really funny that a state like Saudi Arabia is criticizing Al Jazeera," says Sami Abu Shehadeh, a central committee member of the Balad Party. "If Saudi Arabia wants to do something it should start with itself."
He adds: "No one invests hundreds of millions of dollars just to bring objective news - not Al Jazeera, not the BBC and not CNN. They have their own policies. I like Al Jazeera because I'm close in my views to the views Al Jazeera wants to bring to the Arab world. We need a democratic Arab world and Al Jazeera is doing quite a good job in their work and in democratizing the Arab political discourse by bringing a lot of points of view and by talking about democracy, human rights and basic values and trying to see if this exists in the Arab world."