- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

TEL AVIV — The Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera is in trouble with the Israeli government, which accuses it of slanted coverage and yesterday sent a letter of protest to the television network’s directors and the government of Qatar, where it is based.

“They’ve become a branch of Al Manar,” said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Majalli Whbee, referring to the Lebanese news station run by Hezbollah. “We are reviewing our relationship with Al Jazeera. In the nine months since Hamas rose to power, they aren’t giving truthful coverage. Their coverage is deceitful and fabricated.”

Mr. Whbee said the protest letter was sent both to Al Jazeera executives and to the Qatar government, which holds a major stake in the network. He said Israel is still mulling stiffer sanctions.

Palestinian Authority officials said last week that oil-rich Qatar has been such a staunch supporter and promoter of Hamas both financially and politically that it is in a unique position to influence the Hamas leadership.

“Qatar gives Hamas millions of dollars a month [on average],” a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told The Washington Times during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the West Bank.

Israel is only the latest government annoyed by what it perceives as slanted reporting by Al Jazeera. The Arabic satellite news channel’s coverage of the war in Iraq won it protests from the U.S. and Britain.

Al Jazeera has also run into difficulties in the Middle East, with criticism from Saudi Arabia and reporters banned or harassed in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. Recently, the Palestinian Authority echoed Israeli charges of Al Jazeera’s coverage as pro-Hamas.

Elias Karram, an Al Jazeera correspondent based in Israel, confirmed that the news station’s interview requests have been turned down, most recently in an effort to get Israel’s comment on the assassination of four Palestinian militants in Bethlehem on Wednesday.

“Israel is angry about the pictures we showed. They say we’re not objective,” Mr. Karram said, referring to criticism of Al Jazeera’s broadcast of graphic footage of the victims of a recent military incursion in the Gaza Strip.

“This stance of cutting ties and not giving interviews is childish,” he said. “It isn’t suited to a country that claims it’s democratic, it’s more suited to dictatorships.”

Mr. Karram said the Al Jazeera bureau in Israel hasn’t received a formal protest from Israel.

Mr. Whbee accused the station of cooking up fraudulent footage of power outages in Gaza several weeks ago, focusing international criticism of Israel’s siege on the coastal strip as pressure against Hamas.

Although Israeli officials are privately upset with Al Jazeera, no other Foreign Ministry officials except Mr. Whbee — an Arab Druse from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party — have publicly called for sanctions.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said there has been no formal decision on sanctions. In addition to an interview ban, the ministry could refuse to cooperate with the news channel in getting visas for its visiting journalists.

Mr. Mekel said Foreign Ministry officials have quietly tried to engage Al Jazeera to protest some of its coverage, “which is totally pro-Hamas.”

“It has a negative effect on people in Gaza, the West Bank and beyond,” he said.

Mr. Karram countered that Al Jazeera provides balanced coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including prominent coverage of recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and the southern Israeli town of Dimona.

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