RAMALLAH, West Bank, (AP) – The Palestinian government shut down the West Bank operations of the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, a day after a guest on the station accused the Palestinian president of involvement in Yasser Arafat’s death.
For the feisty news station — the Arab world’s most popular — the closure represents the latest clash with a Middle Eastern government. Israel often criticizes it, Iraq has expelled it and Saudi Arabia only let it resume work recently after a long ban.
But in shutting Al-Jazeera down, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may be picking a fight with one of the most potent shapers of Arab public opinion.
The closure came the day after a talk show guest claimed — without presenting evidence — that Abbas played a role in the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, the former president and revered founder of the Palestinian national movement.
The guest, Farouk Kaddoumi, is a high-ranking, Tunis-based official in both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’ Fatah movement, but the two men are longtime rivals.
The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Al-Jazeera of incitement and unbalanced reporting and took issue with a broadcast on Tuesday, without providing further details.
“Everybody evaluated what they have seen from that channel in the last days if not more, the last days was clear incitment against the PA,” Information Minister Riad al-Malki told the Associated Press from the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Egypt.
“We are not curtailing (press freedom). We are respecting the law, that is why we asked the legal system to act,” he added.
The ministry is suing Al-Jazeera and the station’s operations are suspended until the court has ruled.
Al-Jazeera employees were seen frantically piling files into black garbage bags and carrying them out with video cameras, computers and other equipment before Palestinian security officials closed the office.
Al-Jazeera’s Qatar headquarters issued a statement saying the station “has maintained strict, professional journalistic standards.”
Walid Al Omary, Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, also denied accusations of bias.
“We are sorry about this decision, which we consider a violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in this country,” he said.
Abbas’ aides have long alleged that the Qatar-based station, widely watched in the Palestinian territories, favors the Islamic militant group Hamas in the bitter Palestinian power struggle.
Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, ousting forces loyal to Abbas and leaving the president in control only of the West Bank. Abbas has since clamped down on Hamas in the West Bank.
While this is the Palestinian Authority’s first move against the station, other governments have clashed with it in the past.
Former U.S. president George W. Bush’s administration frequently called it biased against the U.S., and Israel has long accused it of siding with the Jewish state’s enemies.
“What Al-Jazeera does is not journalism. It is political militancy,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Last year, Israel threatened to boycott the station for alleged pro-Hamas bias, Palmor said, but instead addressed the station with its complaints, which he said were “ignored.”
Saudi Arabia banned the station from 2003 to 2007 after it aired a program about the Saudi royal family that Riyadh deemed insulting.
The issue grew into a dispute between Saudi Arabia and neighboring Qatar, whose ruling family bankrolls Al-Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels.
The Iraqi government shuttered the station’s Baghdad office in 2004, accusing it of inciting violence and airing militant videos that showed attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces and hostages.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the West Bank government was trying to silence the media and “cover up what is going on in the West Bank,” a reference to Abbas’ crackdown on Hamas.
Hamas has carried out similar arrest raids and shut down Abbas-linked media outlets in Gaza.
The Foreign Press Association, which represents international media operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, said it was “deeply concerned” about the closure. It urged the Palestinian Authority to resolve the issue and uphold freedom of the press.
West Bank political analyst Khalil Shaheen, a guest on the show believed to have caused offense, said he disagreed with some views expressed, but that Al-Jazeera shouldn’t be punished for airing them.
“That’s one issue,” he said of his disagreements with the other guests, “but the continuation of freedom of opinion and expression is another.”