Palestinians walk through rubble following an Israeli airstrike on the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City in northern Gaza on Oct. 9, 2023. (Photo/Wafa-APAimages via Wikimedia)
Palestinians walk through rubble following an Israeli airstrike on the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City in northern Gaza on Oct. 9, 2023. (Photo/Wafa-APAimages via Wikimedia)

Israel made a terrible tactical blunder in targeting the AP — one it’s made many times before

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

If Israel’s government were secretly on a mission to cause the Jewish state as much reputational damage as possible, that might explain its move on Tuesday to confiscate video equipment used by the Associated Press to transmit from near Gaza.

The self-defeating circus featured an obvious lie, an evident truth and a ridiculous action.

The truth is that, as those making the confiscation argued, AP — where I used to serve as the chief editor for Europe, Africa and the Middle East — was indeed supplying video to Al Jazeera, as it does to its hundreds of other video clients. Israel barred the Qatari network from operating in the country a few weeks ago and has accused its staff of being Hamas apologists — in government parlance, “supporters of terror.”

The lie was that the video endangered Israeli troops. If that were true, then Israel would have had plenty of means to shut it down, including military censorship. As it is, Israel did not apparently object to any of AP’s other clients using the video, even though the alleged “danger” would have been the same on Fox or BBC; terrorists are not tethered to Al Jazeera.

The ridiculous action was the confiscation of camera equipment. In ordering this move, Israel’s far-right religious fanatic of a communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, appeared to not know that AP has replacement cameras at the ready. (Late on Tuesday, Karhi ordered that the equipment be returned to the AP.)

In theory, the whole episode is the result of a law, passed in early April, which allows authorities to shut down foreign media deemed to be harming “national security.” 

Although the law was clearly aimed specifically at Al Jazeera, critics warned that it could be turned against anyone. And, in fact, Israeli authorities raided Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem office earlier this month, confiscating equipment in the process. It is difficult to overstate just how pointless this effort was. With this ham-fisted maneuver, the government did not in fact prevent Al Jazeera from disseminating anti-Israel propaganda, from interviewing people in Israel by video — as I have been interviewed by them — or from operating normally in the West Bank and Gaza, which are not Israeli territory. 

All it achieved: Preventing original reporting of the Israeli side of the story, which Al Jazeera has in fact occasionally done. 

There is also, of course, the achievement of edging a bit closer to the likes of North Korea, China and Russia, all countries that interfere with journalism on spurious grounds of “national security.” The hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not care much about democracy, having just last year tried to eviscerate the judiciary, but Israelis might: There are costs to authoritarianism, including diminished foreign investment, lower credit ratings and restrictions on travel and trade.

While the world might somehow have understood a move against Al Jazeera, the move against AP is patently absurd

Even with Karhi’s decision to return the equipment, Tuesday’s raid has already damaged Israel’s global standing. While the world might somehow have understood a move against Al Jazeera, given its friendly coverage of Hamas, the move against AP is patently absurd. There is no way AP can be expected to limit a service that it is contractually obligated to provide to a paying customer just because Israel dislikes certain coverage.

Crucially, the move has backfired on the government domestically, too. It was widely criticized in Israel, and the government took pains to leak that it was not coordinated with the prime minister’s office. It will now be interesting to see if the government quietly lets the issue go, or finds new way to insist that Al Jazeera not receive content from partners operating in Israel. The latter option would dig an ever deeper hole.

Some in Israel fear that AP’s own coverage might now become unfriendly — but that betrays a lack of understanding of how the serious media operates. The truth is both more subtle and more devastating: Behave this way often enough, and journalists will stop treating the country as a developed democracy, meaning that its officials will be more often disbelieved. Such a shift toward skepticism would indeed affect the coverage.

This isn’t the first time Israeli authorities have shown an apparent indifference to the impact of this potential shift. That stance was also visible in the 2021 destruction of the Gaza office tower that housed the bureau of AP and other news media. Israel’s explanation for the airstrike that took down the building, offered well after the fact and with little persuasive evidence, was that Hamas operated there. The fact that Israel seemed so oblivious to the reputational damage of such a move served to offer journalists everywhere a window into the ease with which such actions are taken.

It’s worth noting that the Netanyahu administration, although especially hostile to journalists, is not the first Israeli government to snarl at them. 

During the Second Intifada, when I was chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, the Government Press Office ceased providing Palestinians with official press cards, even though the military in the West Bank and Gaza still required them. It also prevented Israeli journalists from accessing Palestinian areas and took steps to restrict foreign videographers’ ability to get work permits — all of it a transparent ploy to impede coverage of the Palestinian side of the conflict.

One of AP’s Palestinian photographers was then detained for doing his job without a press card. For weeks he languished in a Shin Bet lockup, without seeing a lawyer or even being interrogated. I eventually met with Avi Dichter, then the Shin Bet chief, to appeal for a release.

I advised Dichter that the shabby treatment of our staffer simply gave us direct experience of unfair treatment of Palestinians, and that was information that would inevitably and rightly inform coverage. Perhaps it would be wiser to try to fool us instead, by treating our man well.

The staffer was released the next day. That was evidence that the government of Ariel Sharon still preserved a shred of intelligence. That is the part that appears to be lacking today.

Dan Perry

Dan Perry is the former chief editor of The Associated Press in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the former president of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, and the author of two books about Israel. Follow his newsletter “Ask Questions Later” at danperry.substack.com.