The Palestinian Authority (PA) on Wednesday banned Al Jazeera television from operating in its territory and threatened to take legal action against the Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel because of allegations it made against President Mahmoud Abbas.
Al Jazeera ran an interview a day earlier in which Farouk Kaddoumi, a senior leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), charged that Mr. Abbas conspired with Israel in 2003 to kill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Mr. Arafat died in November 2004 after being sent abroad for medical treatment. No cause was disclosed, and Palestinian political circuits have since been rife with gossip over possible foul play.
Al Jazeera said it was "stunned" by the PA's action, noting that several other outlets had carried the story – based on a press conference called by Mr. Kaddoumi, who lives in Jordan.
"We firmly reject the accusations," Walid al-Omary, the channel's director in Ramallah, told Agence France-Presse. "We regret this decision, which harms the freedom of expression and the press in this country."
The closure of Al Jazeera, which has prompted protest from media rights organizations, comes against a backdrop of ongoing tensions over how the channel covers the PA. Officials in Ramallah have complained in the past few years – particularly since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza amid intense fighting in 2007 – that the station has grown more sympathetic toward Hamas than Fatah.
During the war in Gaza six months ago, Fatah officials in the West Bank were furious with the satellite station's coverage because it portrayed the PA as being glad to see Israeli warplanes attacking Hamas targets. Hamas, in turn, accused Fatah operatives in Gaza of giving the Israelis information as to their whereabouts.
Hamas: Fatah has something to hide
In Gaza on Wednesday, Hamas criticized the closure of the news channel and said it was a sign that Fatah was trying to hide something.
"Kaddoumi's statements show that there is a team inside Fatah that is trying to hide facts and turn the page on the circumstances of Yasser Arafat's death. This team is also trying to create a new Fatah movement completely linked to the conditions demanded by Israel and America," the Hamas statement said.
In his interview with Al Jazeera, Kaddoumi charged that Abbas had worked to assassinate Arafat with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the PA's security chief at the time, Mohammed Dahlan – two figures reviled by many Palestinians. Under pressure from Israel, Mr. Dahlan had led a crackdown on Palestinian violence in the occupied territories.
Kaddoumi was once a comrade of Arafat's, but in the last decade of the Palestinian leader's life, became more his nemesis. Kaddoumi unequivocally rejected the Oslo Accords that Arafat signed with Israel in 1993, and unlike other senior PLO members who came to live in the West Bank and Gaza, never returned from exile. Some say that Kaddoumi's word still holds sway, and supporters claim that, constitutionally, Kaddoumi should have succeeded Arafat to the position of Fatah chairman in 2004.
The PA's closure of Al Jazeera comes less than a month before a major Fatah leadership conference – the first such event in 20 years – on Aug. 4.
PA: Al Jazeera inciting dissent
The PA said that Al Jazeera was being closed because it had incited dissent.
"The Al Jazeera network has been working for some time to give extensive coverage to incitement against the PLO and Palestinian Authority," the Palestinian Information Ministry said in a statement.
"Despite the network's claims that its coverage of the Palestinian issue is neutral, it continues to incite against the PLO. The last related act took place yesterday, when the network incited to dissension and spread false news," the statement said.
The Foreign Press Association in Israel issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned at the announcement by the Palestinian Authority that it intends to suspend the operation of Al Jazeera's bureau in Ramallah."
Fatah and Hamas have been at odds with each other since Hamas wrested control of Gaza in June 2007. Egypt has been pressing the two to reach a reconciliation deal, and has extended a final deadline for a deal to July 28. An internal Palestinian reconciliation is seen as a crucial step toward a two-state solution with Israel.