Israel threatens to expel reporter who asked apartheid question

Israel jails Palestinian journalists and threatens to revoke permits of international journalists, including Australia’s Antony Loewenstein, pictured in 2014, over unfavorable coverage. (Claudio Accheri)

Israel is threatening to expel an Australian journalist in Jerusalem, accusing him of being a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The threat against Antony Loewenstein comes after the freelance journalist asked a question about Israeli apartheid at a press conference given by former government minister Yair Lapid, and after a campaign against him by the anti-Palestinian group HonestReporting.

“We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity,” Nitzan Chen, director of the Government Press Office, told The Jerusalem Post. “We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff. We will learn to check better so there won’t be such incidents in the future.”

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Loewenstein, who has won recognition for his reporting from South Sudan and Afghanistan, dismissed any suggestion he had misrepresented himself.

“I am an accredited freelance journalist which is how I presented my work to the Israeli government in March, which they accepted,” Loewenstein said. “I’m not here associated with any organization. I’m here as a freelancer, officially, so there’s been no misrepresentation by me, ever.”

Loewenstein has written about the region for more than a decade, including the bestselling book My Israel Question.

Growing crackdown

The effective threat to expel Loewenstein comes a week after the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that this year Israel remained among the world’s worst jailers of reporters – all of those in its cells are Palestinians.

And earlier this month, Israel detained and expelled Isabel Phiri, associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches, claiming she too supports BDS.

Last week, Israel’s Shin Bet secret police barred entry to two leaders of a British Muslim humanitarian aid group, citing “security reasons.” The two officials from Muslim Hands were invited to the country by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz describes as “a nonprofit group that promotes coexistence, cooperation and equality between Jews and Muslims.”

In August, Israel’s public security and interior ministries set up a joint task force to deny entry to or expel foreign activists allegedly affiliated with organizations that support BDS.

This is part of a broader crackdown, whose primary targets are Palestinians.

On Friday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it has been receiving a “worryingly high number of complaints” about Israel violating basic rights of Palestinian human rights activists.

It said that human rights defenders living under Israeli occupation “face daily violations of some of the most fundamental protections afforded by international human rights and humanitarian laws.”

The UN said peaceful protest and opposition to the occupation is effectively outlawed.

Anatomy of a smear

Loewenstein became a target after he asked a challenging question at a press conference last week to Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party that was formerly part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.

“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong, but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation,” Loewenstein began, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Pointing to the large number of Israeli settlers now in the occupied West Bank, Loewenstein continued: “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during apartheid?”

In response, Lapid attacked The Guardian, claiming that it and other publications are encouraging Palestinians to be intransigent.

From there, HonestReporting, a pro-Israel group whose managing editor once worked in the Israeli army spokesperson’s unit, launched a campaign against Loewenstein.

It called him “an anti-Israel activist” and implied he had obtained his official Israeli press card and membership in the Foreign Press Association under false pretenses.

“Loewenstein is clearly incapable of reporting on Israel in a fair and objective manner,” HonestReporting asserted.

“Did Loewenstein gain his official press card by claiming to be a Guardian writer?” the group asked, effectively making an allegation without any basis.

HonestReporting took its campaign to The Guardian directly, complaining to the newspaper that “hiring Loewenstein was the equivalent of hiring a corporate lobbyist to be the newspaper’s business correspondent.”

This apparently elicited the desired response: The Guardian threw Loewenstein under the bus – presumably without speaking to him first.

According to The Jerusalem Post, The Guardian’s head of international news, Jamie Wilson, said that Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor but he “is not a news correspondent for The Guardian in Israel.”

And The Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Peter Beaumont, emailed HonestReporting that he had never heard of Loewenstein.

The Guardian’s distancing itself from Loewenstein is a welcome development,” HonestReporting’s managing editor Simon Plosker said, adding that the Foreign Press Association should revoke Loewenstein’s membership and the Israeli Government Press Office should cancel his accreditation.

Loewenstein told The Electronic Intifada that he identifies himself accurately as a freelancer and author of several books, who contributes to many publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times and Newsweek Middle East.

Loewenstein noted that in the tight-knit world of foreign correspondents in Israel, it would be impossible to get away with misrepresentation: “It’s a pretty small place.”

But the smear did its job and now Loewenstein is a target for government expulsion for asking a challenging question of an Israeli leader.

In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Israel’s intimidation of the international media, including threats to revoke the credentials of reporters who published headlines it didn’t like.

“It is virtually impossible to work as a reporter in Israel and the occupied territories without a press card,” the group’s executive director Robert Mahoney said. “The threat of withdrawing accreditation is a heavy handed approach at stifling unwelcome coverage.”

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Comments

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HonestReporting did not go after Loewenstein as a result of his question. Real journalists are entitled to ask anything they like, even hostile ones towards Israeli politicians. We questioned why an anti-Israel activist was able to get a press card and associate membership of the Foreign Press Association. Loewenstein is an activist who shouldn't go around misrepresenting himself. Israel is under no obligation to actively assist someone who has chosen to campaign for the country's destruction. And it's pretty rich of EI and BDSers to falsely frame this as a freedom of speech issue considering your campaign's penchant for aggressively shutting down the freedom of Jewish students and Israeli speakers on campuses.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Simon, thanks for your comment. You formerly worked in the Israeli army spokesperson’s unit. That being the case, I don’t think any reasonable person would consider you qualified to be an arbiter of who is and is not a “real journalist,” especially when it comes to reporting on Israel’s crimes.

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Given that we support a two-state solution and wish to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians through a negotiated settlement, please explain why you refer to HonestReporting as "anti-Palestinian." What's really anti-Palestinian is encouraging intransigence and supporting terror at the cost of ordinary Palestinians.

Ali Abunimah's picture

You’re of course free to differ that “anti-Palestinian” is an appropriate label for an organization whose primary activity is to try to silence any coverage that reports fairly and fully on Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. I think our previous reporting, as well as that found elsewhere, makes this a fair short-hand label. You can read our coverage here.

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Is anything but. I have frequented your little propaganda site and it is reprehensible the fake news you promote. It's a fact that the state of Palestine existed twenty-four years before Israel, and it is a fact that the myth "a land without a people, for a people without a land" has been exploded as pure bunk, as the British Census tells us from 1922 that there were eight times as many Muslim Palestinians as there were Yishuv Jews. This was before the ethnic cleansing that was to come in the decades hence. BDS is the moral position. Supporting Apartheid and the longest running crime against humanity in modern history is not valid reporting, it's just more vile Hasbara from the alt-right. Which of course, is interchangeable, and many American Jews are now coming to this realization.

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"In response, Lapid attacked The Guardian, claiming that it and other publications are encouraging Palestinians to be intransigent."

Plainly, Lapid hasn't been reading the Guardian. The paper's line on Israel is set by opinion editor Jonathan Freedland and consists largely in the detection and denunciation of antisemitism in the British Labour Party. The Guardian no longer allows open comment sections on articles related to Israel due to the embarrassingly pro-Palestinian views of the remaining readership. It's become a house organ for the British board of Deputies and like-minded organisations.

As for Peter Beaumont's claim that he's never heard of his colleague Antony Loewenstein, if true this says more about Beaumont than Loewenstein. I've certainly heard of him, and I'm not even a member of the profession, nor am I working in Jerusalem on the same stories alongside Beaumont. This attempt at dissociation- the un-naming of people- looks like the flipside of the McCarthy-era practice of "naming names". No, never heard of him. Me? I'm just an HonestReporter.

Finally, HonestReporting have declared: "“Loewenstein is clearly incapable of reporting on Israel in a fair and objective manner." Have any Zionist reporters been subjected to the same level of hostile scrutiny by this watchdog organisation? Or do a militant pro-settler position, the rejection of international law and human rights provisions, and support for an openly racist regime of occupation constitute the base line for coverage that is "fair and objective"?

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Awareness of The Institute of Honest Reporting (wording right up there in the vein of "The Patriot Act) is the great thing about ei. Exposure of yet another well funded pro Zionist group who want to inform us of the evil world who would criticize Israel.

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I can’t wait for the United Nations Security Council to reconvene so it can finish what it started on December 23 2016. Israel must be stopped and forced to live as a decent member of the United Nations. Failure to comply should mean immediate expulsion from the U.N. and a full range of sanctions should be implemented against this rogue state.

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