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The Arabic TV news network Al Jazeera created a stir 12 years ago when it began sending reporters to Israel. For decades, Arab media had largely boycotted Israel. Al Jazeera broke new ground, and was the first Arab network to have Israelis appear on air.

Today, Al Jazeera is facing a de facto boycott from the Israeli government, which calls the network a tool of Hamas. In turn, Al Jazeera calls the boycott anti-democratic and an affront to basic press freedoms.

From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: At Al Jazeera's new studio in west Jerusalem, bureau chief Walid Omary prepares to go live and translate from Hebrew to Arabic a speech by Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): (Arabic spoken)

WESTERVELT: But these days, when Omary calls the prime minister's spokesman or any other Israeli government official with a request to come on air, the answer is always the same.

Mr. WALID OMARY (Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera Network): In the last month, they refused to appear in Al Jazeera. They're trying to threaten us. Maybe they want us to change our coverage.

WESTERVELT: There's been no official notice of a boycott, but the de facto policy has further strained relations between Israel's government and the news network that was one of the first to broadcast in Arabic worldwide from inside Israel.

Israeli officials today accused the network of serving as a propaganda arm of the militant Islamist group Hamas, which Israel and the West list as a terrorist organization.

A senior Israeli official, who asked that his name not be used, said Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts have, quote, "become a tool of Hamas. They are working with Hamas to incite terror," end quote.

Mr. ARYE MEKEL (Foreign Ministry Spokesman): If you have 24 hours a day, a pro-Hamas broadcast, our two minutes of our spokesman will not really make a difference. It's used as a fig leaf. And we decided that for the time being, we're better off without it.

WESTERVELT: That's Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel. He says the government still talks to Al Jazeera's new English language news, but not the Arabic side. Mekel says their problems with the network grew during the recent Israeli military attacks inside Hamas-controlled Gaza, following Palestinian rocket attacks on the southern Israeli town of Sderot and the port city of Ashkelon.

Al Jazeera showed gruesome pictures of dead Palestinian civilians inside Gaza, he says, without bothering to get the Israeli side or report the Gaza bloodshed in context.

Mr. MEKEL: I think they have the wrong world. In their world, there's no Sderot, there's no Ashkelon. There are no rockets. Israeli children have not lost limbs. You know, in their world, there are these Israelis, these wild beasts, if you will. That all they have in mind is to go and attack poor Palestinians in Gaza. It's not the real world.

WESTERVELT: Mekel also accuses Al Jazeera Arabic of staging part of its coverage of a power blackout in Gaza after Israel reduced electricity supplies to the territory earlier this year. They have fabricated events for dramatic effect, he says.

Al Jazeera's Omary calls the charges outrageous and wrong. He terms Israel's shunning of the network a dangerous infringement on freedom of press and speech.

Mr. OMARY: If they're going to provide themselves a democratic state, it means that they have to respect the freedom of speech for journalists. It's not selective, okay? It's for Arabs and for Palestinians and for Jewish and for another, for all - we are the same. It must be the same.

WESTERVELT: Al Jazeera has faced official and unofficial boycotts and sanctions before. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government kicked Al Jazeera out of the country in 2004. In the past, the U.S. military in Iraq has detained Al Jazeera reporters and accused them of collusion with insurgents. Several authoritarian Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, continue to ban the network's reporters from working inside their countries.

Al Jazeera's Omary charges that Israeli media consistently show a sanitized view of Gaza violence and too often, he says, become uncritical boosters for the Jewish state and its policies.

Mr. OMARY: But at least, our correspondents, they are inside Gaza, and what they had seen all the time during the entire operation, all these people were killed. The problem here is not the coverage. The problem is just this - the whole reality. The reality is bad, and they're trying to beat the message out, which means not only Al Jazeera. It will start in Al Jazeera and then they will continue to other media in the area.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, a senior Israeli official confirms that the government is considering taking other punitive steps against Al Jazeera Arabic, including possible restrictions on visas and government press ID cards.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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