The Tel Aviv District court denied a petition Wednesday which sought to reverse the Tel Aviv Municipality’s decision to take down billboards that depicted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on their knees and blindfolded.
The billboard shows the two Palestinian leaders surrendering amid a scene of destruction with combat helicopters overhead. The text on the billboard reads: “Peace is made only with defeated enemies.”
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Judge Eliyahu Bachar rejected the appeal of the Middle East Forum-Israel, which sponsors the Israel Victory Project that is behind the campaign. Bachar ruled that this is an exceptional and borderline case that warrants limiting the political freedom of expression by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
Bachar said that the case raises questions that are difficult to answer unequivocally and as a result, the mayor was permitted to use his judgement. “I was persuaded that the city’s intervention did not stem from a particular political stance or preference concerning the content of the ad, but from the municipality’s impression that the image displayed was ‘shocking to the core’ due to its depiction of violence, disparagement and humiliation, giving rise to harsh associations,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
The billboards were erected two weeks ago in four locations in Tel Aviv and one in nearby Ramat Hasharon. Huldai ordered the removal of the ads and the cancellation of the ad company’s billboard advertising permit on the very same day. The billboards were removed within days.
Huldai, who has served as mayor for 21 years, has ordered the removal of signs just twice before: Once when an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a guillotine was put up during protests over the cost of living in Israel that took place in Tel Aviv in 2011; the second time was when a humiliating picture of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was put up in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
At the hearing on the petition last week, the city said that the sign which shows a violent picture in which two men who are seen awaiting execution was placed near schools and community centers, adding that the text written on the sign did not influence the decision.
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In response, the Middle East Forum-Israel said the image does not show any bodily injury or death, and it does not offend the public’s sensitivities, seeing as it does not involve anyone Israeli citizens but rather only offends those who identify with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. They also said the billboards were not racist because they do not depict generic figures of Arabs, instead showing only specific people: The head of a terrorist organization, and the head of the Palestinian Authority, which supports terrorism, they claimed.
In addition, the text presents their position on the right way to deal with the enemies of Israel, with an emphasis on their being enemies and not Arabs – and the ad does not incite violence as it does not involve a crime according to Israel, because attacking the enemy is an official doctrine of the IDF chief of staff, said the petitioners.
Bachar addressed these claims in his ruling, saying that it is shocking not only to those who support the PA or Hamas, and the figures in the ad being represented as “enemies,” as the petitioners claim, does not negate or minimize the damage to people’s feelings. The shock is not necessarily connected to the identification with the figures in the picture or a lack of agreement with the written content, but to the violence and humiliation that comes for the picture as a whole and the associations that come from the picture, said Bachar.
The Middle East Forum-Israel said it will consider its next steps in light of the court’s ruling. “We were not surprised by the court’s decision … The silencing and serious harm to the freedom of expression. We will continue to echo our message that wants to fight the Palestinian refusal and bring true peace to Israel.” The group’s attorney, Simcha Rothman, said it was regrettable that the court chose to approve a decision made under “irrelevant considerations and political motives.”
Huldai praised the court’s ruling, “We will continue to zealously defend freedom of expression, but we will not allow messages encouraging violence in the public space.”