Israel's Attorney General Backs Officer’s Libel Suit Against ‘Jenin, Jenin’ Director

Avichai Mendelblit cites ‘public interest’ to explain his decision to support a second civil lawsuit against Mohammed Bakri for his 2002 documentary

Revital Hovel
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'Jenin Jenin' director Mohammed Bakri.
'Jenin Jenin' director Mohammed Bakri.Credit: Reuters
Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

In an unusual move, the attorney general is to support a defamation of character lawsuit by a reserve officer against the director of the controversial 2002 documentary “Jenin, Jenin.”

Avichai Mendelblit’s office said in a statement Wednesday that he decided to support the suit against Mohammed Bakri because of the public interest in the case.

While Israeli law allows the attorney general to take sides in a civil suit if the case involves the public interest, in practice the privilege is rarely exercised.

In November 2016 Nissim Meghnagi sued Bakri for 2.6 million shekels (around $745,000).

Meghnagi took part in Operation Defensive Shield, the military operation in the West Bank refugee camp in Jenin that was the subject of Bakri’s film.

In his suit, Meghnagi claims that he appears in and was named in the movie, and that the film libeled Israeli soldiers by presenting them as war criminals.

Bakri argues that the purpose of the suit is persecution and political silencing, and says the case is without merit.

The movie makes no accusation against Meghnagi, says Bakri: The camera panned the plaintiff for mere seconds, and he cannot be identified as the person behind the deeds described in the movie.

On Thursday the District Court of the Central District is scheduled to hear Bakri’s request to reject the lawsuit.

Mendelblit’s announcement throwing his weight behind the suit followed requests from Meghnagi himsef and from Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Five years ago, a district court, ruling on a lawsuit by five soldiers who participated in Operation Defensive Shield, found that Bakri had slandered soldiers but the plaintiffs were not slandered personally. The Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sided with the soldiers.

The court said that plaintiffs who did not appear in the documentary had no grounds for personal damages, but it also ruled that the movie constituted “libel, at the base of which is bad faith and a deliberate tendency to distort things.” Three times the plaintiffs appealed for another hearing, with Mazuz’s support, to no avail.

Mendelblit said in his announcement that in contrast to the previous proceedings, this plaintiff actually appears in the movie while the narrator accuses the Israeli soldiers of looting. Hence his support for Meghnagi, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, in the context of public interest. Mendelblit noted that the movie is still bring distributed and shown.

“Jenin, Jenin” was first screened in April 2002 at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques. In November 2002, the Israel Film Council banned its distribution to Israeli theaters. The High Court of Justice voided that decision on the grounds of freedom of expression, bucking the council and also the attorney general. “Israeli society can cope with expressions of this sort,” the court ruled.

In 2014, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein rejected pleas by representatives of soldiers and their families to open a criminal investigation into Bakri, pursuant to libel law. With that, he was in agreement with his two predecessors.

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