Israel to Bar Activists From Documenting Soldiers in West Bank

Ministerial Committee for Legislation expected to approve bill calling for five-year jail terms for anyone who distributes photos or footage aimed at breaking 'soldiers’ spirit’

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Scene from a video released on March 24, 2016 by B'Tselem showing IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria  aiming his weapon before shooting in the head and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.
Scene from a video released on March 24, 2016 by B'Tselem showing IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria aiming his weapon before shooting in the head and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.Credit: AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to approve a bill on Sunday that seeks to ban documentation and distribution of any reports about confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians with the intent either to harm national security or to “break the spirit of Israeli soldiers and inhabitants.”

The legislation, proposed by Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beitenu, has won the support of that party’s leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the Kulanu party, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

The proposal calls for a maximum five-year prison term for anyone photographing, recording or distributing Israel Defense Forces activity on social media with the aim of hurting the “soldiers’ spirit.” The maximum term increases to 10 years imprisonment for those convicted of seeking to harm national security.

The wording of the bill is vague about what exactly would constitute "breaking soldiers’ spirit" and how the measure would be enforced.

Sources involved in advancing the legislation told Haaretz on Thursday that an agreement has been reached to allow the measure to win committee approval so that it may be brought to a preliminary vote in the Knesset plenum in the coming days.

Credit: Yesh Din

“For many years the state of Israel has witnessed a worrisome phenomenon in which IDF soldiers are being documented," read the bill proposal's explainer. "Via video, stills photography and audio recordings by anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups such as B’tselem, the women of Machsom Watch, Breaking the Silence and various BDS groups. In many instances, these organizations spend entire days near IDF soldiers waiting with baited breath for some action they can document in a biased way in order to slander the IDF. Such documentation generally interferes with ongoing and operational IDF duties, sometimes accompanied by insults shouted at them.”

The proposal is aimed at providing a response to such cases as Elor Azaria, the soldier filmed two years ago shooting to death a wounded and neutralized Palestinian gunman in Hebron. The incident, documented by a photographer with B’tselem, was published shortly afterwards and kindled a public debate. Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for that shooting. He served nine months in prison after his sentence was commuted, and was released a month ago.

Sources in the Interior Ministry say they had considered applying the bill to protect police operations, but then dropped the idea. The ministry looked into the possibility of implementing a more limited ban on civilians documenting police activity only in instances where it interferes with police operations in the field, but this idea was also dropped.

B’Tselem says in response: “If occupation embarrasses the government then it should take steps to end it. Visual documentation of life under occupation shall continue. It’s a fact of life that no stupid bill will succeed in changing.”

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