With Elor Azaria’s release from prison this month, Israel seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from a serious incident. Today the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is set to consider a dangerous proposal banning any photographing, recording or filming of soldiers in the course of their duties, if it is carried out with the intention of “undermining the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents.” The bill also bans the publication of photos or videos in the media or on social networks with similar intentions. Anyone who breaks the law is subject to five years in prison.
The message is clear: B’Tselem, not Azaria, is the real criminal and Israeli democracy must protect itself from the human rights organization’s future crimes. The bill’s aim was made clearer in its explanatory notes and that is to silence criticism of the army, and in particular to prevent human rights organizations from documenting the Israeli army’s actions in the territories.
It might be noted that any footage of soldiers on such missions can be presented as an attempt “to undermine the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents.” The bill in fact seeks to almost entirely prevent the photographing of soldiers, even if it is to verify that they are upholding the law of war and the army’s orders. The immediate result of such a prohibition is serious harm to the possibility of protecting human rights and overseeing the army’s activity.
A democratic country cannot base criminal offenses on such a vague foundation, certainly not when it comes to an offense relating to freedom of expression. The bill does serious harm to freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. The public has a right to know what the reality is and especially what the “people’s army” is doing in its name and on its behalf. That is why censorship can only be exercised in cases of serious danger to state security and not in an effort to head off criticism of the army.
The message such legislation would convey, if passed, is that Israel has a great deal to hide regarding the IDF’s activities. Such a message, beyond its profound damage to Israel’s status as a democracy, also has harsh legal repercussions. The main protection against indicting Israeli soldiers and commanders in international tribunals for violating the law of war is the assumption that Israel investigates complaints against its soldiers itself, and deals with them fairly. The more Israel acts to cover up its soldiers’ actions, the more the opposite assumption is substantiated — laying the ground for the indictment of Israeli soldiers and commanders in such criminal proceedings.
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As “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” so too camouflage and concealment are the most effective contaminators. A country and army that have nothing to hide, that act to seek out and punish those who violate their code of combat, don’t need legislation in this spirit and must oppose it.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.