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Proposed Legislation Banning ‘Documenting’ Israeli Soldiers Advances

Proposed Legislation Banning ‘Documenting’ Israeli Soldiers Advances

Israel moves to criminalize the filming of IDF soldiers in a manner that harms the state

Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation advanced a bill on Sunday that would ban photographing, filming and broadcasting footage of on-duty Israeli soldiers. The prohibition would apply to IDF troops themselves and just about anyone else in their vicinity—Palestinians, bystanders and journalists.

The controversial bill named “Prohibition against photographing and documenting soldiers” will head for a preliminary reading in parliament on Wednesday. It will likely undergo extensive rewrites, giving it a better chance of withstanding legal challenges and passing the required three readings before becoming law.

The bill—proposed by parliamentarian Robert Ilatov and sponsored by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, both members of the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beytenu Party—calls for penalties of up to five years for anyone caught filming or photographing Israeli military activities with the intent of “undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and residents of Israel.” The more serious charge of publishing footage with the goal of “harming state security” carries a stiffer penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Explanatory notes accompanying the bill stated that, “For many years now, the State of Israel has witnessed a worrying phenomenon of documentation of IDF soldiers. This is done through video and stills and audio recordings by anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian organizations.… In many cases, the organizations spend whole days near the IDF soldiers waiting impatiently for activities that can be biased and tendentious—and through them they [soldiers] can be disgraced.”

The note continued: “Most of these organizations are supported by associations and governments with a clear anti-Israeli agenda, which use these tendencies to harm the State of Israel and its security. It’s time to put an end to this absurdity.”

While supporters of the bill view the documentation of soldiers as an unnecessary hindrance to the IDF’s work in the field, non-governmental organizations like B’Tselem consider such footage the best way to hold the military accountable. The high-profile 2016 incident involving Elor Azaria, an IDF solider who killed a disarmed and wounded Palestinian attacker, is a case in point, critics of the bill argue.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate issued a statement on Sunday saying the bill “severely attacks the profession of the press and legitimizes the criminal practices committed by the Israeli occupation army against the Palestinian people.”

Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute, contends that the bill is very problematic. “The IDF is generally a moral army that in most cases respects human rights and the laws of war, but to preserve it as such, the army must rely on scrutiny, it must allow criticism of what the soldiers do,” he asserted to The Media Line.

“The army itself knows that this bill is not good,” Dr. Fuchs added, “as it will look like the IDF has a lot of things to hide, and it will become a weapon for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and others who say that Israeli soldiers are aggressive and do not respect the law and the army’s own procedures.”

He further explained that another counter-productive aspect of the bill relates to those who want to protect Israeli soldiers from being prosecuted at the International Criminal Court for alleged violations of human rights. “Whenever there is suspicion of wrongdoing against Israeli soldiers the best defense is that the IDF does its best to find those who violate laws.… [But] if there is good claim that Israel hiding or sweeping things under the rug, without conducting investigations, there is a real danger that sometimes a solider, or even a general or a politician will be taken to an international court.

Pnina Sharvit Baruch, head of the Program on Law and National Security at The Institute for National Security Studies, agrees that the proposed law is misguided.

“But I can understand where it comes from,” she elaborated to The Media Line, “because there is a lot of frustration about how Israel is depicted abroad, as a state that carries out war crimes and acts brutally. They don’t show the pictures where the soldiers are acting nicely and behaving as they should.”

According to Sharvit Baruch, there is indeed a legitimate concern about how images and footage can be edited or manipulated to blur the complete story, possibly depicting soldiers  reacting to situations in which perhaps an attack occurred beforehand.

Nevertheless, she believes the bill brings more harm than good, especially with regard to upholding democratic values such as freedom of speech. “Those taking these pictures are doing something that should be done. It is important to shed light on events and if something wrong has been carried out, it is good to know and take care of it through internal proceedings because it is in our interest to act professionally, legally and morally.”

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