A bill that would prevent an organization that collects critical testimonies from soldiers about their military service in the West Bank from holding events at Israeli schools passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Tuesday.

After a heated debate, the bill passed by 51 votes to 17, having garnered support both from coalition factions and the opposition’s Yesh Atid.

Amid intense public debate over the legitimacy of left-wing NGOs operating in Israel, the proposed legislation is primarily directed at the Breaking the Silence organization, but would give the education minister the power to ban all groups “that work to damage the IDF” from entering any academic institutions.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled the new draft legislation last month after three high school principals ignored his guidelines on prohibiting the organization from speaking to students.

Education Naftali Bennett speaks at the Sderot Conference for Society at Sapir College in Southern Israel, November 30, 2016. (Flash90)

Education Naftali Bennett speaks at the Sderot Conference for Society at Sapir College in Southern Israel, November 30, 2016. (Flash90)

Speaking in the Knesset plenary before the vote, Bennett said that the group, which collects and disseminates testimony of wrongdoing from IDF veterans, is actively working to hurt the country.

“Breaking the Silence doesn’t only want to poison the world against us, but to poison our children with their lying reports,” Bennett said. “Schools in Israel will educate toward solidarity and not toward attacking one’s brother, toward giving the benefit of the doubt to soldiers that protect us, and not toward shaming them around the world.”

Bennett was repeatedly interrupted by opposition MKs protesting the bill. In total, four Meretz lawmakers were removed from the plenary for disrupting the debate.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, also speaking before the vote, said that “there’s no opposition and coalition” when it comes to protecting soldiers.

“These groups harm our soldiers, make them vulnerable to being put on trial and cause damage to the State of Israel in the international arena by spreading blatant lies,” Lapid said. “Now they also want to spread their false teachings to our children.”

Founded in 2004 by a group of veteran Israeli army combatants, Breaking the Silence collects reports, usually anonymously, about alleged abuses by soldiers in the West Bank. It has often locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass and its critics have denounced its reports as dishonest, inaccurate, and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.

In December, Bennett instructed the Education Ministry’s director-general to update an official memorandum regulating educational procedures — a document published every year outlining the ministry’s emphases for the coming school year — to explicitly state that organizations it describes as inciting against the IDF, such as Breaking the Silence, are not to be allowed entry to schools.

Students protest during a talk by the Breaking The Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Students protest during a talk by the Breaking The Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But the memorandum was not legally binding and three high school principals recently allowed Breaking the Silence members to speak at their students, The Times of Israel has learned. The principals were given a dressing down by the Education Ministry, but did not face any disciplinary action.

The new proposal would make it a criminal act to disobey the education minister’s ruling and comes as a direct response to the principals’ dissent, a spokesperson for Bennett said.

Responding to the proposal, Breaking the Silence said that Bennett was trying to create “an education system of occupation” and would fail this time as he did before.

“Those who are damaging IDF soldiers are the ones who are turning the army from one that protects Israel to one that protects illegal outposts,” the group said in a statement, referring to the Jewish Home’s recent efforts to pass a law to retroactively authorize construction in West Bank outposts.

The bill must still pass three more readings in the Knesset before becoming law and will now progress to the Education Committee for debate.