The owner of an independent news website was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in libel damages after a court found he slandered kidnapped IDF soldiers by suggesting they were involved in the drug trade.
Tel Aviv Regional Court President Drora Pilpel ruled Sunday that Rami Yitzhar, the proprietor of the Inyan Merkazi website, must pay NIS 285,000 ($76,000) to the parents of Benny Avraham, an IDF soldier kidnapped along with two others by Hezbollah in October 2000.
A week after the kidnapping, Inyan Merkazi apparently published an article claiming the IDF was investigating the possibility that the soldiers were close to the border and in a dangerous area because they were engaged in drug trafficking with Lebanese smugglers. The IDF vehemently denied that the soldiers were engaged in criminal activity and following an investigation said that they had acted in accordance to their orders.
Avraham’s parents brought the libel case against Yitzhar in 2004 and sued the journalist for NIS 3 million ($800,000) in damages. In addition to the final damages awarded, Yitzhar was also ordered to pay NIS 35,000 in court fees.
The case became complicated because the parents were unable to find a copy of the alleged report on the website and Yitzhar denied that he had ever published an article linking the soldiers to drug smuggling. However, a recording of an interview that Yitzhar gave at the time to Israel Radio, in which he apparently read out excerpts from the article, convinced the court that the slanderous material had indeed been published.
Staff sergeants Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad were kidnapped in October 2000 from the Mount Dov region of Israel’s border with Lebanon. The three soldiers died in a Hezbollah ambush and their bodies were taken for ransom by the terror organization. The deceased soldiers were eventually returned to Israel in 2004, along with a kidnapped Israel reserve officer Elhanan Tenenbaum, who was grabbed in Lebanon while on private business. Tenenbaum and the caskets containing the soldiers were exchanged for 400 Palestinian prisoners through German mediation.
The incident gained additional controversy when in 2001 it was revealed that United Nations soldiers stationed near the Israeli-Lebanese border had witnessed and filmed the incident and did not intervene or immediately inform Israel of what had transpired.