In a rare move, the attorney general on Wednesday announced he would be presenting a civil libel suit against an Arab Israeli filmmaker on behalf of an army reservist officer who claims he was defamed in the director’s controversial 2002 documentary “Jenin, Jenin.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Nissim Magnagi filed his suit against the filmmaker, Mohammad Bakri, in November 2016, demanding NIS 2.6 million ($745,000) in damages and an end to the documentary being screened. In the interim year, the case has been argued back and forth in a series of briefs by the two men’s attorneys.
As the case appears to be coming to a head, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit became involved, an uncommon move as the government’s top lawyer generally handles criminal, not civil, cases.
“The attorney general decided to take part and support the suit by Lt. Col. (res.) Magnagi, in light of the public interest that exists in the case,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
This is the second defamation suit to be brought against Mohammad Bakri for his film “Jenin, Jenin,” which falsely alleged the Israel Defense Forces massacred civilians in the West Bank city during the Operation Defensive Shield military campaign at the height of the Second Intifada.
During the 11-day battle in the city, 52 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces but the majority of them — 27, according to Human Rights Watch; 48, according to the IDF — were combatants. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Rumors of a massacre had spread following a decision by the military to effectively cut off all outside ties to Jenin during the fighting, which is what prompted Bakri to enter the city with a film crew to interview residents.
Shortly after its 2002 release, five IDF reservists sued Bakri for defamation, arguing that they had been depicted as war criminals in the film.
After a prolonged legal battle, the Supreme Court dismissed the reservists’ case in 2011. The judges determined that although the documentary was “indeed full of things that were not true” and did slander the IDF, the plaintiffs were not specifically identified in the film and therefore did not have standing to claim that they were personally defamed.
In this case, however, Magnagi did appear in the documentary and, as a result, has a legal basis for a defamation suit.
“The current plaintiff, who was not involved in the previous legal efforts, says that he can be seen and identified in the movie, during a part in which an elderly resident of Jenin is being interviewed, who claims that during the fighting, soldiers allegedly entered his house and stole his life’s savings,” the Justice Ministry said in its statement.
In that portion of the documentary, the older Palestinian man describes how troops threatened his life. The film then cuts to footage of three IDF soldiers walking next to a jeep — including Magnagi, according to the suit — as the elderly men says, [The soldier] told me: ‘Either you shut up or I’ll kill you.'”
Immediately after its release, the 53-minute film drew sharp criticism for what many saw — including the Supreme Court — as egregious breaches of documentary and journalistic ethics.
Notably, Bakri was found to have used misleading cuts in the film to imply deliberate civilian deaths that never happened, specifically in a scene in which an armored personnel carrier — inaccurately referred to as a tank in the movie — is made to look as though it ran over a number of Palestinian prisoners lying on the ground, though it did not, as the director later admitted in court.
The filmmaker also mistranslated Arabic for the subtitles to include words like “genocide” and “massacre,” which were never actually said during interviews. In addition, no Israeli officials were interviewed for the movie to provide an opposing viewpoint.
Over the years, Barki’s lawyer for the initial Supreme Court case, Avigdor Feldman, has maintained that his client was not trying to present a factual account of the “Battle of Jenin,” but was only showing the Palestinian narrative, regardless of its veracity. In media interviews, the attorney said this could be seen in the fact that the documentary has no voice-over and is only made up of interviews.
Upon its release, the documentary was immediately banned by the Israeli Film Ratings Board, which described it as libelous. It was shown anyway in two Israeli theaters, one in Jerusalem and the other in Tel Aviv.
The controversial film is still being shown today in Israel and around the world at events in support of Palestinians, according to the lawsuit. The documentary has also been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube.
Magnagi, who now works as a tour guide, argued in his suit against Bakri that his “good name has been harmed, his honor has been smashed and his identity as a moral and ethical soldier has been damaged.”
Therefore, he requests the court award him either NIS 2.6 million ($745,000) or NIS 100,000 ($28,600) each time the movie is shown.
In his suit against Bakri, Magnagi notes that he would donate most of the money to veterans of the 2002 operation in Jenin and the families of slain soldiers.
In the future, it might get easier for cases to be brought against people who malign Israeli soldiers and military activities, in light of two proposals by right-wing lawmakers.
Earlier this month, Likud MK Yoav Kisch filed an amendment to Israel’s defamation laws that would allow civil lawsuits against activists and organizations that speak negatively about the IDF.
And in November, the Knesset gave initial approval to a bill — also authored by Kisch — that opens up Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Boycott (BDS) activists to civil lawsuits, without requiring plaintiffs to provide proof of damages.
In the Knesset, Kisch pointed specifically at “Jenin, Jenin” as a reason for such legislation.
“IDF soldiers who were sent to protect us remain exposed in the face of repeated slander,” said Kisch. “We saw, for example, the case of the ‘Jenin, Jenin’ movie, in which the legal situation did not allow us to protect the soldiers.”
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.