The Knesset on Wednesday green-lighted in a preliminary vote an amendment to Israel’s defamation laws that would allow civil lawsuits against activists and organizations that malign Israeli soldiers and military activities.
The bill would potentially pave the way for legal action against the Breaking the Silence group, which gathers testimonies of former IDF soldiers on alleged human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. The organization has raised the ire of Israeli officials and drawn criticism from those who challenge the truthfulness of its mostly anonymous claims.
The proposal by Likud MK Yoav Kisch was cleared in its preliminary reading in the plenary with 61 MKs backing the measure and 33 opposed.
It was sent to the Knesset’s House Committee, chaired by Kisch, for revisions ahead of the three other votes in the plenum that would advance it into law.
“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, and of Dean Issacharoff, who lied about IDF soldiers but who cannot be sued.”
Mohammad Bakri’s 2002 documentary “Jenin, Jenin,” falsely alleged the IDF carried out a massacre of civilians in the West Bank city during the Second Intifada. The release of “Jenin, Jenin” prompted five IDF reservists to sue Bakri for defamation, arguing that they had been depicted as war criminals. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case, although it ruled that the movie falsely accused and slandered the soldiers.
Issacharoff is the spokesperson of Breaking the Silence. Kisch was referring to recent controversy over Issacharoff’s confession to having beaten a Palestinian “in the face and chest until he was bleeding and dazed” during his military service in the West Bank city of Hebron. An investigation into the allegations saw prosecutors conclude Issacharoff had lied about the incident, though the left-wing activist maintained his guilt and said the investigators had quizzed the wrong Palestinian about the incident.
“We will give our soldiers the power not only to fight on the battlefield, but also in civil suits,” Kisch said on Wednesday.
A similar bill was introduced to the Knesset in 2013, but failed to make headway.
Kisch’s proposal was the latest in a series of efforts to target organizations critical of Israel and boycott activists.
Last month, the Knesset gave initial approval to a bill — authored by Kisch and backed by Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan — that opens up Israeli Boycott, Divestment, and Boycott (BDS) activists to civil lawsuits with damages of up to NIS 100,000 ($28,000), without requiring plaintiffs to provide proof of damages.
Another bill that would penalize calls for boycotting Israel with up to seven years’ imprisonment has been introduced by coalition lawmakers, but has yet to face a first vote or receive coalition backing.
Last year, Israel budgeted NIS 118 million ($32 million) to fight the boycott movement.
The government also passed a law banning Israel boycott activists from the country and has been implementing it rigorously, most recently in preventing a group of European officials from visiting.