Bill to criminalize some filming of IDF soldiers clears first Knesset hurdle

Legislation’s proponent says it’s needed to protect IDF troops from ‘hostile elements’; opposition MKs decry attempt to ‘legitimize’ alleged abuses

Screen capture from April 2018 video showing left-wing activists telling IDF soldiers on the border with the Gaza Strip that they are 'terrorists' who are 'massacring innocent civilians.' (Facebook)
Screen capture from April 2018 video showing left-wing activists telling IDF soldiers on the border with the Gaza Strip that they are 'terrorists' who are 'massacring innocent civilians.' (Facebook)

Legislation criminalizing the filming of Israeli soldiers engaged in some military activities cleared its first hurdle in the Knesset Wednesday ahead of expected revisions meant to give it legal backing.

The bill, which passed its first reading in a 45-42 vote, would outlaw the recording of soldiers carrying out their duties with the aim of demoralizing them or harming Israel’s security.

The draft legislation will now head to committee before coming up for the second and third plenum readings it must clear to become law.

“For many years already the state of Israel has witnessed the troubling phenomenon of the documenting IDF soldiers… by anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups,” an explanation of the bill states.

“In many cases the organizations spend whole days near IDF troops and impatiently wait for activity that be documented in a misleading and biased way and by which cast shame on IDF soldiers,” it adds.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov at a Knesset House Committee meeting on March 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov, who proposed the bill with backing from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, said ahead of the vote the legislation is necessary to prevent soldiers from “hostile elements” who seek to interfere with their duties and disgrace them.

“The soldiers we dispatch should not be at the front lines of the BDS organizations, and to not allow you, those who support these organizations, to slander the state of Israel,” he told the Knesset.

Ilatov said the bill is not meant to limit free speech, but “freedom of speech isn’t anarchy.”

The passage of the legislation in its first reading was hailed by right-wing lawmakers and NGOs, such as the Im Tirzu organization, though Arab and left-wing lawmakers criticized the bill as an effort to hide alleged abuses.

“For 35 years I proudly wore the IDF uniform. I never felt a need to hide behind cameras except for security needs,” said Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former major-general in the army.

“The whole purpose of the law is to incite against human rights organizations and to challenge the basis principles of Israeli democracy,” said MK Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party.

“The pictures will be taken. The reality is what we must correct and not try and silence,” she added.

Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh said, “This law is first and foremost an attempt to legitimize the injustices of the occupation, but no less than this it part of the attempt to dismantle democracy and harm freedom of the press.”

Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Udeh at a conference in Jerusalem hosted by the Israel Institute of Democracy on June 20, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

While the bill passed Wednesday includes a punishment of up to five years in prison for anyone who films or publishes military activities harming “soldiers’ morale,” Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said the legislation would be revised before advancing further as agreed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he cannot defend the bill in its current version from a petition to the court, claiming it contradicts Israel’s Basic Laws.

Proponents of the bill agreed to compromise on its much-criticized restrictions during Sunday’s cabinet meeting so that the prohibition on filming soldiers will only fall on those actively clashing with troops and attempting to obstruct their activities.

The yet-to-be revised version of the bill is expected to include a maximum penalty of three years for interfering with a soldier’s duty, though releasing footage with the intention of “harming state security” could result in a punishment of 10 years in prison.

Supporters of the legislation say it is necessary to prevent interference in IDF military activities and the harming of the IDF’s image.

“The documentation [of soldiers] is biased and edited in a one-sided way with one purpose: To undermine the morale of IDF troops and residents of Israel,” the explanation of the bill says.

An IDF soldier loading his weapon before he appears to shoot an unarmed, prone Palestinian assailant in the head following a stabbing attack in Hebron on March 24, 2016. (Screen capture: B’Tselem)

Several incidents in recent years in which soldiers were filmed using excessive force or abusing power have become a PR nightmare for Israel, while NGOs say the footage is vital to keeping the military accountable.

Cases include the 2016 killing of a disarmed and wounded Palestinian attacker by soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter and jailed, and an incident in 2012 in which a soldier hit a Danish activist in the face with his gun.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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