High Court justice recuses himself from ‘Jenin, Jenin’ film case

Defendant’s lawyers ask Noam Sohlberg to stay out of latest debates surrounding controversial documentary, over his past comments on prosecuting the filmmakers

Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg on Sunday disqualified himself from a hearing on an appeal against the banning of the controversial 2002 documentary “Jenin, Jenin,” over a 2004 op-ed in which he expressed support for criminally trying the creators.

The widely discredited film is known for falsely alleging that the Israel Defense Forces massacred civilians in the West Bank city of Jenin during the Operation Defensive Shield military campaign at the height of the Second Intifada.

In January, the Lod District Court ruled that the controversial documentary could not be screened in Israel and that all copies should be seized. The court also ordered the payment of damages to an army reservist officer whom it said was defamed in the film.

Lt. Col. (res.) Nissim Magnagi filed his suit against filmmaker Mohammad Bakri in November 2016, demanding NIS 2.6 million (approximately $820,000) in damages and an end to the screening of the documentary.

Bakri then appealed to the Supreme Court, which Sohlberg was supposed to take part in.

Some 17 years ago, Sohlberg wrote in an op-ed that he believes the filmmakers who created the film can be prosecuted for libel.

His decision to recuse himself came after a request from Bakri’s lawyers.

“There is a fear that the negative attitude toward the film and its creator, as he demonstrated in the article, would affect his neutrality and his factual examination,” Bakri’s lawyers said, according to Ynet.

Sohlberg had written in 2004 that “there is ‘public interest’ in filing an indictment for defamation of IDF soldiers who fought in Jenin.”

After recusing himself from the case, Sohlberg said that he had not actually seen the film when he made those comments in 2004, but was rather using it as an example when responding to the attorney general at the time not supporting indicting those slandering IDF soldiers.

Mohammad Bakri at the Lod District Court on December 21, 2017 (FLASH90)

Magnagi’s lawsuit was the second defamation suit to be brought against Bakri for the film.

During the 11-day battle in the city in April 2002, 52 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. Most of them — 27, according to Human Rights Watch; 48, according to the IDF — were combatants. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Jenin was a central point in the training and dispatch of Palestinian suicide bombers in the Second Intifada, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, and IDF troops had been deployed to the area to tackle what Israel described as the “infrastructure of terror” there.

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 was what prompted Bakri to enter the city with a film crew to interview residents.

Shortly after the film’s 2002 release, five IDF reservists sued Bakri for defamation, arguing that they had been depicted as war criminals in the film.

Lt. Col. (res.) Nissim Magnagi and two other Israeli soldier can be seen walking next to a jeep in the 2002 film ‘Jenin, Jenin,’ which falsely claimed Israeli soldiers committed a massacre in the West Bank city during Operation Defense Shield in April 2002. (Screen capture)

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, had a legal basis for a defamation suit.

In the relevant portion of the documentary, an 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 man says, “[The soldier] told me: ‘Either you shut up or I’ll kill you.’”

Magnagi 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.”

In his suit, Magnagi noted that he would donate most of the money to veterans of the 2002 operation in Jenin and the families of slain soldiers.

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