ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Knesset passes preliminary reading of bill banning denial of October 7 massacre

Denial ‘damages the memory of the victims,’ says MK Oded Forer, while Association of Civil Rights in Israel says it creates ‘chilling effect on freedom of expression’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Lawmakers in the Knesset plenum vote on a bill to criminalize the denial of the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)
Lawmakers in the Knesset plenum vote on a bill to criminalize the denial of the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

A bill criminalizing the denial, minimization or celebration of the Hamas terror group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel passed a preliminary reading 29-0 in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday.

In a series of tweets ahead of the vote, sponsor Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, who modeled his bill after a 1986 law prohibiting Holocaust denial, said the way in which people around the world relate to the massacre “is starting to resemble Holocaust denial, and it also has fans here in Israel.”

“We cannot demand that the nations of the world ban the denial of the massacre, similar to the ban on denying the Holocaust, without us also acting. In this era, when false information is spread on steroids, we must start the fight now,” he said.

Co-sponsor MK Evgeny Sova agreed with his fellow Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker, telling The Times of Israel following the vote that anybody “who denies the massacre that Hamas perpetrated on October 7 is no less than a Holocaust denier.”

The legislation, which was supported by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, mandates prison sentences of five years for making statements denying the massacre or “downplaying its dimensions” as well as prohibiting expressions of “praise, sympathy or identification” with the attack.

“The denial of the massacre constitutes an attempt to rewrite history already at this stage, in an attempt to hide, minimize and facilitate the crimes committed against the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” the bill’s explanatory notes declared.

Israeli soldiers at the forensic center in the Shura military base near Ramle, where hundreds of dead bodies arrived since the October 7 Hamas onslaught, October 24, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The unprecedented October 7 Hamas terror onslaught saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and seizing 253 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians; 132 hostages are still held in Gaza.

Arguing in favor of the legislation in the plenum on Wednesday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said that it had been brought as a private member’s bill because he had been unable to promote it as government legislation due to opposition from the government’s legal advisers.

Last week, Army Radio’s Tamar Shunami reported that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara had come out against the legislation because trials brought under the proposed law could complicate the prosecution and trials of Hamas members by requiring the “disclosure of evidence that will disrupt” the ongoing legal process.

And while the current proposal is coming only months after the October 7 attack, Holocaust memory laws around the world were only passed years after the European genocide when “a clear historical determination of the crimes had already been created,” Baharav-Miara wrote.

Oded Forer, chair of Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, attends a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Beyond setting an example abroad, the bill is also intended to fight denial domestically, Forer said after the vote, declaring that “we must not allow groups within the country to destroy and damage the memory of the victims.”

Forer may have been alluding to his recent efforts to expel Hadash-Ta’al party lawmaker Ofer Cassif, who is currently going through an extended impeachment process over his public support for South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

The massacre denial bill has raised concerns among some human rights advocates over its potential impact on free speech, especially given the large number of police investigations and indictments against Arab Israeli citizens on charges of incitement and identifying with terrorist groups since the war began.

Israel’s Haaretz daily has reported that conspiracy theories about October 7 have flourished in East Jerusalem.

“The criminalization of expressions should be preserved for extreme circumstances where there is a real and imminent threat, such as incitement to violence,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s Gil Gan-Mor told The Times of Israel. “The denial of the massacre is regrettable and flagrant, but it is not one of those extreme cases.”

Because the law is “formulated in an ambiguous manner,” it will be hard to predict how it will be enforced, creating “a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” argued Gan-Mor, who heads ACRI’s Civil and Social Rights units.

“In an era where people are constantly exposed to misinformation and fake news on social networks, which authorities struggle to deal with, there is a need to be especially cautious with the restriction of expressions that constitute a denial of events. In Israel, there are quite a few people who deny the Nakba for example. Dealing with these issues should be through arguments and education, not draconian laws,” he said, using the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that many Arabs used to describe the displacement of Palestinians amid the 1948 War of Independence.

To become law, the bill still needs to pass through committee and three additional readings in the plenum.

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