Ministers advance bill criminalizing some filming of IDF, despite AG opposition

Controversial legislation would ban publishing footage that puts military in negative light and ‘harms soldiers’ morale,’ recommend jail for obstructing troops carrying out duties

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

A still image taken from footage shot in the West Bank on September 25, 2015, shows an IDF soldier hurling a camera belonging to AFP reporters to the ground. (screen capture: YouTube)
A still image taken from footage shot in the West Bank on September 25, 2015, shows an IDF soldier hurling a camera belonging to AFP reporters to the ground. (screen capture: YouTube)

Cabinet ministers authorized Sunday a bill that would criminalize the filming of certain Israeli military activities, including clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinians.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which sets the coalition’s position on all Knesset bills, voted in favor of the proposal despite opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said he would not be able to defend the law.

The controversial bill, sponsored by the Yisrael Beytenu party with the support of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, would subject anyone caught filming or publishing footage of military activities with the purpose of harming “the soldiers’ morale” to up to five years behind bars.

However, during the cabinet debate, proponents said they will compromise on the bill’s much-criticized restrictions so that the prohibition on filming soldiers will only fall on those actively clashing with troops and attempting to obstruct their activities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Under the agreement reached, the bill will clear a preliminary reading in the Knesset without the compromise terms, after which the changes will be made, Hadashot news television reported.

Filming a soldier while obstructing him from carrying out his duties will carry a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison, the bill says. More serious circumstances, such as publishing such footage with the intention of “harming state security,” can carry a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

The committee, seen as a key bellwether of the bill’s success in passing the Knesset to become law, sent the bill to begin the legislative process in the Knesset with a preliminary vote on Wednesday.

Before the Sunday debate on the bill, however, committee members were told that the legislation may face challenges even if it is passed into law.

A letter sent to ministers from Mandelblit said that the bill “presents serious legal problems,” and would likely not be upheld by the Supreme Court. The attorney general said that if it advanced in its current form, he would not be able to defend it from a petition to the court claiming it contradicts Israel’s Basic Laws.

Following the committee vote, a coalition source told The Times of Israel that lawmakers will vote on the current version of the bill on Wednesday, but that changes to the bill would be instituted during Knesset deliberations in order for it to receive the Justice Ministry’s stamp of approval.

The measure was first unveiled on April 12, two days after the IDF criticized a soldier for filming himself cheering as an Israeli sniper shot a Gazan during a border incident.

The video had prompted a wave of condemnations across the political spectrum, as well as some justification and support for the soldiers featured in it, including from Liberman.

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 206 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.

The B’Tselem NGO, which regularly publishes video footage of alleged IDF wrongdoing, including the Elor Azaria video, slammed the bill as “idiotic.”

“If the government is embarrassed over the occupation, it should work to bring it to an end. In any case, visual footage of life under occupation will continue. This is a fact of life that no idiotic proposed bill will change,” the group said in a statement.

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

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the dovish New Israel Fund, also criticized the proposed measure.

“In Israel, as elsewhere in the world, video footage of police and military activity has become an important tool for human rights groups and the media. It’s part of how citizens can blow the whistle on wrongdoing by authorities,” he said in a statement. “We’ve seen that from Abu Ghraib to the case of Philando Castile. Tyrants restrict the rights of people to record what happens around them; democracies don’t.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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