New law makes it illegal to watch terror content unless for a good reason

Legislation aims to halt radicalization and the spread of terrorist ideology; while it contains good-faith exceptions, civil rights group fears innocents could still be prosecuted

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Security forces at the scene of a stabbing attack outside a police station near the Old City of Jerusalem, November 6, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Security forces at the scene of a stabbing attack outside a police station near the Old City of Jerusalem, November 6, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Legislation prohibiting the systematic consumption of terrorist content was passed into law in the Knesset on Wednesday, after being approved in its third reading by 13 votes to four.

The law bars individuals from consuming terrorist content, provided that the manner in which the content is consumed indicates the individual identifies with the terrorist organizations mentioned in the legislation, namely Hamas and the Islamic State.

Anyone found guilty of the offense can be imprisoned for one year.

The law states that it is not applicable to someone who watches such content “randomly, in good faith, or for a legitimate reason including providing information to the public, preventing terror attacks, or for research purposes,” conditions which eased concerns of civil rights groups that the legislation was too sweeping.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman said last week the caveats also cover journalists who view such content.

The justice minister, with the approval of the defense minister and the committee, can add other terror groups to the proscribed list.

MK Simcha Rothman leads a hearing of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, September 20, 2023 (Noam Moskowitz / Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

The law was passed as a temporary measure valid for two years but can be extended by the Knesset at the end of that period.

The legislation is designed to prevent so-called lone-wolf terrorism, where someone who is not connected to a terror organization becomes radicalized and inspired to act by watching terrorist content.

The law gained the support of some opposition MKs in committee, including Yesh Atid members, although others such as MK Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Hadash party wanted greater clarity in the law, which was ultimately not provided.

“You are putting all the citizens in a big fog, you are limiting freedom of information in an impossible manner, how can a regular citizen know if they are crossing the line, what is the definition of systematic and ongoing,” she asked in committee.

Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Association of Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel strongly criticized the original version of the legislation which it said would create a “thought police” that could punish people “not based on their actions but rather on what is going on inside someone’s head.”

Although ACRI acknowledged that the final version had been somewhat moderated, it said it still allowed for people to be imprisoned “without having carried out any active action” but rather having just “passively” viewed videos, pictures and other content, which it said was punishing people “for matters of the heart” which “contravenes the principle foundations of criminal justice in which only actions, not thoughts, can be punished.”

The organization also said that the vague wording of the law left its interpretation up to law enforcement agencies, which endangered innocent civilians.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman rejected these concerns, however, arguing that consuming terrorist content could be likened to attending a terror training camp, which is illegal, and therefore needed to be restricted with criminal penalties.

“Terror content spread online is another type of Hamas training camp,” said Rothman.

Israel has been fighting a war, both psychological and on the ground, since October 7, when hordes of Hamas terrorists from Gaza invaded Israel, massacring over 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and abducting at least 240 men, women and children, who are being held captive in Gaza. The attack came under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli population centers. Israel has responded with a military campaign while vowing to eradicate Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007.

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