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Supreme Court rejects ‘Jenin, Jenin’ filmmaker’s appeal, upholds ban on screenings

Top court orders director Mohammad Bakri to pay damages to IDF officer and holds him responsible for slanderous film’s distribution on YouTube and screenings in Israel

Mohammad Bakri attends a Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem about his film 'Jenin, Jenin,' on May 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Mohammad Bakri attends a Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem about his film 'Jenin, Jenin,' on May 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a final ruling barring screenings of the controversial 2002 documentary “Jenin, Jenin,” rejecting an appeal by the film’s director and ordering him to pay damages to an IDF officer for defamation.

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.

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

Wednesday’s ruling upheld a January 2021 decision by the Lod District Court, which ordered Bakri to pay Magnagi NIS 175,000 ($51,000) as well as NIS 50,000 ($14,600) in legal expenses. The ruling said the film could not be screened in Israel and that all copies should be seized

The court ruled that Bakri had defamed Magnagi, and held him responsible for four screenings of the slanderous film in Israel between 2010 and 2012, as well as its distribution on YouTube.

Wednesday’s decision rejected Bakri’s appeal against the previous ruling. Judge Yitzhak Amit said the documentary “includes lies and fictions constituting defamation of IDF soldiers, the ruling has already been made, and the Supreme Court already said in a sure and clear voice, time after time, that the movie ‘Jenin, Jenin’ is a fraud.”

The 2016 case was the second defamation suit to be brought against Bakri for the film.

Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit, center, arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for a court hearing, on February 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Navot Tel-Zur, Magnagi’s lawyer, said that he and his client “received the ruling of the Supreme Court with great satisfaction and emotion, which brings justice for IDF soldiers and victims’ families.”

During the 11-day battle in Jenin in April 2002, 52 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. The majority 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. The rumors, which were widely disseminated and prominently reported internationally, were unfounded.

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

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 the recent 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.”

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: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

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.

Immediately after its release, the 53-minute film drew sharp criticism for what many — including the Supreme Court — saw as egregious breaches of documentary and journalistic ethics.

Notably, Bakri was found to have used misleading cuts in the film to imply deliberate civilian deaths that never happened, specifically in a scene in which an armored personnel carrier — inaccurately referred to as a tank in the movie — is made to look as though it ran over a number of Palestinian prisoners lying on the ground, though it did not, as the director later admitted in court.

The filmmaker also mistranslated Arabic for the subtitles to include words like “genocide” and “massacre,” which were never actually said during interviews. In addition, no Israeli officials were interviewed for the movie to provide an opposing viewpoint.

Over the years, Barki’s lawyer for the initial Supreme Court case, Avigdor Feldman, has maintained that his client was not trying to present a factual account of the “Battle of Jenin,” but was only showing the Palestinian narrative, regardless of its veracity. In media interviews, the attorney said this could be seen in the fact that the documentary has no voiceover and is only made up of interviews.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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