Israel Pulse

Israeli bill forbids documentation of IDF abuses

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Article Summary
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman claims an Israeli bill criminalizing the filming of Israeli soldiers is meant to protect them from harm, but human rights workers point out that it will also shield them from prosecution.

The Israeli ministerial committee on legislation approved a bill criminalizing the filming of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank June 17. Proponents of the legislation, introduced by Knesset member Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beitenu, argue that it is designed to protect soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces operating alongside Palestinian residents, or as Ilatov himself phrased it, to prevent “filming meant to undermine the spirit of the IDF soldiers [and of] residents of the State of Israel or to damage state security.” The version of the bill approved by the ministerial committee imposes jail terms of five to 10 years on violators.

The center-right Kulanu of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, considered the government coalition’s liberal standard-bearer, supports the bill. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed the ministers prior to their vote that he opposes the law because it is unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the ministers gave Ilatov the green light to present the bill for an initial vote by the Knesset plenum on June 20, with a promise that its language would be amended before it comes up for further approval to satisfy Mandelbilt's reservations. However, even if changes are introduced along the way, the bill’s authors clearly have one goal in mind: to conceal the goings-on in West Bank areas from the Israeli and international public.

Ilatov, the chair of the Yisrael Beitenu Knesset faction, is known as the executor of legislative initiatives by his party leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Immediately following approval of the bill, Liberman tweeted a harsh attack reminiscent of oppressive regimes against human rights organizations and leftist activists who document soldiers’ activities in the territories. “Israeli soldiers are under attack from Israel haters and terror supporters at home seeking to discredit, humiliate and harm them. Let’s put an end to this!” he wrote. Liberman and his faction recently increased their broadsides and legislation directed against Israel’s Arab minority in a bid to prop up their party’s stagnant polling figures. Nonetheless, all the members of the ministerial committee from all six coalition parties voted in favor of the bill.

Several hours before the vote, settlement supporters injured 11 police officers while protesting a court order to demolish buildings erected illegally in the northern West Bank outpost of Tapuach. Neither Liberman nor Education Minister Naftali Bennett spoke out against the violence directed at police. If the government adopts laws preventing the documentation of events in the occupied territories, they will be able to not only continue ignoring events that embarrass the political right, but conceal them altogether. Ilatov’s current bill “takes care” of IDF soldiers, but could be expanded to include all security forces in the West Bank so that settler violence against police forces will remain hidden from public view, too.

Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, chair of leftist Meretz, lashed out at the bill’s sponsors, saying, “If the government is so intent on looking out for IDF soldiers, it should be dealing with settlers who dismantle military vehicles, injure police and throw stones at soldiers.”

The truth is that the bill is meant to undermine Israeli human rights groups, especially the activities of B’Tselem. For years, the organization’s Camera Project has provided Israelis and foreigners with unique documentation of Israel’s occupation and placed before the government a mirror reflecting the troubling reality that it prefers to ignore.

The Camera Project was launched in 2005 when heads of the organization realized that one photo aired on television or posted on social media is worth more than a thousand words written in reports, important as they are. B’Tselem handed out video cameras to its researchers and to Palestinian residents, and the results have become a vital element of the group’s work. In 2015, it documented the shooting of a 17-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Hani al-Kasbeh, by a brigade commander, Col. Yisrael Shomer, whose jeep had come under a hail of stones. The video showed that the youth had been throwing stones but had started running away and that Shomer was not in mortal danger at the time he fired. Rather, he chased the youth and shot him dead.

Despite calls to indict Shomer, the IDF prosecutor decided to close the case. He accepted the claim that Shomer shot in the framework of the military’s procedure for arresting suspects, that the fire was justified and that it was meant to arrest the youth. The prosecutor found that Shomer had fired while moving and not standing still, which is why the shooting was not accurate and resulted in the death of the Palestinian youth. B’Tselem claimed that these explanations were an army cover-up.

In 2014, B’Tselem disseminated security camera footage from the West Bank village of Bitunya in which an Israeli border police officer was seen shooting a Palestinian youth dead, even though he was not in mortal danger. In a plea bargain about two months ago, the police officer was convicted of causing the youth’s death and sentenced to nine months in jail.

One of B’Tselem’s most troubling video clips, which resonated around the world, was the 2013 arrest of 5-year-old Wadia Masawed for throwing stones at soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron. When the soldiers arrested him, the boy burst into heartbreaking sobs. Former B’Tselem director Jessica Montell wondered at the time how the soldiers at the scene, including their commanders and senior officers, did not realize they had no legal grounds for arresting such a young boy.

However, by far the most controversial B’Tselem video documentation was the March 2016 footage showing soldier Elor Azaria shooting an injured and disarmed Palestinian in the head. According to publications, Azaria acted on his own, against the judgment of present commanders and even endangered other IDF troops there. Still, the incident was not immediately reported and Azaria was not arrested on the spot. It was the publication by B’Tselem of the video that set off a public storm and led to an inquiry. The video was the evidence that prompted IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s demand for Azaria's indictment, saying, "This is not the IDF. These are not IDF values nor IDF culture."

Without the B’Tselem cameras at the scene, the public would have probably been informed of the incident by a military spokesperson who would probably have reported that a soldier had thwarted a terrorist attack by shooting the terrorist dead. Azaria was sentenced earlier this year to 18 months in jail but was released in May when his sentence was reduced to nine months including time served. Liberman stood by Azaria throughout the legal proceedings, just as he is now backing the legislation to conceal IDF activities in the territories. If the Knesset gives final approval to the current version of the bill, soldiers who violate the law and military orders will no longer need his support because their actions will be hidden from the public eye.

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Found in: Human rights

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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