Punishing the Witnesses

A bill that would make it a crime to document clashes between soldiers and Palestinians violates the right to freedom of expression, encourages censorship and presents Israel as having something to hide

Haaretz Editorial

On March 24, 2016, at the end of a terrorist stabbing in Hebron, Sgt. Elor Azaria shot in the head a Palestinian assailant who already lay wounded and incapacitated, killing him. A B’Tselem photographer documented the incident and published the video. The video’s distribution made the incident impossible to ignore. Azaria was court-martialed. A panel of three judges unanimously convicted him of manslaughter and conduct unbecoming a noncommissioned officer.

But to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the serious offense was taking and distributing the video, and the real criminals aren’t soldiers like Azaria — who ignore the army’s rules of engagement, who shoot and kill without justification and disgrace the army and the state. To the committee, the real criminals are instead human rights groups such as B’Tselem, Mahsom Watch and Breaking the Silence, which document these soldiers’ actions. It is these organizations and their activities that are the target of a bill the committee is expected to approve Sunday, that would make it a crime to document clashes between soldiers and Palestinians and distribute the documentation with “the intent of “undermining the spirit of Israeli soldiers and residents.”

Moreover, offenders from human rights groups who document soldiers’ crimes must not be given the light sentences, at most, imposed by the military courts on soldiers who misbehave. The ministerial committee, with the support of Kulanu, seeks a prison sentence of five years in the event their action intended to harm “the soldiers’ spirit” and 10 years if the goal was to compromise national security. While Azaria was sentenced to 18 months in prison and served just nine, after the army chief of staff commuted his sentence, the framers of the new bill believe the punishment for filming, recording or publicizing the army’s actions should exceed that of someone who shot dead an injured and completely incapacitated assailant.
“In many cases, the organizations spend whole days near soldiers waiting impatiently for an action that can be documented in a biased and tendentious way, in order to cast aspersions on Israel Defense Forces soldiers,” the preamble to the bill says. The committee members seem to have lost their bearings: It is the soldiers who transgress who discredit the army, not those who document them. And the “spirit of Israeli soldiers and residents” is undermined by the fact that for 50 years Israel has ruled over another people by military force.

Who determines what constitutes “harm to the spirit of Israeli soldiers and residents”? The wording leaves broad room for interpretation and makes it possible to stop human rights activists, journalists and in fact anyone with a smartphone. This bill violates the right to freedom of expression and to journalistic freedom, encourages censorship and presents Israel in general and the army in particular as having something to hide. This bill must not be allowed to pass into law.