JERUSALEM – Israeli Cabinet ministers have proposed legislation that seeks to outlaw photographing Israeli soldiers "for the sake of shaming them," a ban rights groups say would amount to government censorship.
Facing criticism and questions about the proposal's legality, the government already appeared to be taking steps to water down the bill before it goes to a parliamentary vote. But rights groups said that even preliminary support for the legislation was a stain on the country's democracy.
A ministerial committee, headed by Israel's justice minister, approved the proposal on Sunday. It says anyone "who films, photographs or records soldiers while performing their duty, with the intent of undermining the morale of Israeli soldiers and residents" or anyone who disseminates such materials, would face five years in prison.
The bill appears to have been promoted by the filming of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria fatally shooting an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in the West Bank city of Hebron who was lying on the ground in March 2016. Azaria was convicted of manslaughter and served nine months of an 18-month prison sentence.
The case bitterly divided the nation. Israel's military pushed for his prosecution, saying he violated its code of ethics. But many Israelis, particularly on the nationalist right, defended his actions.
The bill's sponsor, Robert Ilatov of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, insisted in a radio interview Monday that the bill "does not impinge on free speech." He said it only prevents obstruction of soldiers in the line of duty.
Ilatov wrote on Facebook last week that the bill's aim is to prevent "left wing organizations from disseminating (soldiers') pictures for the sake of shaming them." Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, praised the bill on Sunday for helping protect Israeli soldiers from "Israel-haters and terror supporters trying to denigrate, humiliate and harm them."
The text of the bill specifically mentions B'Tselem, Machsom Watch and Breaking the Silence — Israeli advocacy groups critical of the West Bank occupation — as "anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian" organizations whose activity documenting the Israeli military the legislation seeks to combat.
"Most of these groups are supported by foundations, organizations and governments with clear anti-Israeli perspectives and agendas, which use these tendentious materials for harming the state of Israel and its security," the bill reads.
The bill is the latest in a series of legal measures passed or proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist government to curb organizations critical of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
Deputy Attorney General Raz Nazari, who was present at the ministerial meeting, said the bill was legally problematic. He said that ministers had agreed to draft a lighter version that would instead penalize photographers only if they hinder a soldier from doing his job, similar to existing law that bans people from interfering with police officers in the line of duty.
But opposition lawmakers and rights groups said they were surprised the legislation made it this far.
"If there is a problem with the reality that the occupation creates, we should change it, not try to hide it," said Tamar Zandberg, head of the liberal opposition Meretz Party.
Talia Sasson, president of the New Israel Fund, a liberal advocacy group that supports groups that document rights abuses in the West Bank, called the bill "an arrow shot into the heart of the state of Israel."
Israeli journalists also criticized the proposal, saying it would hinder their ability to work.
Israeli photographer Ohad Zwigenberg said journalists must be allowed to "document reality as it is."
"A world without real journalism that is free and neutral is an insane world," he said.