Hiding the Occupation Doesn’t Make It Go Away

IDF soldiers in the West Bank (Wikimedia Commons)

by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man

If an Israeli soldier beats a Palestinian and no one is there to catch it on video, did it really happen? That is the question a group of Israeli lawmakers seems determined to find out.

A new bill, proposed by four members of Avigdor Liberman’s far-right Israel Beiteinu party, would make “videotaping, recording, or photographing Israeli soldiers carrying out their duty with the intention of eroding morale” a crime punishable by five years in prison. If the intent is to harm state security, the punishment doubles to 10 years in prison. The law would also apply to those disseminating such documentation.

According to Haaretz report, the bill was expected to gain the support of the entire government in a vote on Sunday.

Here are three important things to note about this bill.

1. This is an explicit attempt to silence and criminalize the work of Israeli human rights organizations. The bill’s explainer section specifically cites the work of B’Tselem, Machsom Watch, and Breaking the Silence as its impetus. After a decade of going after human rights and anti-occupation groups’ funding, the ability of Israel’s critics to freely travel, and campaigns accusing them of treason, the government may now attempt to criminalize their activities outright.

Whenever despondency starts to set in, whenever the work of human rights and anti-occupation groups seems utterly futile, remember this bill — irrespective of whether it becomes law or is left to die in committee. This bill is a reminder that Israel’s right-wing nationalist government sees those groups’ work as threatening enough that it is constantly looking for ways to marginalize, disparage, and outlaw them and their work. Clearly, exposing the reality of occupation is a threat to the occupation, and by extension, to the current Israeli regime.

2. The law would only apply to Israelis, not Palestinians. Because Israel has not yet annexed the West Bank and therefore rules over Palestinians as non-citizen subjects of its military regime, laws passed by the Knesset do not apply to the 2.8 million Palestinian who live there. (In order for an Israeli law to apply to Palestinians, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank would have to add it to the military code that serves as the law for Palestinians.)

The result would be that if a Palestinian and an Israeli are standing right next to each other on the side of a West Bank highway filming the same soldier beating a Palestinian man, only the Israeli would be committing a crime. Of course, Israel doesn’t need any new laws in order to put Palestinians behind bars, especially for publishing things online that catch the ire of its security services: from incitement to violence to administrative detention (imprisonment with no charge or trial), there is no shortage of “legal” tools already at the disposal of Israeli authorities.

3. The bill’s authors are actually onto something. It does harm morale, of IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians alike, to watch one’s comrades and sons carry out the ugly, violent, grunt work of ruling over another people by way of brute force and daily humiliation. The occupation is not a pretty thing — not for its victims and not for its perpetrators. That is basically the raison d’être of the three organizations the bill put in its crosshairs: to make sure that soldiers know they are being seen (Machsom Watch), and to make sure Israelis and the world see what those soldiers are doing (Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem).

Which brings us back to the question of whether a crime that isn’t documented actually took place. In the Israeli public conscious, such a bill might actually prove that the answer is no, at least partially. Most Israelis don’t want to see the violence of the occupation. Out of sight, out of mind, cognitive dissonance, object impermanence — whatever you want to call it, human beings have a plethora of tools for suppressing thoughts that aren’t comfortable to think about. By literally removing from sight the offending images, those mental acrobatics become much easier.

Watch undercover Israeli troops shoot Palestinian youth point blank:

The rest of the world (and a smaller section of Israeli society) is a different story. After half a century of occupation and three decades since American network television began broadcasting videos of Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian protesters, the cat is out of the bag. Images of Israeli oppression and violence against Palestinians has long been seared into the minds of millions of people around the world.

If those images suddenly stop being shared at the frequency with which they occur, people will not conclude it is because the occupation ended or because it became a benevolent and kind military dictatorship overnight. No, they will understand why those images stopped coming: because even far-right, hyper-nationalist Israelis realize that the occupation is morally repugnant and corrosive to their own society, but that the only remedy they have for that problem is to cover their eyes.

Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine and a regular contributor of both reporting and analysis. Prior to joining +972 he worked as the news desk manager for JPost.com. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine.

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  1. Interesting post , but one should not forget , that it wouldn’t be so easy . First , it is highly likely that such law , would be challenged in the Supreme court ,and I am not so sure , that it can be confirmed there , and all , for more than bunch of reasons , but one here :

    The respectable author , has ignored actually , that relevant part of the citation brought by him , here :

    ” With the intention of eroding morale …. ”

    Now , without such intention , there is no offense according to that bill . That is to say , that merely filming or recording , doesn’t amount to nothing , without proving clear intention. So , how can one prove such intention ?? Only in very extreme and rare situations , can be proven so . This is because ( among others ) the very justification for such future prohibited recording , would be simply to strengthen paradoxically the morale of soldiers and residents of the Israeli state . How ?? Well , such organizations , frequently claim , that by such activity , they grant or enhance the perception that it is a state , governed by the rule of law . So , illegal acts of oppression or brutal conduct , are exposed , and offenders , are held or called for accountability .

    So , how would be proven otherwise ?? It is more than problematic !!


  2. After fifty years of oppression which “has long been seared into the minds of millions of people around the world” you would think this vast number of seared minds would have some impact in curbing the actions of the oppressors. Yet a sampling of their deeds from a United Nations state:

    621 children killed during the second Intifada (2000-2004)
    10500 acts of violence against Palestinians by Israeli forces between 2004-2015.
    2145 killed by Israeli forces in strike on Gaza summer 2014
    11254 olive trees destroyed by settlers in 2015
    5154 inhabitants per square kilometer in Gaza, making it the most densely populated area on the globe.

    So this image of hyper-nationalist Israelis realizing “that the occupation is morally repugnant and corrosive to their society” is hard to square with the reality on the ground for the last fifty years. Perhaps it’s the excessive, overactive nationalism that is fueling the oppression and occupation. And this hyper nationalism functions as a kind of auto-immune system to safeguard Israeli actions from moral reproach. Because love of country is beyond good and evil.

  3. It is not surprising to me that the Israelis might pass such a law. They still think they are superior
    to non Jews and preach that they are oppressed. PATHETIC TO SAY THE LEAST !

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