JERUSALEM — A film alleging Israeli atrocities in the Palestinian town of Jenin has sparked an emotional legal debate over the limits of free speech and government censorship.
The Israeli Supreme Court has already issued two rulings — first permitting screenings of the 50-minute film “Jenin, Jenin,” then putting that decision on hold. The court is now weighing whether to allow another hearing on the matter.
Filmmaker Mohammed Bakri describes his film as a fact-based documentary on the fighting during Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli army incursion into the West Bank in April 2002. But Bakri has been excoriated by critics who say that he presented blatant lies as facts, including the portrayal of soldiers who were hunting for terrorists as murderers targeting innocent civilians.
The Israeli operation — which came in response to a rash of suicide bombings in Israel, including a Passover night attack that killed 30 people — left 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians dead, the majority of them armed combatants. Homes that were hiding terrorists and used in attacks on Israeli soldiers were also reduced to rubble.
Critics are asking the court to uphold a ban on the film, accusing Bakri of hate speech, perpetuating Palestinian propaganda and insulting the memories of the Israeli soldiers who were killed in the Jenin battle.
“Every truth has two sides — our side and your side — and the two truths are one big truth. Whoever says that my movie contains lies, he himself is a liar,” Bakri said. He added: “The movie has only the truth, even if it is not the truth according to the Israeli viewpoint.”
Yet critics note that the film’s claim of an Israeli massacre of civilians, a charge first raised by Palestinians during the battle, was refuted by several international organizations with records of criticizing Israel, including the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Israel’s Film Censorship Board ruled in December 2002 that the movie could not be shown in Israel — after it had already been screened three times. The board’s spokeswoman was quoted as describing the film as “propaganda that represents a biased view of the group with whom Israel finds itself at war.”
A three-member Supreme Court panel unanimously overturned that decision last month, ruling that a film could not be banned for containing lies, and that the film board had overstepped its bounds when it banned public screenings of “Jenin, Jenin” in Israel.
“The ban unnecessarily violated freedom of speech, and contradicts basic principles of human liberty,” argued Justice Dahlia Dorner, writing for the three-judge panel. She said that the powers given to the film board “did not include the authority to establish the truth by silencing expressions that were lies in the eyes of its members.”
Standing outside the courtroom after Dorner’s decision, Bakri told reporters that he was “proud that justice was done and truth came to light.”
On December 3, however, Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Matza issued a temporary injunction against screening the film, until the court decides how to respond to requests for a second hearing. The ruling — just 12 hours before the film’s scheduled screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and a day before its planned showing in Tel Aviv — was in response to a request that the case be heard before an expanded panel of seven justices.
The appeal was submitted by Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein, State Prosecutor Edna Arbel and representatives of Israeli soldiers who fought in Jenin and the families of 15 soldiers killed there. They argued that allowing the movie to be screened “ignored the film’s incitement and delegitimization of the State of Israel,” as well as interfering with the duty of the film board.
Nearly 50 Knesset members signed a petition calling for a reconsideration of the original ruling, including Labor lawmakers Shimon Peres, Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon.
A civil libel suit for defamation of character was also filed against Bakri in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, by five soldiers who fought in Jenin.
“The people that I saw that we were shooting at were armed, and were shooting back at us,” said Stuart Schrader, 35, a tank commander who took part in the Jenin battle. “We certainly did not open fire on any unarmed civilians, and we didn’t line up anyone against the wall, which I understand appears in the movie.”
Schrader said the soldiers were at great risk in the entire operation, as they purposely went house to house in order to minimize civilian casualties, and only used pinpoint support from helicopters as air cover, instead of bombers.
Rabbi Aryeh Weiss, 50, from the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba, whose 21-year-old son Shmuel, an army medic, was killed in an ambush in the Jenin fighting, is one of the parents who signed on to the appeal.
“The reason that we didn’t bomb Jenin — and we could have bombed Jenin — the reason my son went in there to fight when we knew that a percentage of soldiers that go in on foot would be killed, was in order not to hurt old men and women and little children and patients in hospitals,” Weiss said.
Most upsetting, Weiss said, was the part in Dorner’s ruling when she argued that “[d]uring the fighting and in the following days, the press was not allowed into the camp — the media blackout contributed to the ongoing public debate over the exact progression of events.”
“The decision by Judge Dorner is irresponsible in the extreme,” Weiss said. “A state that allows one of its own citizens to make a propaganda film which is so blatantly filled with lies and so blatantly accuses the state — which is already hated in many parts of the world — is just totally irresponsible. And Dorner comes along and says, well, maybe this really did happen? So we should have bombed! If they are going to hate us and they are going to say that we are not right anyway — so what was my son killed for?”
Weiss said that during an intermission in court, there was a heated confrontation between some of the parents of soldiers killed and the attorney for the defense, Avigdor Feldman. At one point, Weiss said, Feldman shouted back at the parents, “Don’t tell me about the value of soldiering, I was in the Sayeret Matkal [an elite Israeli commando unit], and we fight our wars for the freedom of speech.”
Weiss later criticized the free-speech argument. “This man is saying to me that I sent my son — and my son went to be killed — so that Mohammed Bakri can make this movie? This is ideological coercion in its worst form. When was this ever voted on? When did anybody ever say this is a national value that we are going to die for?”
Avinoam Harpak, programming director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, defended his decision to screen the film. But, he added, “there is nothing I can say” to the parents of fallen soldiers who say the film is an insult to their dead children.
“I can’t deal with such deep emotional feelings, not on the personal level and not on any level,” Harpak said.
“As the Cinematheque, we don’t” have the means to define lies and truths, Harpak said. “The Cinematheque does its duty and screens films, and ‘Jenin, Jenin’ is a film. The whole question is to be decided by the Supreme Court. That’s my personal stand and the official Cinematheque stand. It’s all a judicial question.”