In the wake of recent massacres at the Gaza border, the Israeli government has been debating a bill that would ban photographing and recording IDF soldiers. The legislation, proposed by Robert Ilatov and backed by Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, states that those who photograph IDF soldiers with “the intention of undermining the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents,” will be sentenced to ten years in prison. The bill further prohibits the distribution and circulation of these photos on social media networks. The proposal has already been criticized for the negative consequences it would potentially unleash on democracy, accountability, and freedom. As a recent op-ed in Haaretz states, the bill “does serious harm to the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.”
The legislation, and its timing, are deeply suspicious. First, Israel’s imputinous violence against Palestinians is exceptionally well documented. Between local, regional, and global news outlets, the world is already equipped with a trove of images and video footage that clearly show IDF soldiers violating the basic rights of Palestinians. Second, it is equally well documented that the IDF soldiers behind these violations are rarely held accountable. Between the failure of body cams to hold American police officers accountable for their indiscriminate murder of black Americans, and the failure of any justice system to hold three of the Abu Ghraib perpetrators accountable for their crimes against Iraqi prisoners, it is clear that the availability of images proving wrongdoing doesn’t actually carry much juridicial weight in a system built to work against the marginalized or oppressed.
This begs the questions: If photography has already revealed the IDF’s indiscretions, and soldiers are rarely held accountable for those indiscretions anyway, then why propose this law at all, and why propose it now?
While some have accurately suggested that the law was proposed in response to the prevalence of social media, a more revealing purpose lies in the legislation’s explanatory notes. These notes make it clear that the bill’s function is not only to silence dissidents and opponents of Israel, but also to broadly criminalize the surveillance and critical gaze of very specific types of groups and individuals. The bill’s notes clarify exactly who, and what kind of action, will be targeted. Organizations like B’Tselem and Machsom Watch are, for example, explicitly referred to in the bill’s notes. According to the notes, the trouble with these groups is that they document IDF soldiers by spending “whole days near the IDF soldiers waiting…for activities that can be biased.” This documentation, the bill notes, “is done while interfering with IDF’s soldiers’ ongoing operational activities.”
The suggestion that human rights documentarians’ gaze disrupts and distorts the “ongoing operational activities” of IDF soldiers makes the work of human rights organizations sound like surveillance. Meaning, this bill isn’t simply a matter of the IDF not wanting to be seen, it is a matter of the IDF not wanting to be watched. The framing of human rights documentarians’ work to acts of surveillance sets a dangerous precedent, making this not only classically authoritarian in its bid to silence opposition, but a sweeping judgement on who will be absolved of surveillance, and who will be absolved of the gaze.
If passed, the law, which seeks to “almost entirely prevent the photographing of soldiers, even if it is to verify that they are upholding the law of war and the army’s orders,” will create a black hole of knowledge around the IDF and its members, invisibilizing them so intensely that they cease even to be military personnel and slip seamlessly into secret police.