The “Infiltration Prevention Law” is Unjust

This week it came to light that the International and Serious Crimes Unit (ISCU) of the Israeli police have been interrogating three Israeli journalists for travelling to enemy states. The journalists, whose names are Ron Ben-Yishai, Tsur Shezaf, and Lisa … Read More

By / December 14, 2007

This week it came to light that the International and Serious Crimes Unit (ISCU) of the Israeli police have been interrogating three Israeli journalists for travelling to enemy states. The journalists, whose names are Ron Ben-Yishai, Tsur Shezaf, and Lisa Goldman, had travelled to either Lebanon or Syria to report on stories in the region. They did so using foreign passports (Israel allows dual citizenship), and without the permission of the Ministry of the Interior. The police unit investigating the journalists issued a statement in which they announced that the journalists violated Israel's Infiltration Prevention Law (IPL), which prohibits Israeli citizens from travelling into enemy territory without permission of the Ministry of the Interior. The police further stated that,

"The police take a grave view of Israeli citizens travelling to enemy countries, even if this is done on foreign passports they hold. Besides endangering their own lives, travelling to enemy countries also poses a danger to national security."

If charged and convicted, the journalists could spend up to four years in jail.

While there is not much doubt that the three journalist violated the law, there is a great deal of concern about the selective application and overall wisdom of the IPL.

For starters, it needs to be stated that these journalists were not the first Israelis to violate this law. For years, Israelis with dual citizenship have been travelling to enemy states in their thousands, often with the full knowledge of the authorities. Within the past six months alone, over a dozen Israeli journalist have travelled to enemy states. Of course saying that other people break the law is not an argument for anyone's innocence. But why is it that the authorities feel it necessary to prosecute these three journalists and not the rest? Some have suggested that the move to prosecute is an effort by the state toward even-handedness with regards to Arab-Israeli citizens charged with the same crime (including MK's). Others are not convinced that the motives are so noble. To them this whole episode reeks of government efforts to control the press by intimidation. The motivation behind the prosecution aside, the real issue here is the wisdom, utility, and justness of this law. The IPL was passed by the Knesset in 1954 in order to prohibit Palestinians refugees from returning to their homes. Some years later, an amendment was added to the law which forbids Israelis from travelling to enemy states without permission of the government (permission that is rarely given). Most people believe the law serves the public good by protecting both the individual and national security. The fear is that by entering enemy territory Israelis run the risk of being abducted and used as bargaining tools for political prisoners. While it is granted that living democracies must find a balance between the need for security and the need for freedom, the existence and implementation of this law goes beyond the pale. It is simply not the place of the Israeli government to say where on earth (literally!) its citizen can and cannot travel. Warning, yes. Restrictions, no. The truth of the matter is that Israelis abroad run a risk of being kidnapped no matter where they go—from Dubai and India to London and Argentina. Indeed, the most famous case of an Israeli civilian being abducted, the kidnapping of Elhanan Tennenbaum by Hezbollah in 2000, took place in Dubai—a country not considered enemy territory by Israel. Should Israelis therefore be barred from travelling anywhere on the globe they could potentially be harmed? Bottom line: the government, as an editorial in Haaretz put it, "is not the nanny of its citizens." Israelis, especially professional journalists, must be free to put themselves in harm's way with the full knowledge that their country may not rescue them. It needs to be remembered that when Gaza was opened to Israeli journalists, this was indeed the policy of the Israeli government. Every Israeli journalist was required to sign a waiver which stated that the government was not responsible for his or her safety. This, of course, is significantly different from a solider (e.g. Gilad Shalit) who is put in harms way by the government he is serving. In that case, it is the responsibility of the government to do what is necessary to bring him/her to safety. Curtailing the freedoms of the press, speech, and movement is a price that is too high to justify the existence of the amendment to the Infiltration Prevention Law. A democracy should not cage its citizens for the sake of potential threats. One may expect such laws in countries like Iran, Egypt, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, but not from a country that proudly proclaims it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Moreover, it is not clear to me that much public good is served by this law. In a healthy and vital democracy the role of the press is to keep the government accountable by giving the people reliable and independent information about their world. When the government bars its journalist from investigating for themselves the reality of their neighbours, it weakens its democratic character. Almost all the news that Israelis get about the Arab world comes from second-hand sources (Arab and international media). These reports are not always reliable and do not account for Israeli needs and sensitivities. When an Israeli journalist goes into the field, he/she has the "nose" for what Israeli audiences find important. The value of this difference cannot overstated. Finally, there is something to be said for talking to one's enemy face to face. The Internet has already created a space where, at the click of a button, an Israeli Jew and an Arab can engage each other in dialogue. It is high time for the Israeli judiciary to follow suit. Whether to know one's enemy, or recognize that one's enemy is really a deformed friend, it is essential and vital that Israel grants its press absolute freedom of movement and expression. The journalists in question, these border-crossers, are doing Israel a great service for which they deserve to be celebrated—not interrogated. They are courageously speaking truth to power, and for that their place in society ought to be the public square and not the jail cell.




* Lisa Goldman responds, below. * Ha'aretz knows that Israel "is not the nanny of its citizens."


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