Israel ‘narrowing the space for freedom of expression’

New law criminalising those who encourage soldiers to desert has drawn criticism from rights groups.

A general view shows the plenum during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem
Last week, the Israeli parliament passed controversial legislation that sets a jail term of three to 15 years for people who seek to persuade a volunteer to quit the military [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Jerusalem – A number of recent laws passed by the Israeli Knesset – including one that criminalises those who encourage soldiers to desert – are infringing on freedom of expression for minority groups, human rights organisations say.

Last week, the Israeli parliament passed controversial legislation that sets a jail term of three to 15 years for people who seek to persuade a volunteer to quit the military, as well as for anyone who helps a volunteer to desert.

Israel also recently passed an expulsion law, which permits a majority of Knesset members to expel elected lawmakers, while the country’s Supreme Court last year upheld an anti-boycott law that allows for fines to be imposed on groups who call for a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied territories.

Nadeem Shehadeh, a lawyer with Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, said the country was witnessing a clear attempt to marginalise Palestinian narratives and push them outside of the political consensus.

READ MORE: Israel’s anti-boycott law to ‘muzzle’ Palestinians

“Since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, we have been introduced to new laws that are narrowing the space for freedom of expression, especially for Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Shehadeh told Al Jazeera.

“These laws, in part, are enacted to actually make you miss the Palestinian narrative. When you’re talking about the Nakba law, where you are not allowed to commemorate Israel’s independence day as a day of mourning, then you are letting the Israeli narrative prevail, but you cannot tell the narrative of the other side.”

Civil rights groups and opposition politicians have warned that the law concerning the military, which was passed last week after significant debate, created a situation where speaking out against volunteering in the Israeli military could result in jail terms for Palestinians.

It's one among many other laws that have an anti-democratic approach that is trying to oppress any democratic voice that is resisting governmental policy.

by Aida Touma-Suleiman, member of the Arab Joint List

While the law applies to all volunteers who join the Israeli army, Likud MK Yaov Kish, who sponsored the legislation, said it was aimed at reducing pressure on Christian Arabs who join the military from within their communities.

While most Jewish Israeli citizens are conscripted into the army, Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up around 20 percent of an overall population of eight million are not obliged to join. The vast majority choose not to do so, often out of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank, or in the besieged Gaza Strip. But a small number of Christian Palestinians volunteer for military service each year, often against the consensus in their community. 

The legislation was eventually weakened from an initial bill that would have criminalised seeking to dissuade Christian Arabs from volunteering – although rights groups say there is still a risk that the courts could misinterpret the legislation to cast a wider net. While the final law relates only to those who had already volunteered for the military, opposition politicians say it threatens freedom of expression in a broader sense.

“It’s one among many other laws that have an anti-democratic approach that is trying to oppress any democratic voice that is resisting governmental policy,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Arab Joint List.


“The main goals of this law are on the one hand to create an illusion that those who are volunteering for the Israeli army are under real threat from their own community, and on the other hand, to criminalise those who are criticising and having a political debate with those people.”

Supporters of the law argue that it is needed to protect Christian Arabs who want to enlist. Father Gabriel Nadaf, who in 2012 founded the Israel Christian Recruitment Forum, a group that works to boost the number of Christian Arabs who serve in the Israeli army, said in March that incitement against volunteers and their families had at times led to physical violence.

Taleb Abu Arar, who is also a member of the Arab Joint List, told Al Jazeera that the government has tried to encourage Christian Arabs to join the army in order to weaken the Arab national identity.

“It’s a policy of divide and rule. This plan has failed, because very few Christians become Israeli soldiers,” he told Al Jazeera. “I will continue to express my opinion against this law and against Arabs joining the army.”

READ MORE: Israel continues to criminalise marking Nakba Day

Israeli civil rights group Social Guard, which monitors the Israeli parliament, warned the legislation could easily be misinterpreted in a way that criminalises speech by minorities.

“Any felony that is related to freedom of expression is usually something that you can interpret in many ways,” said Nirit Moskovich, the executive director of Social Guard. “The fear in this meaningless legislation is in the interpretation that might be given by the police. It’s the fear of misinterpretation and of harsh interpretation, which is a phenomenon that we know happens – especially when it comes to alleged felonies committed by Arab Israelis, who are often discriminated against by the police and the legal system.”

The rightward shift in Israeli politics since Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 2009 has accelerated in recent years, and the current government is considered to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

“These laws are coming fast and hard, and Israeli society should see that these kinds of practices and laws are hampering their democracy,” Shehadeh said. “People should start realising this and put an end to it.” 

Source: Al Jazeera