SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Israeli attorney general presents position in filmmaker Mohammad Bakri's case

Monday , 28 September 2020
On September 24, 2020, the Attorney General of the Israeli government, Avichai Mandelblit, presented his position in the case against the filmmaker Mohammad Bakri by the Israeli officer, Nissim Magnagi, on charges of “defamation and libel”, following the appearance of the officer in the movie “Jenin, Jenin”.

Lt. Col. (res.) Nissim Magnagi filed a suit against the filmmaker, Mohammad Bakri, in November 2016, claiming he was defamed in the documentary “Jenin, Jenin” that was filmed in 2002 about April 2002 clashes in which 52 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. Magnagi demanded NIS 2.6 million ($745,000) in damages and an end to the documentary being screened. In the interim year, the case has been argued back and forth in a series of briefs by the two men’s attorneys. As the case appears to be coming to a head, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit became involved, an uncommon move as the government’s top lawyer generally handles criminal, not civil, cases.

Shortly after the documentary was released in 2002, five IDF reservists sued Bakri for defamation, arguing that they had been depicted as war criminals in the film. After a prolonged legal battle, the Supreme Court dismissed the reservists’ case in 2011. The judges determined that although the documentary was “indeed full of things that were not true” and did slander the IDF, the plaintiffs were not specifically identified in the film and therefore did not have standing to claim that they were personally defamed. However, Magnagi did appear in the documentary and, as a result, has a legal basis for a defamation suit.

The Justice Ministry in Israel said in a statement on December 20, 2017: “The attorney general decided to take part and support the suit by Lt. Col. (res.) Magnagi, in light of the public interest that exists in the case.” It added: “The current plaintiff [Magnagi], who was not involved in the previous legal efforts, says that he can be seen and identified in the movie, during a part in which an elderly resident of Jenin is being interviewed, who claims that during the fighting, soldiers allegedly entered his house and stole his life’s savings.”

The film was banned in Israel after a few screenings, but the supreme court later overturned the ban. Over the years, Barki’s lawyer for the initial Supreme Court case, Avigdor Feldman, has maintained that his client was not trying to present a factual account of the “Battle of Jenin,” but was only showing the Palestinian narrative, regardless of its veracity. In media interviews, the attorney said this could be seen in the fact that the documentary has no voice-over and is only made up of interviews.

On September 24, 2020, Mandelblit presented his written statement on the case to the court. He stated that the film presented “a false exaggerated narrative that inflicts great and profound damage to the feelings of a large audience, who were sent by the state and the army to put their lives on the line against the terrorists in the Jenin camp,” claiming that “the film causes harm to the reputation of the fighters, including the plaintiff who was sent to defend Israel,” noting that “the state and the attorney general have a moral and public obligation to stand with the plaintiff and army fighters and help them protect their good reputation when false publications about them are published, only because of their combat service in the army.”

Bakri’s lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, told SKeyes: “This position is reprehensible. The attorney general in this case has appointed himself a party to a civil dispute between two people over a civil case due to its political dimensions. The attorney general is supposed to be a neutral party and rarely intervene. Of course, if such an opinion is issued by the attorney general, it would carry considerable weight in the case against the film director Bakri.”

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