Israel: Journalists Face Possible Jail Time for Visits to Enemy States

Three Israeli journalists who visited Lebanon and Syria are facing possible jail time for visiting nations that the government terms “enemy states.” Lisa Goldman, Ron Ben-Yishai, and Tsur Shezaf have been investigated and will spend a maximum of four years in jail if found guilty.

The Infiltration Prevention Law requires that all Israelis traveling to enemy states must garner permission from the government to do so. It is widely acknowledged that permission is rarely granted.

While the law was created in the 1950s to help protect Israeli citizens, it is applied inconsistently as many Israelis travel to hostile countries each year without being prosecuted. In the case of these journalists, it is important to note that all three traveled abroad on foreign passports, as many Israelis are dual citizens and find it safer to travel using the documents of their countries of origin.


“Lisa Goldman” by Ange

Lisa Goldman's own blog, On the Face, and her widespread activity in print and digital media, as well as the Israeli blogosphere are particularly useful for helping us understand the situation.

In her Ha'aretz article entitled, “Why Us– and Why Now?” Goldman defends herself saying that she did not know travel to Lebanon was illegal. She suggests that instead of upholding the old law whose application no longer seems relevant, it would make more sense to have journalists and other travelers sign a release waiver, relieving the Israeli government of its responsibility for their safety. She says:

“Before Gaza was closed to Israeli journalists, those wishing to enter that territory were required to sign a waiver releasing the Israeli government from responsibility for their welfare. I would happily sign a waiver in return for the right to endanger myself at my own risk.

Superintendent Alon Shaharbani's claim that I endangered my own life by traveling to Lebanon struck me as paternalistic, inappropriate and irrelevant to a criminal investigation. What next? Will I be forbidden to walk on London's Edgware Road, which is a hotbed of anti-Israeli sentiment?”

The Israeli blogosphere is alive with commentary on both sides of the debate. While those in support of Goldman are outspoken in her defense, a significant voice of dissent is critical of what they see as Goldman's and the other journalists’ heedless choices.

Canadian Palestinian blogger Nizo voices his support:

“On the face of it, Lisa's visit to Lebanon did straddle the line between adventurousness and recklessness. If that's her crime, then she should be lined up and shot, along with all those independent journalists who have the audacity of reporting from dangerous locales. How dare they refreshingly complement the rather insipid mainstream media? By what temerity do they risk their lives to inform the rest of us arm-chair Marco-Polos?”

David Bogner of Treppenwitz disagrees:

“While not exactly a Hanoi Jane-worthy performance, there was absolutely no justification for breaking Israeli law to file such a story, and certainly no justification for potentially risking who-knows-how-many lives if someone had decided to disappear her.

Seriously, what if she (or one of her two colleagues) had been kidnapped? How many bus-loads of terrorists would Israel have had to release to buy their freedom? How many Israeli soldiers would have had to put their lives on the line simply because the Israeli Government's assessment of what is – and isn't – unreasonably dangerous (and illegal) didn't cross the minds of a few arrogant journalists trying to make a name for themselves? How much more impotent would our government have appeared if the worst had happened and, for whatever reason, we could not gain the necessary support to act???”


Bogner refers to the many incidents we have on record of the Israeli government engaging in massive prisoner exchanges for a single Israeli individual held for ransom. Over the last 30 years, Israel has traded over 7,000 prisoners to liberate 19 citizens held captive and 8 bodies of the deceased.

YNet News announced this week that a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit (pictured above) may be imminent. The current terms demand that 500 prisoners be released to pay for Shalit's freedom. Shalit was abducted on June 25th, 2006 by Palestinian militants during a border raid into Israel.

Liza R. of Something Something returns us to the discussion of the investigations:

“Why is there a witch hunt, and why is it happening now, when these kinds of trips have been made for years? As an Israeli, I am worried about our country's current state of affairs, our misplaced priorities… One of [Goldman's] primary reasons for visiting Lebanon had to do with her constant desire to build bridges – to learn about her neighbors and to, in turn, share her newfound knowledge with her countrymen. Yes, a law was unknowingly broken, but the intent was neither criminal nor malicious, and if anything, it was the opposite.”

Yael K. of the Oleh Girl points out:

“Did you know that quite literally 1,000s of dual-passport holding Israelis travel to places like Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and so forth every year for business? Why not go after these profitable business people if they are going to apply the law equally?”

She adds, “Journalists are not supposed to “report” by passing on second, third, and fourth-hand information to the public. They are not supposed to engage in armchair reporting on events far afield from the comfort of their Tel Aviv or Jerusalem living rooms. They are supposed to investigate, to verify, to go to the source… But these three journalists under investigation were not throwing themselves into the middle of a combat zone, and they were not privy to nor reporting about top-secret information. In fact, their reports were pretty darn innocuous.”

As we conclude, here are some items to note.

Goldman, Ben-Yishai, and Shezaf visited countries hostile to Israel to get an understanding of life there from the perspective of the average person. Goldman filed reports for Channel 10 televison and Time Out Tel Aviv on life in Beirut after the Second Lebanon War (see the English version here). Ben-Yishai wrote for Yediot Aharonot on Syrian reactions to the alleged Israeli air strike in September. Shezaf reported from Lebanon for the Israeli travel magazine Masa Aher (“A Different Journey”).

You can read more about Shezaf at his webpage, which details his journalistic experiences here, and Ben-Yishai on his profile for the Israel Speakers Agency.

As you continue to think about this issue, also take into consideration that there is a communication disconnect between Israelis and our Arab neighbors, even when they are living among us. Did you know that while Israeli journalists are forbidden from traveling to hostile countries, even on foreign passports, Lebanese journalists and those from many other Arab countries working in Israel are prohibited from interviewing Israelis?

Palestinian American journalist and dedicated coexistence advocate Ray Haninia tells this story. Last June while he was performing on the Arab-Israeli Comedy Tour with two Israeli comedians and a Jewish African American comic, he was approached by a journalist from a popular Lebanese paper for an interview. When he suggested that the journalist also interview his colleagues, he was told, “It is illegal for me to interview an Israeli. I would go to jail.”

Goldman relates the same phenomenon:

“All the Arab news media outlets have correspondents in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They include big names like Al Jazeera, Al Houra, and Al Arabiyya… Why, then, are Israelis barred from reporting from Lebanon? Why are Arabic-speaking television viewers allowed the privilege of live reporting from Israel, while an Israeli reporter who does a pre-recorded, human interest report from Lebanon is accused of violating ethics and endangering lives? Surely there is one word to describe this situation: hypocrisy.”

So I ask you: with governments setting tight strictures on media relations, how can journalists expect to get a real story? If they can't talk to us and we can't go and visit them, how can journalists be expected to accurately and truthfully report on the perspectives of real people living their lives?


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