By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel moved on Sunday to snap the lens shut on rights groups that film its troops' interactions with Palestinians by introducing a bill that would make it a criminal offense.
Rights groups frequently film Israeli soldiers on duty in the occupied West Bank, documentation the organisations say is necessary to expose abuse by the military.
A video filmed by Israeli rights group B'Tselem in 2016 showing an Israeli soldier shoot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant drew international condemnation and led to the soldier's conviction for manslaughter in a highly divisive trial.
The proposed law, formulated by the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, would make filming or publishing footage "with intent to harm the morale of Israel's soldiers or its inhabitants" punishable by up to five years in prison.
The term would be raised to 10 years if the intention was to damage "national security".
A ministerial committee which oversees legislation voted to approve the bill on Sunday. It will now go to parliament for a vote that could take place this week and if ratified, will be scrutinised and amended before three more parliamentary votes needed for it to pass into law.
Yisrael Beitenu leader and Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, praised the committee and said: "Israeli soldiers are under constant attack by Israel haters and supporters of terrorism who look constantly to degrade and sully them. We will put an end to this."
A Palestinian official condemned the move.
"This decision aims to cover up crimes committed by Israeli soldiers against our people, and to free their hands to commit more crimes," Deputy Palestinian Information Minister Fayez Abu Aitta told Reuters.
The phrasing of the bill stops short of a blanket ban, aiming instead at "anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian organisations" which spend "entire days near Israeli soldiers waiting breathlessly for actions that can be documented in a slanted and one-sided way so that soldiers can be smeared".
Naming B'Tselem and several other rights groups, the bill says many of them are supported by organisations and governments with "a clear anti-Israel agenda" and that the videos are used to harm Israel and national security.
The ban would cover social networks as well as traditional media.
B'Tselem shrugged off the bill.
"If the occupation embarrasses the government, then the government should take action to end it. Documenting the reality of the occupation will continue regardless of such ridiculous legislation efforts," the group's spokesman, Amit Gilutz, said.
B'Tselem's video of the shooting in the West Bank in 2016 led to Israeli soldier Elor Azaria being convicted of manslaughter. He was released in May after serving two-thirds of his 14-month term. Opinion polls after his arrest showed a majority of Israelis did not want a court-martial to take place.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)