(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The law is perfectly clear about the restrictions on Israelis wishing to visit enemy countries. According to the Law to Prevent Infiltration, Israeli citizens must ask permission from the Interior Ministry if they wish to visit countries which the government has officially determined to be "dangerous." The maximum punishment for violating the law is four years in jail.
Today, eight countries appear on the list, including both Lebanon and Syria, where three Israeli journalists currently under investigation reported from.
On the face of it, the police and prosecution are obviously within their rights to call the three journalists to order. For one reason or another, none of them asked permission from the government for their trips.
Dalia Dorner, who is head of the Press Council and an outspoken champion of freedom of speech, is also a former judge whose job it was for many decades to enforce the law. In an interview with Israeli Radio on Thursday, she did not seem to overly sympathize with the three.
Asked whether the Press Council would defend them, Dorner said, "If a reporter breaks the law, we cannot intervene. I understand that it is possible to receive a permit. They entered enemy countries without asking for one. I can understand that if an Israeli deliberately enters an enemy country with a foreign passport and gets caught, it can create serious problems."
But the issue is not as black and white as it may seem. One of the key questions that each of the reporters would have had to ask themselves before deciding to break the law is what would have happened had he or she asked the Interior Ministry for permission to go. It is more than likely that they would have been turned down.
If that were so, what should the reporter have done? Accepted the state's prohibition and stayed at home? Or gone anyway in the belief that he/ she was fulfilling his professional duty to report.
This is not a far-fetched belief, since Israelis receive virtually all their news from the Arab world either second-hand, mainly based on reports from the Arab media, or from the international press, which many Israelis do not trust. There is certainly something to be said for receiving reports from Arab lands from Israeli journalists who share the same concerns as their audience and look for developments in the Arab world that are significant for Israelis.
Dorner said she understood the need for the law requiring Israeli citizens to obtain permits because an Israeli captured by an enemy country could cause problems for Israel. The obvious problem is that the reporter will be used as a bargaining chip for the return of terrorists held in Israel.
But it could be argued that the government should not allow itself to be blackmailed in that way. It is one thing when a soldier, who has been ordered by the state to serve in the army, is taken captive. Obviously, the state is responsible for the soldier's well-being. But what if an Israeli endangers himself voluntarily? It is not at all obvious that the state is obliged to extricate him.
Whatever the theoretical issues involved in this affair, it is hard to imagine that the state will prosecute the reporters, who are by no means criminals in the conventional sense. Dorner said she hoped their arrest was meant as a warning to other Israeli reporters not to visit enemy countries without permission in the future.
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