JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s parliament passed a law on Tuesday that could see groups critical of government policies toward the Palestinians banned from entering Israeli schools and speaking with pupils.
Critics of the law, which passed with 43 votes in favor and 24 against in the 120-seat Knesset, said it was a blow to core democratic values such as free speech and part of the Israeli government’s effort to delegitimize rights groups and NGOs.
The amendment to the education act grants new powers to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, to order schools to bar certain groups from giving lectures to students.
The legislation has been dubbed the “Breaking the Silence” law, a reference to the Israeli group of that name which collects and publishes testimony from Israeli veterans about the military’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and during conflicts with militants in Gaza.
Bennett has been critical of the organization along with other right-wing politicians who accuse the group of damaging Israel’s image abroad and putting soldiers and officials at risk of prosecution for alleged war crimes.
“Anyone who wanders around the world attacking IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers, will not enter a school,” Bennett said in a statement.
Breaking the Silence, which has given talks in schools, said the law was meant to weaken it and other rights groups.
“It’s really about trying to silence and cover up what’s been going on in the occupied territories for 51 years,” said the group’s director, Avner Gvaryahu.
Shuli Mualem Refaeli, a legislator from Bennett’s Jewish Home party, said on Army Radio “it is a law about Breaking the Silence and other organizations whose aim is to libel Israeli soldiers and the State of Israel”.
But she said the law could also be applied to right-wing groups, such as those that advocate violence against Israeli soldiers over any evacuation of Jewish settlements in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
“I think the whole attempt to point (at the law) as action aimed solely against left-wing groups and incitement by left-wing organizations is simply untrue,” Refaeli said.Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians, who seek the territory, along with the Gaza Strip for a future state, exercise limited self-rule there.
Israeli forces and settlers pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and the enclave is now ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Amir Fuchs, who heads the Israel Democracy Institute’s Defending Democratic Values Program, said the law was part of a wider phenomenon in Israel of trying to discredit left-wing groups.
“Education is about thinking critically. It’s about hearing people you don’t agree with. And this is what we want to teach our children,” Fuchs said.
Additional reporting by Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alison Williams