by Diana Saverin:
The video begins with a fuzzy image of three men speaking on a hill. Seconds later, the camera starts bouncing as the Palestinian holding the camera runs away from the escalating scene. When he refocuses the lens, a man in a white shirt is firing an M-16 as Palestinian men, women, and children flee and scream around him. Several Palestinians are shot. The video cuts out at the sight of a woman covering her mouth and crying as she turns away from a man clutching his bleeding stomach.
This video was taken in Hebron, a city within the West Bank. The camera was distributed by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which has given more than 120 video cameras to Palestinians living in high conflict zones near Israeli settlements and army bases in the West Bank.
The growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank makes the brokering of a two-state solution increasingly complex. In a final negotiated agreement, the West Bank and Gaza would likely become the Palestinian state. The fact that the West Bank is peppered with Israeli settlers, many of whom vehemently refuse to move or accept Palestinian statehood, makes the option less viable. The Oslo Accords of 1993 established a series of interim steps meant to deconstruct the messy business of evacuating settlers and transferring political and civilian control.
In accordance with Oslo, the West Bank is divided into three areas, A, B, and C, with area A under full Palestinian control, area B under shared Israeli and Palestinian control, and area C under full Israeli control. The settlements are in area C, and it is estimated that Israeli infrastructure composes 40 percent of the West Bank. Settlements vary in size and scope; some house tens of thousands of Israelis in Jerusalem suburbs beyond the green lines, the lines defining the borders of Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, while others are home to a few “extreme” settlers, who are at the center of violent conflict. It is on the latter group that B’Tselem’s cameras have focused.
The organization uses the videos to educate Israeli and international audiences about the violence in the West Bank. They are also a tool to file complaints with police and present evidence in court cases—in some instances, the cameras even prevent violence in the first place. “People ask to get cameras, even if they’re broken,” said Jesse Rothman, an intern for the project this past summer. “Just holding up a camera is a major deterrent for settlers and the IDF to abuse Palestinians.”
The images are shocking. One well-known video reveals an Israeli settler in Hebron hitting the camera while calling a Palestinian woman a sharmouta—a whore. Another features blurry footage of moving ground with screaming in the background, as settlers from the Ma’on settlement chase a Palestinian family and throw stones at them in their village in the South Hebron Hills. Yet another captures a soldier shooting rubber bullets at a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian. These videos have prompted debate and awareness within both Israel and the West Bank.
Diala Shamas, a Palestinian who worked for the B’Tselem camera distribution project during its first year, described the reaction among Palestinians. “The footage I was getting back was of huge interest to Palestinians… I think that shows how much separation we have from our own story.” As Rothman put it, “the graphic quality of video is a powerful tool. You can empathize with a person you see more than [if you read] a 300-page human rights report.”
Hundreds of human rights organizations have set up camp in Israel, and all strive to bring factual truth to a conflict where objectivity is elusive. Each, including B’Tselem, has its own set of followers and critics.
According to John, an Israeli lawyer, “B’Tselem is a thoroughly reviled organization in this country. Certainly it has its supporters, but they are few and self-referencing.” He does not view the organization as legitimate or respectful. “Think of the church that sends protesters to the funerals of American servicemen and servicewomen, to protest homosexuality in America,” he said.
Some settlers feel an even greater animosity towards the project. “Once, I was walking in Hebron with a video camera, and the settlers thought that I was taking videos for B’Tselem. They started shouting at me, ‘B’Tselem bitch,’” said Dana Golan, executive director of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli veterans that speak about their experiences in the West Bank and Gaza.
Rebecca, an Israeli woman who lives in a settlement north of Jerusalem, believes that the project is inherently biased. “If you were to distribute cameras to residents of Yishuvim [an Israeli settlement], you would see homes that were robbed, people who were attacked, people who were killed,” she said. “Where were the cameras during the most recent terror attack on two young couples in a car near Hebron?”
There is no doubt that violence exists on both sides. However, Elik Elhanan, a former IDF soldier and co-founder of the organization Combatants for Peace, finds any comparison of abuses laughable. “Israel is a state which has an army, police force, health care, nuclear weapons, satellites, submarines,” he said incredulously. “B’Tselem is protecting people who have no state, no means of protection. Every street in Israel has a video camera on it… the Palestinians don’t have that, so they get shitty old cameras.”
But Elhanan does not completely endorse B’Tselem’s approach. “I don’t believe in emotionally blackmailing people into political action,” he said. For Elhanan, the question of getting an emotional response will not solve the political problem of Palestinian occupation.
B’Tselem’s project is representative of a new wave of civilian journalists who are using technology to raise awareness about human rights violations around the world. As Hamodie Abonadda, an Arab-Israeli living in Jerusalem put it, “an image is stronger than a thousand words, and nowhere is this truer than in the occupied West Bank.”
The organization aims not only to encourage awareness and public debate within Israel about the extent of law breaking and unethical behavior that goes unpunished, but also to promote accountability. As Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem’s spokesperson, explained, “our critique is not directed at settlers, but at the security forces in the government that do not do enough to enforce the law on settlers. This project is a way to force them to do their jobs.”
For some, the B’Tselem videos represent one dimension of the conflict without context. Accusations of bias and sensationalism are inextricably tied to this decentralized model of civilian reporting. Leora Kahn, a Yale professor and executive director of Proof, an organization that aims to use media for social justice, believes that “all media is a tool for change depending on how you use it… [but] videos and photography can be destructive. It is easy to get an emotional response from people with photography.” Kahn cited the example of the flotilla incident from late May, in which the same video was used by various groups with different captions to push opposing agendas.
Elhanan echoed this sentiment: “Information won’t go in the media unless it’s really shocking… concentrating on the pornography of the colonization of Palestine does not do justice to the exploitation of Palestine.”
Rebecca does not see the project as productive towards peace or a two state solution. “I do believe that Palestinians should have their own state for a number of reasons. But I don’t think the way to work towards establishing such a state is through this project of photographing victimization,” she said. Shamas also recognized this: “It’s a very cynical project because it takes for granted that we can’t fix the system.”
A mid peace negotiations and near-constant coverage of the conflict in the news, words such as “settler” and “occupation” can seem distant from the reality on the ground. B’Tselem’s videos bring an element of truth to the complex language and myriad narratives that muddy any conclusions about the conflict. They by no means represent the only truth—the events caught on film occur within the scope of a truly multi-faceted clash—but these indisputable depictions of grave abuses do raise serious questions. Hopefully they will prompt bilateral action to work toward building a respectful society, or at the very least, one free of habitual harassment and violence.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
Diana Saverin ’13 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.