Image makers

Is B'Tselem's Shooting Back project giving Palestinians a chance to substantiate alleged Israeli abuse or enabling sensationalist media distortion?

October 2, 2008 13:12
Image makers

video abuse 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy of B'Tselem)

The settlers from Yitzhar had left their mark on the "Suleiman" house: Stars of David spray-painted in black on the walls. They'd come down the hill into the Suleimans' village, Asira al-Kibliyeh, on Saturday morning, September 13, after a Palestinian burned down an empty Yitzhar bungalow, stabbed a nine-year-old boy and fled into the village. (The young victim, Tuvia Shtatman, suffered two superficial wounds, one of which required stitches, and spent a day in the hospital.) After the stabbing and arson, scores of Yitzhar settlers - who had been at synagogue during the Palestinian's attack - effectively commandeered Asira al-Kibliyeh, throwing rocks and firing guns. They wounded several Palestinians, pushed a parked car down the hill and smashed windows and balcony furniture. The IDF soldiers on the scene appeared to be mainly standing around, occasionally steering a marauder away. That night, Israelis watched scenes from the melee on television. It was caught on video camera by a member of the Suleiman family standing at a window inside their house. The camera was provided by B'Tselem, the Jerusalem-based human rights organization, as part of its high-profile "Shooting Back" project of Palestinian "video activism" in the West Bank. "I've complained to the army and police at least a dozen times about the settlers throwing rocks down at us, shooting at the house. But nothing was ever done; they always told us they had no evidence," says the mother of the Suleiman family a few days after the house was attacked. She's on the rear balcony talking to Red Cross workers, a Palestinian reporter from a foreign news medium and B'Tselem field-workers. The black Stars of David were spray-painted in spots that had already been repainted in white; this was not the first time the settlers had marked their territory here. So a couple of months ago, the Suleimans decided to take one of B'Tselem's video cameras and come up with some stronger evidence. The footage they took that morning, seen on TV, shows settlers dressed in Shabbat white streaming down the hill, throwing rocks at the village as soldiers stand next to them, doing nothing. Gunshots are heard. In a sequence filmed by the Suleimans that wasn't broadcast, a settler is seen running up to the family's window. The person inside holding the video camera abandons it - but the sound is left on. A soldier is heard shouting at the settlers: "Stop throwing rocks!" Then, to a fellow soldier, "I can't stop them!" In a relatively calm voice, a settler tells the soldiers to "go get them," evidently meaning the Suleimans inside the house. "If you don't go after them, we will," he warns. A soldier asks the settlers to stop throwing rocks for "a minute." A settler replies, "You have a minute to throw them out." Another settler starts counting. Two or three settlers at the window suggest destroying the Suleimans' plants, their marble counter, a plumbing pipe. Then one says, "Guys, there's a camera here." One of the settlers suggests they "break the videotape from the side." Another says, "No, let's take it out." However, the camera is sitting behind the barred window, so they can't get to it easily. One of them comes up with an idea: "I have some pepper gas. He'll open the window and we'll spray him." The young men from Yitzhar didn't get the Suleimans' video camera or videotape. Neither did they get the camera or videotape from the nearby "Radwan" family, who filmed a crowd of settlers surrounding the house of the neighboring "Darwish" family, and pushing the Darwishes' car toward the edge of the hill. The Darwish family also had a camera, but it was taken by either settlers or soldiers, according to the father, who says he mislaid it when he went outside to throw rocks back at the settlers. Police from the Judea and Samaria (Shai) station were nowhere to be seen in Asira al-Kibliyeh that morning, but they soon showed up afterward at B'Tselem's office at the edge of Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood. "We turned to B'Tselem to get their videotapes, and we're using them in our undercover investigation," says Danny Poleg, spokesman of Shai station. "We haven't made any arrests yet; we still haven't identified any of the rioters, but we hope that from the videotapes we'll be able to make out faces and body shapes and bring in suspects." (No arrests have been made in connection with the Palestinian arsonist/knife assailant, either, he says.) ON THE REAR balcony of the Suleimans' house, the mother, holding a little baby, is handed a fresh videotape by one of the B'Tselem workers. Everyone is smiling and shaking hands; the mood is victorious. The Shooting Back project began in the summer of 2006 with one camera in the hands of a 14-year-old girl, Fida Abu Ayesha, whose family home borders the Tel Rumeida section of the Hebron settlement. The house is known as "the cage house" because of the screened bars surrounding the entrance. Abu Ayesha filmed settler children cursing the family and throwing rocks at the door as soldiers made only faint, futile efforts to keep them away. Then in August 2006, Abu Ayesha filmed a scene that chilled viewers in Israel and around the world. It shows Yifat Alkobi, a Hebron settler, leaning against the cage, cooing, "Sharmuta, sharmu-u-u-uta" - Arabic for "whore" - at Abu Ayesha's mother. The mother is screaming for Alkobi to stop, but the settler continues. "You're a whore, and your daughters are too," she tells Abu Ayesha. "Stay inside your cage, don't come out." A soldier standing guard does nothing. "When we first saw the footage, about 10 of us were watching it in the office, and everyone was just stunned," says Yoav Gross, a Tel Aviv documentary filmmaker and a prime mover in the Shooting Back project. "What made it so powerful was that you see it all from the point of view of the Palestinian; the video puts you in the Palestinians' shoes, instead of in the shoes of Israeli or foreign cameramen, which is how you usually see what goes on in the occupation." Gross says B'Tselem gave that film to Yediot Aharonot's Ynet Web site, and after it was broadcast there, it was picked up right away by all the Israeli TV stations and then the foreign ones. "Within two days it was on BBC, CNN, it was even shown in Japan," says Gross, driving through the West Bank in B'Tselem's old jeep. Several Knesset members railed against the actions of the Hebron settlers and the inaction of the IDF. "A committee was set up to investigate, but of course nothing came of it," says Gross. Alkobi was questioned by police about a number of violent attacks against Palestinians, but nothing came of that, either. Yet the video gave dramatic support to claims by Palestinians and Israeli doves that the Israeli presence, especially in Hebron, allows settlers to abuse Palestinians with impunity. It was a victory in the "information war" for anti-occupation forces and an embarrassment for Israel, the IDF and the settler movement. Shooting Back became a fund-raising draw for B'Tselem, and the organization began distributing video cameras, which cost about $300 each, to several Palestinian families in Hebron, then to others in the southern Hebron Hills, then to others near Nablus - wherever Palestinians live close by the most radical, violent settlements and heaviest IDF presence. Some 100 cameras have been distributed in the West Bank, with 50 more to be given out soon, and an additional 150 next year, says Gross. The "sharmuta" videotape wasn't the only Shooting Back production that has made waves nationally and worldwide. Last June, a Palestinian woman filmed four hooded settlers near Sussiya brutally clubbing members of her family, including a woman in her 50s, who is heard screaming on the videotape. "We used that footage," says police spokesman Poleg. "We arrested three people, settlers from the southern Hebron Hills, but the court decided to release them to house arrest." B'Tselem collects about 50 hours of videotape a month from Palestinian volunteers and its own field-workers in the West Bank, most of the footage showing settlers, not soldiers, in action. However, the videotape that caused the greatest stir, even more than the original "sharmuta" tape, was taken by a 17-year-old Palestinian girl using a video camera given to her not by B'Tselem, but by her high school, which intended her to film her graduating class's party. Last July 7, Salaam Amira turned that camera on the anti-security fence protest taking place at her village, Ni'lin, and captured a soldier shooting a blindfolded, bound young Palestinian man in the foot at point-blank range. Two weeks later, a B'Tselem field-worker learned about the videotape, it became international news and the IDF had a major scandal on its hands. The army rebuked the soldier who did the shooting and the battalion commander who gave the order - and who also held the victim, Ashraf Abu Rahme, 24, in place to be shot. The army also reassigned the battalion commander. But charged them only with "conduct unbecoming a soldier," a charge B'Tselem and other civil rights organizations are appealing. For all the attention Shooting Back's work has gotten, however, the question is whether it has any long-term effect - whether, after the initial storm caused by its most dramatic videos, there's been a reduction in human rights abuses by soldiers and settlers. The answer isn't clear. At B'Tselem, they're very sober about the impact they're having. In individual Palestinian complaints against soldiers or settlers, the videotapes provide vital evidence, says Gross: "Without this documentation, it's the Palestinian's word against the soldier's or the settler's, and Israeli authorities tend not to take the Palestinian's word." B'Tselem has given police and the IDF scores of videotapes to accompany Palestinian complaints, but full investigations have resulted in only five cases, according to the organization - the "sharmuta" incident in Hebron, the settler clubbing in the south Hebron hills, the IDF shooting of the blindfolded Palestinian in Ni'lin, the recent riot by Yitzhar settlers and an assault by a disturbed Israeli on a B'Tselem field-worker. Except for the last, all of these incidents had been broadcast on TV. This is no coincidence, says Gross. "The army and police aren't interested in rigorous self-examination. As a rule, they only act on one of our videotapes when the public has seen it and it's an embarrassment to them." "That's not true," Poleg insists, "at least so far as the police is concerned." An officer in the IDF Central Command, which includes the West Bank, also denies Gross's charges. "You look at how many internal investigations are conducted by the IDF and Israel Police - believe me, B'Tselem doesn't have much to do with it. We don't need B'Tselem for us to open an internal investigation." Then there is the question of the project's effect on public opinion. "When one of our videotapes in shown on TV and covered in the media, it has a short-term impact, as long as the media remain interested. But as soon as the media lose interest, which usually happens in a day or two, the public loses interest, too," says B'Tselem activist Michael Zupraner. At the Suleimans' house in Asira al-Kibliyeh, a Palestinian reporter for a foreign news medium says the exposure of the videotaped incidents "is really embarrassing for the Israeli government. I think in the long run the project may bear fruit by bringing pressure on those who break the law." AND THEN there is the question of whether B'Tselem gives a fair picture of what's going in the West Bank. After all, it does not have video activists filming Palestinian terrorism, which is certainly a big part of the picture. It has no videotape, for instance, of the Palestinian who stabbed the boy in Yitzhar prior to the settlers' rampage. Nor does it have videotape of the Palestinian woman who recently threw acid in the eye of a soldier at a checkpoint. Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, which accuses B'Tselem, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and similar organizations of being consistently biased against Israel, says the organization's video activism does a lot more harm than good. "The IDF shooting of the bound Palestinian was clearly immoral, and in that specific instance it was good that it was captured on film. The army did respond, although one can argue whether the response was sufficient or not," Steinberg says. But the problem, he maintains, is that this is all B'Tselem shows the Israeli public and the world of IDF behavior in the West Bank, and audiences, especially overseas, come away with the impression that soldiers do nothing but brutalize Palestinians. "Shooting Back reinforces the false image of Israel as the world's major perpetrator of war crimes and a systematic violator of human rights," Steinberg says, "when the fact is that the vast majority of soldiers are the opposite, and we know that much of the army goes out of its way to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, and does take human rights seriously." And by not showing Palestinian terrorism, Shooting Back presents a grossly imbalanced image of reality in the West Bank that makes Israel look purely guilty and the Palestinians purely innocent, he says. Gross, however, insists that B'Tselem is doing the opposite - it is trying to bring a little balance to an image of Israel's West Bank presence that is skewed radically in Israel's favor. "Even if you include all the acts of Palestinian terrorism, the overwhelming majority of the human rights violations committed in the West Bank are committed by Israeli settlers and soldiers against Palestinians," he says. "Whenever there's any violence by Palestinians, or any attempt at violence, the government, the politicians, the settlers, the IDF, the police and the Israeli media all go into action to publicize it. There's no need for B'Tselem to publicize Palestinian terror; the whole Israeli establishment already does it. But without B'Tselem, how would the public know about Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians?" But Steinberg points out that by far the largest television audiences for Shooting Back's videotapes are not in Israel, but abroad - and for audiences overseas, the footage of Palestinian victims is not balanced by footage of Palestinian terrorists. "The IDF and the settlers do not get their message across in foreign countries," he says. "You're not going to see coverage of the soldier getting acid thrown in his eye; it will get no international attention, and this is an example of the imbalance of the image created overseas by B'Tselem's work." Gross, though, argues that foreign audiences, particularly Americans, get plenty of exposure to Palestinian terror, especially since 9/11, which roughly coincided with the start of the Palestinian suicide bombings of the second intifada. He adds that when B'Tselem began publicizing its work during the first intifada 20 years ago, all its reports were in Hebrew. "We only started approaching the foreign media after we saw that the Israeli establishment wasn't reacting to our reports in Hebrew, that nothing was changing," he says. Furthermore, while the videotapes do serve B'Tselem's explicit goal of undermining Israel's political effort to sustain the occupation, they also "bring credit to Israel as a democracy," says Gross. "They show that in Israel you can criticize the government, you can criticize the army and the settlers, you can film them and the films will be broadcast, and that's good for Israel's image in the world." According to the official at IDF Central Command, B'Tselem's Palestinian video camera operators "only show the action they want to show. For instance, they didn't show how [IDF soldiers] in Asira al-Kibliyeh pushed the settlers back to Yitzhar. They didn't show that we confiscated two guns from the settlers, which was the first time in years that we've taken guns away from settlers during a confrontation." For their part, B'Tselem's people say soldiers frequently try to stop camera operators from filming. In a videotape taken in July that showed the IDF intervening in a land dispute between settlers and Palestinian shepherds, B'Tselem field-worker Nasser Nawajah asks the army battalion commander in the Hebron region, "Can I ask you a question? I am a cameramen with B'Tselem." The battalion commander, Udi Ben-Moha, answers, "You're a cameramen with B'Tselem? Then you're under arrest, too." Nawajah was detained for several hours, then released. "I know about the videotape with Udi Ben-Moha," says the Central Command officer. "I don't feel the need to comment on every specific event." ANOTHER CRITICISM of Shooting Back was raised recently in a Jerusalem Post op-ed by Jim Hubbard, a University of Southern California communications professor, who argued that giving cameras to Palestinian youth to film acts of aggression by settlers and soldiers could expose them to danger. "B'Tselem staffers have reported that they have been verbally and physically attacked. Has it not occurred to them that a similar fate might await the kids given the cameras to film abuses?" wrote Hubbard, who started a project called "Shooting Back" in Washington DC in the 1980s for "disenfranchised people, mainly youth, to document their lives." The issue of danger is a critical one for B'Tselem, says Gross. The camera operators - who tend to be Palestinian women, the men usually being out at work - are trained by the organization's field-workers "to try to film in full view, not in hiding where the camera could be mistaken for a weapon," says Gross. Also, B'Tselem directs camera operators to stay away from hot spots after their tapes have proved particularly embarrassing to the IDF or to settlers, the better to avoid the possibility of "payback." After the infamous incident at Ni'lin, B'Tselem told its camera operators to stop filming the protests there for two weeks. Out of this fear of payback, some Palestinian communities refuse B'Tselem's offer of video cameras. Asked if any civilian video activists had been "punished" by settlers or soldiers, Gross mentions a couple of shopkeepers whose stores had been stoned by settlers - "but their stores had been stoned before they got the cameras, too." He couldn't think of any civilian who'd run into trouble only after he'd begun filming. One cameraman, though, who has paid the price for his efforts is Issa Amro, B'Tselem's field-worker in Hebron, and he's got the evidence on tape. On August 1, a Palestinian wedding procession passing near the Hebron settlement was stoned by settlers, who in turn were stoned by Palestinians, says Gross, and afterward Amro was on the scene with his camera. In the tape, soldiers are seen telling Amro to stop filming and to move along, yet Amro insists he's acting within his rights. A settler comes up and takes a swing at him, saying, "Issa, get out of here with your camera." That time Amro's camera was broken. In the video he took on May 17 near Hebron, an Israeli man, not a settler, described by Gross as mentally disturbed, calls Amro "garbage, son of a whore," and takes a swing at him. That time Amro's nose was broken - and an IDF investigation was opened against the assailant. In January, Amro was filming at an IDF checkpoint and a soldier tried to stop him, striking him in the process and arresting him for striking a soldier, says Gross. He adds: "Afterward, Issa showed the army the film, which proved that he was the one getting hit, and they let him go." As for Hubbard's charge that B'Tselem endangers Palestinian youths by giving them cameras to take to conflict hot spots, he says that not only hasn't this proved out in the field, the claim is misguided to begin with. "It's not as if Palestinians live in a peaceful, quiet suburb and we're suddenly throwing them into a war zone. They live in a war zone in their daily lives. They're already in danger." In fact, for some of the shebab, or Palestinian street youth, the video camera is an alternative to the rock or the Molotov cocktail. "We're showing them a non-violent means of resistance," says Gross. But as to whether the presence of a "hostile" video camera and the knowledge that they are being filmed acts as a deterrent with settlers or soldiers inclined toward violence, Gross says it cuts both ways. "In many cases the camera seems to act as a deterrent," he says, "but sometimes it seems to be taken as a provocation." THE B'TSELEM crew arrives at another village in the Nablus area, where a shepherd has asked about getting one of their cameras. Outside the house, a young man from the family points out the lay of the land. "On that hilltop is [the settlement] Har Bracha, and on that hilltop over there is Bracha." Sitting in the house, the shepherd, in his 60s, barefoot, with a sunburned, unshaven face, half his teeth missing and a keffiyeh wrapped around his brow, concentrates as Atef Abu al-Rub, B'Tselem's field-worker in the northern West Bank, patiently explains how to operate the video camera. The shepherd's sons watch respectfully, restraining their amusement at their father's encounter with modern communications technology. The shepherd describes what he's up against. "One day I was in the hills with my sheep, and these settlers started shooting at them. They killed one sheep, then another, then another, and finally they killed the donkey." He and everybody else in the room laugh loudly, a kind of gallows humor, when he gets to the killing of the donkey. The shepherd's tale of helplessness in the face of repeated acts of settler violence is as common as can be in the West Bank. Following the Yitzhar settlers' attack on Asira al-Kibliyeh, Jerusalem Post military affairs reporter Yaakov Katz wrote that top officials from IDF Central Command and Shai district police had met recently for several hours and "tried unsuccessfully to devise new ways to curb settler violence, which has risen over the past year." Noting that the settlers had shot up the village in the presence of IDF soldiers, yet none had been arrested, the story continued: "Had a Palestinian fired a shot in a street in a Jewish settlement, the army would have shot him dead. Had an Israeli opened fire on a street in Tel Aviv, he would have been arrested, if not shot. Some believe that the West Bank is turning into the 'Wild West Bank,' where settlers are taking the law into their own hands." At the door, the shepherd says, "I've had so many problems with the settlers, and every time I went to the police, and the police always demanded evidence." Indicating the camera in his left hand, he says, "Next time, I'll have evidence."

Related Content