The camera: A Palestinian weapon of choice
Blood can be seen pouring from the victim. The soldier was the Franco-Israeli Sergeant Elor Azaria, of a paramedical unit. The Palestinian he killed was Abdel Fattah al-Sharif.
The incident was filmed by an activist from B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO. The video caught the attention of the United Nations, with the High Commissioner for Human Rights calling it "an apparent extra-judicial execution".
It was used as the evidence for the filing of a complaint and a subsequent criminal trial. In the end, Elor Azaria was sentenced to only 18 months in prison.
But the affair demonstrated the unique power of video, which has been used by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories since 2007 to document their experiences of occupation.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed his support for Elor Azaria, but his government would certainly have preferred that the video exposing the conduct of what it likes to call "the most moral army in the world," had never materialised.
Coming out of the shadows
B'Tselem gathers information to campaign for the defense of human rights in the Occupied Territories.
|The NGO trained the families to to frame shots, follow action and zoom in on faces to identify protagonists|
In January 2007 it launched 'Project Camera', equipping dozens of Palestinian families with cameras to film attacks on them that would otherwise go under the radar.
The NGO trained the families to to frame shots, follow action and zoom in on faces to identify protagonists. Hundreds of families have now been provided with small digital cameras.
The aim is to raise awareness, in Israel and the rest of the world, of the violence perpetrated by the settlers and the Israeli army. A spokesperson for B'Tselem said "it's one of our key projects: It enables us to expose the reality of daily life here and the human rights violations taking place under the occupation."
|Ahed Tamimi at home in her village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah [Anadolu]|
The rapid growth of activist videos has taken place in the specific regional context of the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt and several Middle East countries.
People were rising up against autocratic regimes which exercised violent oppression and controlled their local media. The creation of independent video footage played a central role in documenting the struggles of these different national movements.
|Hundreds of families have now been provided with small digital cameras|
Activists in the Palestinian Occupied Territories have been inspired by the use of imagery as a tool for mobilisation. In Palestine, as in Egypt or Tunisia, the camera now enables the construction of an alternative narrative that can challenge that of the authoritarian or colonial regime. Dissident and anti-establishment voices can be heard.
The war of images
Nabi Saleh is a small village north of Jerusalem, and its People's Committee has used video in a particularly effective way. Paul Moreira, in his documentary Voyage dans un guerre invisible [Journey into an invisible war], calls what they have created, 'a war of images.'
Like many West Bank villages, Nabi Saleh lives under Israeli occupation. The illegal settlement of Halamish has been spreading over its land, as well as that of neighbouring village Deir Nitham, since 1977.
|The camera now enables the construction of an alternative narrative that can challenge that of the authoritarian or colonial regime|
Settlers have built illegal buildings, destroying Palestinian property and agricultural land bit by bit. Today, 60 percent of of the 5 square kilometres of land belonging to the inhabitants of Nabi Saleh has been confiscated or appropriated.
Since 2009, the village's People's Committee for Resistance has organised demonstrations every Friday against the occupation.
One of its members, Bilal Tamimi, has been filming these demonstrations since 2011, documenting the abuses perpetrated by the Israeli army and the resistance of the villagers. His videos have been gaining more and more exposure, with the village headlining The New York Times Magazine in March 2013.
Bilal Tamimi's niece, Ahed Tamimi, was imprisoned for several months for apparently slapping an Israeli soldier in the driveway of her family home. She drew worldwide attention in 2012 following the dissemination of a video in which she is seen face to face with Israeli army forces, fist raised ready to hit.
She was 11 years old. Since then, her uncle has regularly transmitted footage of her confrontations with soldiers. Ahed and the other members of the resistance in her village are now internationally known.
While the success of Bilal Tamimi's videos has brought the village notoriety and attracted activists from around the world to lend their support to the demonstrations and the olive harvest, it has not resulted in any victories against the settlers.
The situation in the Occupied Territories remains unchanged. The videos are occasionally used by the families to lodge complaints, but most attacks remain unpunished.
Undermining the occupier's propaganda
The videos have, however, made thousands of people aware of the practices of the Israeli army, and have reinforced the convictions of many already in solidarity with the Palestinians.
While they have not changed the balance of power, they have acted as an irritant to the Israeli state. These short films made by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are beginning to throw a spanner in the works of Israel's propaganda machine.
This machine has for some years been producing international campaigns and cultural showcases that propagate the image of an irreproachable state; a forward-thinking, modern, democratic advance guard in the fight against 'terrorism'.
The videos are a new resource in the struggle to discredit this self-promotion. Put together, they constitute an ocean of proof of the crimes committed against Palestinians that Israel has tried to keep hidden.
The presence of cameras during their operations in the Occupied Territories has gradually compelled the Israeli army to adapt.
This started with spontaneous initiatives from the soldiers, such as the wearing of balaclavas, which has become more and more frequent to avoid recognition by wider Israeli society or by Palestinian families seeking redress before the criminal courts. Camera operators are also regularly targeted, with soldiers trying to snatch their cameras or to threaten them at gunpoint to stop filming.
|Put together, they constitute an ocean of proof of the crimes committed against Palestinians that Israel has tried to keep hidden|
Israelis have coined the term Pallywood, quickly taken up by the army in order to suggest the Palestinians are provoking and recording incidents with the express aim of damaging Israel's image.
That this idea fails to stand up to scrutiny only serves to show the extent to which Israeli society is prepared to do anything to avoid facing up to the crimes committed in its name.
Today the Israeli government has taken its fight against the videos one step further, by seeking to pass a law which would punish any person found filming Israeli soldiers with up to 10 years in prison.
The B'Tselem spokesperson says "This proposed law is part of a series of legislative initiatives aimed at silencing and limiting the capacity for action of human rights organisations and anyone else who dares to oppose the occupation."
The initiatives are the product of a society and a government that are shifting ever further towards extreme right wing nationalism, operating in conditions of permanent military escalation which have normalised racist discourse against Palestinians.
The B'Tselem spokesperson ends by saying that "if the Israeli government is ashamed of the occupation, it should act to put an end to it, rather than trying to silence its critics. As long as the occupation continues, we will continue to document it."
The Israeli state shows no signs of being ready to question its colonial politics: It has chosen instead to attack those who denounce it.
The proposed law does not so much attest to the success of the Palestinian videos in influencing the course of the conflict, as to the direction of travel of the Israeli regime: As it becomes more and more authoritarian, it makes greater efforts to discredit every initiative that denounces its crimes and questions its desired status as a pillar of the international community.
The government and parliament have created a judicial arsenal intended to gag human rights organisations like B'Tselem, notably by targeting their income they receive from abroad.
The Israeli Ministry for Strategic Affairs has launched a battle against the international movement BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions], calling it a 'strategic threat' (the Israeli parliament uses the same term to describe Iran, which gives a sense of the extent of the government's disquiet).
Parliament has approved a US$72 million plan to attack BDS using a new structure that will be supervised by but remain independent of the state, to free it from bureaucratic restrictions.
At the same time, the government is engaged in cultural and media campaigns to promote Israel and influence international opinion towards it.
In 2018 it financed training for foreign journalists and produced the France-Israel Season - a season of events across France celebrating the friendship between the two nations.
|The government and parliament have created a judicial arsenal intended to gag human rights organisations like B'Tselem|
In its decision to concentrate its attentions on forcibly gagging the Palestinians and the organisations that support them, while simultaneously spending large sums of money abroad to promote its image, it has much in common with diplomatic ally, Saudi Arabia.
The recent rapprochement of Israel towards regimes that are openly racist and anti-democratic adds to the picture.
While waiting for the vote on Israel's proposed new law, the Palestinians are still arming themselves with cameras and publishing videos of abuses perpetrated by the Israeli army and the settlers.
In the context of a Zionist state that appears fixated on the removal of every trace of the existence of the Palestinians, these videos continue to provide incontestable evidence of it.
Mehdi Belmecheri-Rozental is an academic whose work focuses on the use of video as a tool for resistance in Palestine.
This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.