How Opponents of the Israeli Occupation Are Losing the Digital War

In her new book, Duke University’s Rebecca Stein proves the limits of video images in exposing the truth

Neve Gordon
Neve Gordon
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Elor Azaria and his father outside the military court in Jaffa in 2019.
Elor Azaria and his father outside the military court in Jaffa in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Neve Gordon
Neve Gordon

The footage shows Abdel Fattah al-Sharif lying on the ground in the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron. Armed soldiers and settlers stand at the side of his wounded body chatting, talking on their phones and taking pictures.

An ambulance and a few army medics are nearby, but they ignore the wounded Palestinian. One of the medics is Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is standing near the ambulance. He walks to within a few meters of al-Sharif, aims his rifle and shoots the wounded man (to death, as it becomes clear within minutes).

This was in 2016, and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released footage of the killing. By then, YouTube had become a virtual database of institutional Israeli violence, including a complete archive of clips shot mainly by Palestinians documenting the day-to-day violence they experience in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Still, video showing a killing in broad daylight is rare. Unsurprisingly, in the following days, the world media covered the affair extensively, turning al-Sharif’s death into a viral spectacle.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the video is the behavior of the people at the scene. Not one soldier, settler or medic showed any surprise. None of them brought Azaria away from the site. No one checked whether al-Sharif was breathing or tried to save his life. Instead, the Palestinian was left to die while the people around him behaved as if nothing had happened.

Thus the Azaria affair, claims Rebecca Stein in her new book “Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine” (Stanford University Press), marks a turning point regarding Israel and overt violence against the Palestinians.

In the decade before the affair, politicians and senior army officers sought to distance themselves from the violence recorded on camera when a soldier or settler was caught in the act. Initially, it appeared that al-Sharif’s death would play out along these lines; the defense minister and senior officers criticized Azaria publicly.

But within a few days, the dominant narrative on the Israeli right changed. When the footage went viral, Azaria became a national hero, and politicians on the right lined up to defend him.

For Stein, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, al-Sharif’s killing was a watershed revealing how a Palestinian camera, long seen as an enemy of Israel, became the means for creating a national icon. It showed the limits of evidence as a tool for emancipation and its vulnerability to subjective interpretation. In some contexts, this ugly crime can undergo a complete transformation and become a celebratory event by dint of its public exposure.

From hope to disappointment

Stein’s book follows the 2015 work she co-authored with Adi Kuntsman, “Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age,” which examined the ways media technology is enlisted to perpetuate Israeli rule.

In her new book, Stein investigates two major phenomena: the production of images by Palestinians as a form of anti-colonial opposition and the Israeli army’s efforts to cast doubt on these images showing colonial violence. Accordingly, Stein shifts the discussion away from digital representations and their effects and concentrates on the labor invested in production and the political and aesthetic struggle over interpretation.

In other words, “Screen Shots” explores the backstory to the more widely spread narrative that began with the great hope of the new imaging technology and network platforms at the dawn of the digital age. But the result was deep disappointment when it emerged that these technologies and platforms wouldn’t promote the politics of liberation but played into the hands of the forces of oppression.

The Israeli-Palestinian context operates as both a harbinger and a reflection of the potential and disappointment of digital media as a tool for popular movements and struggles in the Middle East, especially during the Arab Spring.

The dashed hopes, Stein suggests, arise from faith that evidence is a powerful force for correcting social injustice, that a digitized image can help make an event transparent, disseminating and establishing facts in a way not possible before. This assumption can be summarized in three words: Veritas liberabit vos. (The truth will set you free.)

Stein shows how B’Tselem believed in the potential of digital images to reveal the truth of the Israeli colonial project. In a certain way, you could say that B’Tselem employed new technologies to develop a strategy first used in the 1960s during Amnesty International’s campaign for political prisoners. The group gathered reliable information and shared it with the government and media.

B’Tselem’s innovation was to give digital cameras to Palestinian volunteers while creating an ample network of people observing the daily activities of soldiers and settlers. B’Tselem’s assumed that concrete evidence of persistent human rights violations had huge potential for changing the situation on the ground.

In her book, Stein points to some of the complexities hampering this process. You might think, for instance, that Palestinian volunteers who filmed violence with digital cameras supplied by a rights group could simply send their footage to the organization or even directly to the media.

Rebecca Stein's 2021 book.Credit: Stanford University Press

But Stein shows that at least until 2016 this wasn’t done often – not just because certain parts of the West Bank had limited access to fast internet but because the rights group needed to verify the footage before sharing it.

As a result, Palestinian field researchers had to bring their flash drives with the raw footage to B’Tselem’s Jerusalem office, a process that sometimes took days and even weeks because of checkpoints, curfews and closures – all of them increasing during periods of heightened violence. Tracing the movements of flash drives, Stein reveals how Israel’s control of the physical space can delay the distribution of digital evidence, influencing the war of narratives between the two sides.

Moreover, it turns out that the process in producing an image is immersed in a range of colonial hierarchies, not all of them stemming from the state. For many years, some hierarchies have been present at the rights groups themselves, where Palestinian volunteers collect the data while a Jewish team member on salary is responsible for the validation.

Whether Palestinians are considered less trustworthy or more subjective, one could get the impression that even among liberal defenders of human rights, Palestinians aren’t permitted to corroborate the violence they’ve been subjected to for years. In other words, the colonialist structure and its logic percolates even into the ranks of the people operating against these phenomena.

The political economics of evidence

All this leads directly to the economics of evidence, or more precisely to the impact of digital evidence on other forms of extracting evidence. Stein shows that whereas before, much of the evidence collected by rights groups came from witnesses' oral or written testimony, in the digital age the weight of such testimony has dramatically diminished. Thus the documentation of violence through non-digital means is barely mentioned on new websites and doesn’t receive serious attention by the police or Israel’s courts.

As a result, and due to the hierarchy created between the “subjective witness” and the “objective picture,” direct testimony and the word of the Palestinians are taken into account even less than before.

But given that Palestinians are constantly documenting soldiers and settlers committing grave human rights violations and employing lethal violence, Stein’s book also explores Israel's methods to present these photos as fabrications. She shows how photos, unlike testimonies, can have a more immediate and unforgettable sensory effect.

But photos and footage, explains Wendy Hesford in her 2011 book “Spectacular Rhetorics,” derive their social value or symbolic characteristics from a wider frame of reference. In this context, readers get a glimpse of the Israel Defense Forces’ strategies in creating a parallel universe countering the one presented by Palestinians and the defenders of human rights.

Azaria in court with his parents during his 2016-17 trial. Credit: Moti Milrod

Inside the digital war room

Stein is well aware that her U.S. passport and Jewish identity gave her access to the IDF’s digital war rooms, and she exploits this privilege to expose how Israel tries to refute the colonialist images shown by Palestinian volunteers armed with cameras.

Surprisingly, as shown in “Screen Shots,” it took the IDF years to understand the full significance of the digital revolution and realize how viral photos can undermine Israel’s image as an “enlightened” occupier. As soon as pictures taken by Palestinians began to hurt Israel’s reputation, the IDF entered the scene in full force.

Stein shows, for example, how the Israeli army uses American spin doctors to teach soldiers how to distort reality by constantly casting doubt on a picture’s veracity. By using picture-editing software, these advisers embraced the colonialist strategy in which the indigenous peoples’ demands for their own history, land and humane treatment are portrayed as inauthentic or fabricated.

More precisely, the IDF’s media units tirelessly devote time and money in what the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit racistly dismisses as “the Pallywood playbook,” a pun on Palestine and Bollywood, India’s film industry. Among such practices, Palestinians are accused of staging scenes of people being wounded or killed by Israeli gunfire.

Stein recommends a video of an Israeli soldier’s shooting of Ashraf Abu Rahma in the West Bank village of Na’alin during a demonstration against a 2008 land expropriation. Stein describes footage by Salam Kanaan, starting with a clip of Abu Rahma waving a Palestinian flag in full view of journalists and ending with video of him lying on the ground with soldiers bent over him after he was shot in the foot.

At a military court, the defense relied heavily on the testimony of Nahum Shahaf, an Israeli physicist and veteran spin doctor described in the book as a specialist in identifying Palestinian “forgeries” of digital photos. Shahaf maintained that in this case, forgery was apparent in both digital manipulation and Palestinian theatrics. Based on an acoustic analysis of the footage, he claimed that the sound of gunfire was added later, while the “geometry of the bullet’s path” proved that it was physically impossible for the projectile in question to have hit Abu Rahma.

Shahaf also cast doubt on Abu Rahma himself; he said he examined this clip frame by frame and found that Abu Rahma didn’t immediately fall to the ground as one would expect of a person hit in the foot. He turned around and could be seen standing firm on both feet, leaning on his injured left foot. After that, the clip was cut, probably by deliberate editing, Shahaf said, and Abu Rahma was seen lying on the ground. Shahaf said there was no photographic evidence of the claimed injury on Abu Rahma’s left big toe.

The fact that Abu Rahma was shot in the foot after his arrest and treated in the hospital didn’t prevent the forensic “expert” from concluding that the whole clip was fabricated. His position helped influence the judges. After hearing the expert witness, the military court demoted the defendant to private and gave him a six-month suspended sentence. His commander got a three-month suspended sentence.

Israeli police making an arrest in the West Bank as witnesses record the event on their phones.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In this context, Shahaf isn’t alone. There is an entire network of similar experts on forensic identification; some of them live in Israel, others in the United States.

In fact, the Americans have apparently developed a keen fondness for the tricks of these “experts.” While in Israel they’re recruited for undermining the credibility of photos showing colonialist violence, in the United States they’re hired by supporters of Donald Trump for overturning election results, whether by analyzing photos of suitcases in Georgia or of a person wheeling a large box into a ballot-counting center in Detroit.

A further key exposure in Stein’s book is the reciprocal relationship between colonialism, digital visuals and the way the logic that drives the effacing of indigenous peoples and their ties to the land – a hallmark of settler colonialism – has penetrated this new technology.

Also, Stein helps document a new Israeli reality where society no longer feels the need to camouflage or blur its violent actions. She notes that after the execution of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in Hebron, what failed wasn’t the persuasiveness of each part of the footage or the work of the Israeli mediator (in this case, members of B’Tselem).

Instead, it was the perception of a Palestinian’s human nature from an ontological perspective. That is, as Israel’s political map shifts to the right, photos such as the one showing the execution of al-Sharif simply don’t provoke anger or moral discomfort, since the dehumanization of Palestinians has undergone a process of total, appalling normalization.

This doesn’t mean that we should give up on the vital collection of evidence of Israel’s ongoing violence against the Palestinians. It’s important to realize, Stein maintains, that evidence or digital technology – or even the truth – aren’t enough to liberate people from the shackles of colonialism, because sometimes the colonial ideology is much more powerful, as in the case of Israel.

Neve Gordon is a professor of law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London.

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