Ahmed Tawil had just backed into a parking space in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz when a heated argument erupted between an Israeli police officer and a Palestinian truck driver parked just in front of him.
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Judging from their loud tones and wild hand gestures, Tawil, a 26-year-old resident of East Jerusalem, sensed things could turn violent. Instinctively, he reached for his smartphone and tapped the video record button.
The two-minute clip quickly found its way onto social media and went viral. The footage shows the police officer head-butting the truck driver, slapping him and kneeing him in the groin before lunging at several other Palestinians as they tried to intervene. The police officer has since been suspended and placed under house arrest. But this wasn’t the only video shot last week to spark an outcry over the behavior of Israeli security forces patrolling Palestinian areas.
Just a day before the incident in Wadi Joz, another viral clip, also shot by a citizen journalist, showed a terrified-looking Palestinian boy being led around a Hebron neighborhood by about a dozen Israeli soldiers who pulled him in and out of various homes. His mother later reported that Sufian Abu Hita, her 8-year-old son who had gone out to look for a missing toy, had been ordered to help the soldiers identify stone-throwers. The army insisted the soldiers were merely trying to help Sufian find his way home, though it later emerged that he didn’t even live in that neighborhood.
Most of the footage in Hebron was shot by May Da’na, a Palestinian volunteer with B’Tselem, an Israeli organization that documents human rights violations in the occupied territories. According to Amit Gilutz, its spokesman, the video has since been viewed by millions around the world.
But that’s nothing compared to the impact of another video shot by a B’Tselem volunteer last March, also in Hebron, that turned an Israeli sergeant from the town of Ramle into a household name. The clip featured Elor Azaria shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant lying wounded on the ground. The footage, shot by Imad Abu Shamsiyeh with his B’Tselem-donated camera, ultimately led to a conviction for Azaria, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
For Palestinians fighting the occupation, the camera has become the weapon of choice. “There is no better tool for nonviolent resistance,” says Issa Amro, the coordinator and cofounder of the grass-roots movement Youth Against Settlements.
Established five years ago, Youth Against Settlements has to date handed out cameras to 25 of its volunteers. “Not only are these cameras a great weapon for nonviolent resistance, but they also serve the purpose of protection,” Amro says. “Our volunteers who walk around with them say they feel much safer because soldiers are less likely to start up with them.”
B’Tselem’s 200 lenses
Amro previously worked with B’Tselem, where he was a driving force behind its flagship camera project. Thanks to footage captured by these cameras, which later served as evidence in court, he says, many Palestinians accused of wrongdoing by Israeli security forces, himself included, avoided prison sentences.
“When you are a Palestinian living in a place like Hebron, you are considered by the Israelis to be guilty unless proven innocent,” Amro says. “So for us, the cameras are not only a way to document events but also to protect ourselves when false complaints are made against us by Israeli soldiers.”
Through its camera project launched 10 years ago, B’Tselem has distributed 200 cameras to citizen journalists in the occupied territories. As part of the project, the volunteers also attend special workshops.
With smartphones so widespread these days, cameras would seem to have outlived their time. Yet Gilutz is not convinced.
“First of all, the footage from a camera is much higher quality,” he notes. “Besides that, we’ve found that when people use their smartphones to shoot video, they get distracted by phone calls and other things. When they’re behind a camera, they’re much more focused, and that’s critical when undertaking this kind of documentation.”
B’Tselem wasn’t the first organization to come up with the idea of equipping ordinary Palestinians with cameras so that the conflict could be shown from an alternative vantage point. Foreign television crews based in Israel started handing out cameras as far back as the first intifada, which broke out in 1987.
“Way back then, the Palestinians understood how to win over public opinion and how essential it was to their success in the overall conflict. The Palestinians would smuggle out footage from areas defined by the army as closed military zones until the designation became almost meaningless,” says MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), a former chief spokesman of the Israeli army.
“The practice gained momentum during the second intifada, and ever since, thanks to new technologies and the widespread availability of filming devices, the army operates today under the assumption that it is no longer possible to cover up things and maintain secrecy. Everything that happens today is out there in the open and reported on in real time.”
Under such circumstances, Shai says, the army’s ability to control and manipulate information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been dramatically curtailed “and has even totally disappeared.”
“True, Israel still enjoys a technological advantage over the Palestinians, primarily in the field of cyber,” he says, “but in the realm of public diplomacy, the Palestinians are successfully exploiting technology to narrow the gap that once existed between the small and meek and the big and strong.”
Fighting cameras with cameras
The widespread presence of cameras in the areas under Israeli occupation, Shai believes, induces restraint among the soldiers, many of whom fear ending up like Elor Azaria. At the same time, he notes, the army has begun to equip the soldiers with their own cameras so that when questions arise about the credibility of footage released by the other side, it can rely on its own clips.
“Very often, I hear Israeli soldiers warning each other to be careful when they see us with our cameras,” says Amro, the Palestinian activist. “’Watch out,’ they say, ‘they’re filming.’”
B’Tselem volunteers, says Gilutz, report that soldiers show more restraint when cameras are around. “I’m convinced the cameras are a deterrent, but this is really only speculation because we can’t know what would happen if the cameras weren’t there,” he says.
In years past, the Israeli army often claimed that footage shot by human rights activists operating in the occupied territories was doctored. That is less the case in recent years, and as Gilutz notes, the military judges in the Azaria case relied heavily on the video shot by Abu Shamsiyeh.
B’Tselem videos are generally cut and edited, under the thinking that most viewers lack the patience to watch long clips. “But we always make the unedited version available as well for the benefit of those who want to compare,” Gilutz adds.
Ta’ayush is one of several human rights groups active in the occupied territories that has made cameras basic fixtures of its daily work. “We basically don’t go out to the field unless we have a camera with us,” says Guy Butavia, a Jewish-Israeli volunteer with the group. Cameras were already in use when he began volunteering with Ta’ayush seven years ago, but today “it’s much more organized and professional.”
Still, the presence of cameras doesn’t necessarily mean that Israeli security forces, or the settlers for that matter, will be on their best behavior, Butavia adds. “Sometimes, it’s more like a red flag, and rather than calm them down, the cameras make them very edgy,” he says.
Tehilla Shwartz Altschuler, a media scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute, acknowledges that the use of cameras by citizen journalists has played an important role in exposing human rights abuses and keeping the Israeli security forces on their toes. At the same time, she warns, there is also a downside to the growing reliance on them.
“It’s important to look at the bigger picture here – not only at how they’re used within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she says. “As it becomes more and more common for people to aim cameras at one another, and we see it very often on the roads these days, we risk turning into a dictatorship run by snitchers."