Palestinians capture violence of Israeli occupation on video
In a graphic and hard-hitting film Peter Beaumont speaks to Palestinians filming abuse from settlers and Israeli armed forces
Peter Beaumont in Ni'ilin
The Guardian, Wednesday 30 July 2008
An Israeli child from a far-right settler group in the West Bank city of Hebron hurls a stone up the stairs of a Palestinian family close to their settlement and shouts: "I will exterminate you." Another spits towards the same family.
Another settler woman pushes her face up to a window and snarls: "Whore!"
They are shocking images. There is footage of beatings, their aftermath, and the indifference of Israel's security forces to serious human rights abuses. There is footage too of those same security forces humiliating Palestinians – and most seriously – committing abuses themselves.
They are contained in a growing archive of material assembled by the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem in a remarkable project called Shooting Back.
The group has supplied almost 100 video cameras to vulnerable Palestinian communities in Hebron, the northern West Bank and elsewhere, to document and gather evidence of assaults and abusive behaviour – largely by settlers.
"We gave the first video camera out in Hebron [in January 2007]," says Diala Shamas a Jerusalem-based researcher with B'Tselem. But the project took off in earnest, however, in January this year.
The video is sometimes chaotic, jumpy. Sometimes only the audio is captured and a pair of soldiers' boots.
But what it documents in all its rough reality is the experience of occupation on a daily basis for the most vulnerable families and communities – giving a voice to those who have been voiceless for so long.
"Right now we have about 100 video cameras," adds Shamas. "The largest number are in the Hebron region where the most frequent complaints of settler attacks are. And recently in the northern area and the region next to the [building] of the [separation] wall where there are demonstrations."
She explains the reason for introducing the Shooting Back project.
"The project started as response to the need to gather evidence. We were constantly filing complaints to no avail on the basis of lack of evidence, or … we don't know the name of the settler.
"Now we are going back and forth with our video-cassettes to [Israeli] police station begging them to press rewind, freeze… it is the bulk of our work. The value of the footage is not only evidential. It also has had a remarkable value in terms of advocacy and campaigning.
'We quickly realised the media value of this footage. It is maybe an overstatement but we started bridging this gap between what was happening in the occupied Palestinian territories and what the Israeli public can see.
"There was a conspiracy of silence surrounding settler violence in particular. This footage is shocking to Israelis.'
And in particular it has been two pieces of video, shot by Palestinians this year and released by B'Tselem, that have gained massive international attention by throwing the issue of human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories back into the spotlight.
The first was footage of a group of four hooded settlers from the settlement of Susya armed with what look like pickaxe handles brutally beating a group of Palestinian farmers.
The second – not taken as part of Shooting Back programme – but supplied to B'Tselem by a 17-year-old schoolgirl from the village of Ni'ilin earlier this month showed a protester against the building of the West Bank barrier on his village's land being shot in the foot by an Israeli soldier with a plastic bullet as he was held blindfold and bound.
The protester was Ashraf Abu Rahma, aged 27. The video was shot by Salam Kanaan aged 17. A constant presence at the demonstrations in the Palestinian villages in the rocky hills of the West Bank, Ashraf is employed by the villages as a watchman on land that is threatened with being taken from the Palestinian villages for the building of the West Bank barrier.
He says he was unaware of what was happening to him until almost the moment before he was shot and wounded in the foot.
It is only when he saw the video too that he was able to understand what happened to him.
Arrested during a demonstration against the West Bank barrier in Ni'ilin on July 7 he recalled last week being almost immediately blindfolded.
"They had rounded up the foreigners [from the International Solidarity Movement] and arrested me and another guy separately.
"They put me in a jeep and started cursing me, hitting me and using bad language in Hebrew and Arabic. It had never occurred to me that they would shoot.
"They held me in the sun for a long time. Later I heard them discussing what they were going to do with me.
"I recall hearing a conversation about how to shoot me. What I recall is the words rubber bullet, rubber bullet... I was blindfolded so I was only aware of their aggression.
"It was only when I saw Salam's video that I understood what happened to me. The guy touching me on my right shoulder before I was shot.
"Just before it happened they said they're going to beat me. They said they were going to send me to hell. They know me because I've been to every protest."
Ashraf claims the abuse continued even when he was on the ground after the shot was fired. "When I asked for medical attention they said: this is nothing, we are going to beat you more."
Although the Israeli military's version is that the shooting was a misunderstanding of the orders given by the lieutenant colonel on the scene — and that the aim was only to "frighten" Ashraf examination of the footage makes it hard to credit that version.
Eyad Haddad, B'Tselem's Ramallah-based field researcher who tracked down the footage of Ashraf's punishment shooting, believes that the project has helped supply crucial evidence in documenting abuses.
"These events that happen are often so distant, or happen in the middle of the night, where there is no media.
"Where we've seen there is a lot of violation from the settlers and especially where there are demonstrations happening and we want to monitor the Israeli soldier's behaviour we are distributing video cameras.
"It is having a good effect and it will stop the violations."
Haddad says the organisation is now trying to encourage people living in areas of confrontation to use their own cameras — if they have them – or mobile phones to film potential abuses that they encounter.
"We want to encourage a mentality to use the cameras. It is the only weapon that the civilians have."
According to Diala Shamas the recent high international profile of the footage shot of the settler beating in Susya and the shooting of Ashraf Abu Rahma has meant that the group has not only been inundated with requests for cameras from Palestinian communities, but those who already have cameras supplied by B'Tselem are shooting more footage of their day to day experiences.
"In the beginning we were almost begging people to take the cameras with them when they went out. They didn't see the use of it. But after the media coverage over the Susya incident… we've gotten a flood of requests for our video cameras. And those who have got the cameras are using them much more frequently."
Commenting on the Ni'ilin footage she said: "It is one of the biggest victories because it is the troops not the settlers. It is not just a 'rotten apple' which is usually the response that we get from the government spokespeople. We didn't give out 100 video cameras to document rotten apples. It was to show there was something systematic happening and it was structural to the occupation.
"In this case it was remarkable that it was actually the soldiers themselves. They did in fact open an investigation.
"They couldn't ignore it."