Filming Israel's trouble spots

An Israeli human rights group has distributed 100 cameras to Palestinian families in Hebron City Cen

Four young men, hooded so that their faces are concealed, march in line up a hill, wielding baseball bats. The camera shakes violently from side to side. Once they reach the shepherd and his family, it veers so much that the beating is obscured. One of the victims is woman in her fifties.

Ehud Barak, Israeli Defence Minister, has ordered a crackdown on far-right activists in the West Bank, such as these radical Israeli settlers, filmed last June near Sussiya. However, past evidence shows a notable distance between rhetoric and action in the response to video clips such as this.

Since January 2007, an Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, have distributed 100 cameras to Palestinian families in Hebron City Centre and the South Hebron Hills, areas notorious for the violence from both Arabs and Israelis, who live in close proximity. B'Tselem plans to extend the project to elsewhere in the West Bank with 150 further cameras.

The project's main aim is to encourage accountability and public education in Israel and abroad. The footage provides video evidence for the authorities, and attracts media attention. There are important side effects, too: film is a non-violent way for Palestinians to resist occupation by documenting the violation of their human rights, and using technology such as YouTube to distribute it. As Sarit Michaeli, Communications Director of B'Tselem, says, “The Israeli public and authorities don't trust Palestinian witnesses when they say what they have been through. They are more likely to believe this.”

Several tapes released by B’Tselem have caused a stir in Israel over the last eighteen months. In addition to the hilltop beating, the so-called ‘sharmuta’ tape, released early in 2007, is now notorious. Filmed by a teenage Palestinian girl, it shows a female settler forcing the girl's mother back inside her house as she tries to leave, telling her to “get back in your cage” and chanting “sharmuta, sharmuta” the Arabic word for whore. An Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier stands by, ignoring the Arab woman’s calls for help. A third video shows an IDF soldier shoot a blindfolded Palestinian man in the foot with a rubber bullet at point-blank range.

The videos caused public outcry. Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister, said in 2007 of the 'sharmuta' tape that “I saw the tape and was ashamed … such arrogance and brutality cannot be tolerated. I felt awful that a soldier was present and did not intervene.”

Shock, however, does not always translate into action. “These scenes are chilling to all Israelis of conscience, not just those on the left. People care what is being done in our name in the occupied territories,” explains Michaeli. “Beyond that initial shock, though, actual concrete action to enforce the law is a completely different issue. Politicians distance themselves from this extreme group, but then go ahead and do nothing.”

This is sadly confirmed by the evidence thus far. After these videos were broadcast throughout Israel and internationally, the authorities investigated. A year later, though, the impact is negligible. The soldier and officer who shot the man's foot were given the minimum possible sentence this month, a result which B'Tselem are petitioning. The four hooded men were arrested, then downgraded to house arrest, before charges were dropped.

Response to the videos has been mixed, with criticisms centring on accusations of bias. Professor Gerald Steinberg, director of Israeli group NGO Monitor, is suspicious of B’Tselem’s political agenda. “The public relations and media battle is a central arena in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the image of victimisation is a core part of the Palestinian strategy. B'Tselem's video campaign has become an integral part of this battle, and there is no parallel which highlights Palestinian violence or provocations that lead to Israeli responses shown in the videos. If such videos existed, this would reduce the strength of the victimisation myth. It is morally important to prevent Palestinian violence from undermining Israel's moral standards.”

Such arguments are frustrating to B'Tselem, who argue that the Israeli perspective is already covered by the mainstream media, and doesn't require specialist advocacy. In addition to this, they take pains to ensure that the camera distribution project is accurate. Field-workers spend weeks deciding which families are suitable, frequently those known to undergo systematic abuse and harassment, which has already been reported. They undergo training, not just in using the equipment (difficult since many families lack electricity), but when it is appropriate to film. Footage is thoroughly vetted according to how suitable and genuine it is.

“We’re aware of the threat of terrorism that Israelis face, but they can use these attacks to justify their attitudes,” says Michaeli. “To me, no provocation allows someone to beat an old farmer with a baseball bat. For many settlers, the mere sight of an Arab is provocation. You can’t reach everyone – some would rather believe that we’re liars than that this goes on. It's slow, but we will keep pressuring the authorities to do their job.”