MERIP Online: Viral Occupation
Cameras and Networked Human Rights in the West Bank: the B’Tselem documentation program
When I film, I feel like the camera protects me. But it’s an illusion.
—Emad Burnat, West Bank Palestinian and co-director, 5 Broken Cameras
A commander or an officer sees a camera and becomes a diplomat, calculating every rubber bullet, every step. It’s intolerable; we’re left utterly exposed. The cameras are our kryptonite.
—Israeli soldier, infantry brigade
To some degree, the conflict in Judea and Samaria has become a camera war.
—West Bank settler
When Israeli security forces arrived in the middle of the night at the Tamimi house in Nabi Salih, the occupied West Bank, the family was already in bed. The raid was not unexpected, as news had traveled around the village on that day in January 2011: Soldiers were coming to houses at night, demanding that young children be roused from sleep to be photographed for military records (to assist, they said, in the identification of stone throwers). Bilal Tamimi, Nabi Salih’s most experienced videographer, had his own camcorder at the ready by his bedside table when he was awoken by the knock on the door. His sometimes shaky footage, drowsiness and concern for his children making his hand unsteady, subsequently ran on Israel’s evening news programs, the video provided by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem as part of its effort to document army abuses in the Occupied Territories. The footage told two stories, testifying to the increasing use of photography both by the army as a means of counterinsurgency and by Palestinians under occupation for evidence and self-protection. In the West Bank today, cameras are ubiquitous, as is the usage of social media as a means of online witnessing. Both are deemed nothing less than political necessities, the sine qua non of political claims in the networked court of public opinion….
B’Tselem launched its camera project in 2007 in the West Bank city of Hebron, site of some of the fiercest confrontations between Palestinian residents and militant settlers. Unexpectedly, the Hebron footage went viral. Since that initial success, the organization has distributed hundreds of video cameras to Palestinians living in high-conflict areas of the Occupied Territories, enabling them to record firsthand their frequent abuse at the hands of Israeli security forces and neighboring settler populations.
Today, the proliferation of camera equipment in activist theaters across the globe usually yields a tale of “liberation technology” — a variant of the digital democracy narrative echoed so frequently in the first months of the Arab revolts, positing new media technologies as naturally suited to progressive grassroots activism. The case of Israel-Palestine, with cameras on all sides of the occupation’s political divides, tells a more complicated story, suggesting the highly variable political functions and futures that new technologies can serve.
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