Every Friday, the slingshot-wielding boys, or shabab, of the West Bank village of Ni’lin protest at Israel’s separation wall, which has deprived the village of 750 acres of farmland. But among the shabab are other youngsters with a different weapon – video cameras.
For the past three years, Btselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, has provided cameras and training to young Palestinians as part of its camera distribution project, to collect video evidence of abuses and misconduct by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There are 150 such cameras all over the West Bank and Gaza, and most of the footage captured – 1,500 hours so far – ends on the floor-to-ceiling archive shelves of the Jerusalem office of Yoav Gross, who directs the NGO’s video project.
Footage captured by Btselem’s volunteers has been key evidence in Israeli court rulings in favor of Palestinian plaintiffs. The presence of cameras, now on both Palestinian and Israeli sides, has deterred violence and abuse. But three years after launching the project, Btselem has seen another, unintended consequence. “People started to take this tool, the video camera, and use it as a way to express themselves, to tell stories,” said Gross. “We didn’t train them to do that. We trained them to document human rights violations. But pretty soon we got the sense that this can be a powerful tool for them to empower themselves.”
What has emerged is a generation of young Palestinian filmmakers, at ease with the camera and fluent in editing and the language of visual storytelling. Arafat Kanaan, 17, stood back at the Ni’lin protest one recent Friday afternoon. He had been detained by the IDF the previous week and decided to leave his camera at home and sit this one out, obscuring half of his face with a piece of cardboard. Though he has to worry about IDF cameras, he says: “The camera is like a weapon for us. It can show everyone in the world what the truth is.”
Arafat’s sister Salam, 19, was a volunteer who captured IDF misconduct – shooting a handcuffed Palestinian detainee in Ni’lin – that led to the successful prosecution of an Israeli soldier. Together with Salam and Rasheed Amira, 17, Arafat has set up Ni’lin Media Group, which produces weekly video packages of each protest and longer-form documentary videos on life under occupation. He posts them to the group’s YouTube channel and screens the films for the community on Ni’lin’s central square. “We collect ourselves into a group because it gives us the power to continue the work and to train others,” said Arafat.
The evolution from documentation to storytelling is evident elsewhere. Diaa Hadad, 17, a Palestinian who lives in the Jewish-settled H2 sector of Hebron, wanted to show the effects of settlement and IDF sanctions on Palestinian movement, and did so through a one-minute film called H1H2. The film is a split screen. On the right is the bustling market street of Bab al-Zawiya, in the Palestinian-dominated H1 sector of the town. On the left is al-Shuhada street in H2, once also a busy market for Palestinians but now empty due to Israeli restrictions and settler violence. “I made this film to show the people outside what is happening here,” Diaa said, outside HEB2, a community media centre for Palestinians. “We are living here and a lot of incidents occur here and nobody knows what is happening, even people from Bab al-Zawiya, two kilometres away, in H1.”
Behind him lay the landscape of occupation he tries to document: army CCTV cameras that silently monitor the contested territory, IDF watchtowers and the barbed wires of settlement demarcation. “We give the audience the full picture of what is happening here in the West Bank – violations, normal life, occupation, normal life – and what is the connection between the occupation and normal life. This is very important,” said Issa Amro, 30, director of HEB2, which, using Hebron’s new video-adept youth, has launched a community television service live on www.heb2.tv.
“If you keep showing settlers throwing stones at a certain family, then you don’t know how this family is living,” said Amro. “If you show how this family is living, you become connected to them in another way and you care about them personally.” This philosophy is driving grassroots filmmaking in Gaza, a territory with no Israeli army or settler presence but challenged by the siege that prevents information from leaving the territory.
“The films we are making in Gaza are so important because the world media is not focused on the details on the ground, the real life here,” said Mohammed al-Majdalawi, 22, by telephone from Gaza. He recently made a short documentary about the Gazan hip-hop scene.
“There are no Israeli journalists allowed to go inside [the Strip],” said Yoav Gross, “which basically leaves the Israeli public with a very shallow image of what goes on inside Gaza. This sense of a very human existence in Gaza has kind of disappeared from Israeli discourse.” That’s starting to change. Al-Majdalawi’s work was one of five films from Gaza made available recently by Israel’s number one news site Ynet.com, used by a million Israelis every day. Other films on the site showed the child workers of Gaza’s supply tunnels, the video game craze that has gripped the strip, and a play camp for children.
Back at the wall in Ni’lin, the protest was as expected. Like every Friday, the shabab poised themselves behind the wall while the protestors made their way through an opening in it to yell and wave banners at the IDF stationed behind jeeps on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Then the shabab launched their barrage of rocks, whirring and whizzing over the seven-meter high wall.
During the first and second intifadas, the shabab became a dramatic manifestation of the Samson and Goliath proportions of the wider struggle. Today, the “video shabab” compete for attention and status.
After a few minutes of orders in Hebrew, delivered from the other side of the wall, the IDF sent over round after round of tear gas, scattering the shabab and the activists gathered up the rocky hills. The video volunteers put on their gas masks and kept operating their cameras, despite the haze.
DON DUNCAN is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.
This article appears in the August edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.