Using cameras to enhance protection and accountability in the Occupied Territories
by October 2009

Humanitarian actors increasingly recognise the crucial importance of linking humanitarian efforts to human rights issues. In the Occupied Territories this interdependence is particularly stark. Israel’s policies restricting movement within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel, Gaza and other areas are a central factor in the Palestinians’ increasing poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, as well as their lack of access to urgently needed medical treatment. The lack of accountability of Israel’s security force personnel – both individual and systemic – is a direct cause of high rates of civilian death and injury.

In order to address the overlapping human rights and humanitarian problems in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, B’Tselem has developed a new and rapidly growing initiative: distributing cameras to Palestinian families living in high-conflict areas, and training participants as agents for protection and change. With the 150 cameras B’Tselem has distributed to date, the harsh reality of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation has been brought to the attention of the Israeli and international public, providing a tool for protection, deterrence and accountability.

B’Tselem’s ‘camera work’

In June 2008, B’Tselem camera recipient and trainee Muna Nawaj’ah captured on film four masked settlers attacking three members of the Nawaj’ah family with clubs as they grazed their flock on private Palestinian land south of the Susiya settlement, in the southern Hebron hills. B’Tselem released the footage, sparking a flood of publicity that led to the detention of three of the attackers. Without this video evidence, the family would have remained helpless victims, unable to pursue their livelihood for fear of further attack. Attacks such as this, and other human rights violations that have long remained unseen, have become front-page stories; the Susiya incident, for example, received extensive media coverage both within Israel and internationally, including in the New York Times and on the BBC. Israeli law enforcement agencies, confronted with the hard evidence of raw footage, can no longer simply dismiss Palestinian complaints as unfounded. The head of the family, 61-year-old Khalil Nawaj’ah, said: ‘The only weapon we have is the media’. This comment reflects the empowerment that the cameras can bring: Palestinians no longer have to stand on the sidelines, but can use the new technology B’Tselem has provided to take non-violent, effective action.

Video footage also attracted widespread media attention and prompted legal action over an incident in the Palestinian village of Ni’ilin in July 2008. B’Tselem publicised film showing an Israeli soldier firing a rubbercoated steel bullet, at extremely close range, at a cuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainee being held in place by a lieutenant-colonel. The video clip shows the soldier aiming his weapon at the legs of the Palestinian, Ashraf Abu Rahma, 27, from a distance of about 1.5 metres. A Palestinian girl filmed the incident from her house in the village. B’Tselem collected the footage and immediately forwarded a copy to the Military Police Investigation Unit, demanding that the soldier be brought to justice. B’Tselem also demanded an investigation into the involvement of the officer who was holding the detainee down. Charges were filed against both the soldier and the officer, as a direct result of the irrefutable evidence of the incident.

Cameras in the hands of trained Palestinians have enabled B’Tselem to collect and use footage documenting the range of human rights infringements affecting Palestinians’ daily lives. The evidence of repeated and consistent violations challenges Israeli claims that incidents are isolated, and paints a clear picture of entrenched and systematic rights violations, leading to the current humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Deterrence, accountability and protection

B’Tselem’s 150 cameras have been distributed in both urban and rural areas, in residential areas near checkpoints and military bases and in selected refugee camps. The cameras are transferred periodically to different areas in accordance with the severity of events and conflict. The cameras are a highly effective way of documenting the severe human rights abuses taking place in the Occupied Territories, acting as a catalyst for change among decision-makers and the Israeli public. The production and distribution of firsthand video accounts make a significant contribution to B’Tselem’s efforts to engage policy-makers, the media and members of the general public – creating compelling and irrefutable evidence of the impact of Israel’s policies and practices on Palestinians.

The project has also had far-reaching effects within the Palestinian community. Armed with video cameras and extensive training, participants in the project are no longer victims. The video camera empowers its users to take action in their own defence. In one example, a 15-year-old boy from Ni’ilin, who used to throw rocks and resort to violence in the belief that there was no way to change his miserable situation, now picks up his video camera, becomes a journalist and films away. He explains that ‘people from the outside see what’s going on here’, raising hopes for change and improvement. Palestinians’ perception of the power of the cameras as a source of protection can best be understood through the insistence of one elderly Palestinian man from the southern Hebron hills, who refused to give up his camera even though it was broken: broken or not, he said, the camera constituted his only defence.

The presence of cameras acts as a deterrent to violence in many cases where Jewish settlers and security force personnel realise they are being filmed. Project footage clearly shows that a camera prevents situations from escalating, because settlers and soldiers fear being held accountable. On several tapes, individuals are seen covering their faces or leaving when they see the camera. Palestinian families living adjacent to Jewish settlements do not leave their homes without taking cameras with them: they act as protection for Palestinians, human rights defenders and humanitarian actors alike.

Through the project, B’Tselem has also made progress in promoting greater accountability by forcing the military and police to open investigations into specific incidents. In the West Bank, bureaucratic obstacles can deter victims of abuse by settlers or soldiers from lodging complaints. Over the past year, however, video footage has been increasingly used to force the army and police to open an investigation or to arbitrate equitably where they would have previously dismissed Palestinian claims. Footage of violence by settlers and soldiers has generated widespread public discussion regarding the rule of law.

B’Tselem has also succeeded in airing the project material on major Israeli and international news networks, exposing audiences worldwide to previously unseen footage. While human rights advocates and humanitarian actors have long relied on moral appeals to direct the media’s attention to pressing issues, B’Tselem now serves as a source of objective, high-quality material for television reporters, film-makers and even bloggers.

Finally, the initiative has also served to empower individuals and communities, not least women and young people, who have taken the lead in being trained and using the cameras. Previously isolated families now take part in regular support meetings, and community networks have developed. Beleaguered families now see footage they shot on local and international television channels. As an extension of B’Tselem’s efforts to establish video documentation and advocacy as a permanent tool for the Palestinian community, Palestinians are being taught how to review footage and identify material to use, enabling families to act as independent advocates.

Law enforcement officials the world over are charged to serve and protect, a mission honoured more in the breach than in the observance by Israel’s security forces with regard to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians armed with cameras, trained in their use and in documentation techniques, have stepped in to fill this breach, and are succeeding in calling the attention of law enforcement agencies and the public to rights violations. In this way, through the accumulation of a strong body of physical evidence highlighting the effects of Israel’s policies and practices, the human rights and humanitarian context in the Occupied Territories can begin to change.

Risa Zoll is International Relations Director at B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

 

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