BESSANONE, ITALY—Some of the videos that commanded the most attention at EsoDoc—an annual workshop for European social documentaries held at a medieval monastery in Bessanone, Italy recently—were produced by B’tsalem, a leading Israeli human rights organization. The footage shows among other things Israeli soldiers handcuffing a Palestinian suspect and then shooting him in the chest from a few feet away with a rubber bullet. Another video shows a gang of masked Israeli settlers using baseball bats to beat a Palestinian farmer unconscious. A third shows a settler pointing a loaded revolver at another Palestinian farmer before shooting him at point blank range. The videos, which were collected over the last two years, are part of B’tsalem ‘s Camera Distribution Project which by now has distributed around 160 inexpensive video cameras to Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza. About 25 cameras have been handed out in Gaza. The remaining 135 are mostly concentrated around Ramallah, Hebron and potential trouble spots along Israel’s wall. Besides the evidence the videos provide about abuse against Palestinians, the camera output is turning into an impressive demonstration of what video can accomplish on the internet.
B’tselem means “In the image…” in Hebrew. The phrase most often refers to the lines in the Torah and the Bible which state that God made man in his own image. The Israeli NGO was created in 1989 at the height of the first Intifada to provide information about abuse directed against Palestinians in the West Bank. A group of prominent Israeli intellectuals assumed that once the abuse became known publicly there would be pressure to stop it. Reality proved to be more complicated. The accelerating violence on both sides in the conflict pushed traditional concerns over human rights to the sidelines. B’tselem, which had focused on producing its reports in Hebrew and sending them to various committees in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, began publishing copies in English in the hopes that international pressure, especially from the Jewish community in the US, would eventually force the government to take notice. That approach also proved ineffective and finally, around 2005, B’t salem turned to video, essentially providing a filmed documentary version of its written reports. The video helped but didn’t go far enough. “We felt frustrated,”Yoav Gross, B’tselem’s video coordinator told me after one of the workshop sessions. “We were investing a lot of effort in producing a short film that you would put up on a website and get a few thousand visitors, and that was it. It didn’t get you on prime time. We were being frustrated by the medium.” Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that more often than not when B’t selem dispatched a camera crew nothing happened or the incident was already over. The camera crews were reduced to interviewing Palestinians after the event. “We couldn’t see the real time event as it was happening,” says Yoav Gross. “We felt that it was that piece that was missing.”
The solution turned up almost accidentally. B’tselem had been receiving complaints from a Palestinian family living on Shuhada Street, the main market thoroughfare in the old part of Hebron. The family’s house was surrounded by houses of settlers who were determined to drive the them out. Whenever anyone in the family stepped on to the street, the settlers would begin screaming insults and throwing stones. But as soon as B’tselem dispatched a video team, they would stop. Finally, B’tselem decided to give the family an inexpensive video camera. After a few days, the family’s 14-year old daughter emerged as an amateur videographer.
The camera began to produce paydirt when the young son of one of the settlers started throwing stones at the girl and screaming with uncontrollable rage. The footage shows an Israeli soldier standing idly by while the drama unfolds. The boy’s father finally grabs his son, hoists him on his shoulders and walks away. Moments later a woman appears and begins to scream that the Palestinian family has no right to be there and must leave. When the Palestinian mother asserts that she has every right to walk on the street, the female settler calls her a whore and then begins to hurl even more extreme insults at her.
The Palestinian family turned the video over to B’tselem unaware that there was anything unusual about it. To them it was a perfectly ordinary occurrence,” says Yoav Gross. B’tselem offered the tape to Israel’s news channels, but was turned down because the quality seemed too poor for broadcast. As an alternative, B’tselem posted the video on Ynet, an Israeli internet news website. The reaction was so enormous that within a few hours Israel’s three news channels had reversed themselves and decided to air the tape. Israel’s prime time comedy show “What a Lovely Country” (Eretz Neherderet), the equivalent of Saturday Night Live, based a sketch on the screaming woman in the video, who became an overnight celebrity—albeit an infamous one. “There was no real violence,” says Yoav Gross, “It was the cursing that got to everyone.” A parliamentary committee was formed at Israel’s Knesset to investigate the incident.The then prime minister Ehud Olmert was forced to give an apology and to stress that this was not the way Israelis were expected to act.
“We realized that we were on to something,” says Gross. Today, B’tselem’s camera project produces a breaking news scoop on the average once every two or three weeks. The visual evidence it provides for Palestinians who rely on Israel’s justice system is even more important. A visual record is much harder to discount than the declaration of an excitable.
Yoav Gross, who coordinates the project, studied cinema at Tel Aviv University before serving a tour in the Israeli army. Gross considers himself a film maker above anything else, but he also feels strongly about focusing on social issues that are rooted in Israel. “When you look at Israeli society, “ he says, “the central issue is the settlements. For me it was natural to make a film about that.”