Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
September 9, 2008 - 8:00pm

"It's very easy for the Israeli public to believe that Palestinians are lying when it's just their word against the word of a soldier or settler", explained B'Tselem's spokesperson, Sarit Michaeli. The Israeli human rights group has brought several high-profile cases to the public's attention this summer, providing vital video evidence of the scale of the violence meted out by settlers and soldiers alike. In the process the footage has seriously dented efforts to smear Palestinians complaining of assault. According to Michaeli, "[The video evidence] makes it much easier for us to demonstrate the reality on the ground, and to show Israelis what is being done in their names in the occupied territories."

B'Tselem's Shooting back campaign has also compelled the security forces in the West Bank to carry out more thorough investigations. Michaeli adds:

It forces the police to do their duty: to investigate and bring to justice suspected attackers. However, a systemic change is still needed in the way the law is enforced in the occupied territories; at present the army are doing very well in terms of protecting settlers, but they are failing in their duty to protect Palestinians from attack.

The status quo is hardly surprising, given the crystal clear evidence of collusion between the settlers and the army, and the recent admission by senior West Bank police officers that they prefer to "turn a blind eye" to settler violence, rather than risk confrontations with fellow Israelis. On top of this, said Michaeli, there is the constant threat of retaliation against those wielding cameras on the Palestinian side.

"The Amira family [whose daughter filmed the harrowing scenes of a soldier shooting a blindfolded Palestinian man at point-blank range] suffered reprisals, partly as a result of the embarrassment caused to the Israeli security forces", Michaeli noted. Salam Amira's father was recently arrested in the village of Nil'in by soldiers who reportedly boasted "We caught Salam's dad": when he asked his captors for water, their response, allegedly, was "Eat your camera". Michaeli also pointed to cases of settlers attacking Palestinians holding cameras, and of soldiers confiscating and destroying tapes.

On a visit last week to the village of T'uba, lunch with our Palestinian hosts was disrupted by reports of a confrontation between one of the sons of the family and a jeepful of IDF soldiers.

We hurried out into the roasting midday sun, squinting through the haze at the stand-off on the next hilltop. The soldiers were, apparently, unhappy that the boy was grazing his sheep in that particular spot, and the rest of the family watched anxiously to see what kind of punishment would be meted out. One of his brothers suddenly leaned down, rummaged around in a box, and ? as though he were drawing a pistol from its holster ? whipped out a video camera and aimed it in the direction of the troops.

His weapon had been supplied by B'Tselem, and is this season's must-have accessory in the West Bank; the latest technology available to the Palestinians in their continuing fight for their human rights under the oppressive regime of Israeli occupation. However, while there is no doubt that the project has greatly empowered those taking part, there is also the worry that if it fails to bring about any serious change in the way they are treated, Palestinian participants will lose heart pretty quickly.

The most obvious comparison to Shooting back is the infamous Rodney King video, which sent shockwaves through America, and proved conclusively that the black community's complaints of police racism and harassment were by no means a figment of their imagination.

However, when an LA jury still found the footage insufficient evidence with which to convict the policemen involved, the upshot was some of the fiercest race riots seen in the US for decades. If a similar backlash is not to occur in the occupied territories, the army has to be seen to investigate properly every cast-iron case presented to them by way of B'Tselem's recordings.

If a picture tells a thousand words, then a video tells 10 times that, when used to undeniably back up accusations of crimes carried out by settlers and soldiers, who would otherwise see themselves as above the law. I've witnessed the superiority complex of settlers on numerous occasions, even recording my own video of a settler teen threatening to kill me on one particularly charged trip to Hebron. Thus B'Tselem's aim of restoring the rule of law in the wild West Bank is a noble aspiration, but not one that will be by any means easily achieved.

However, despite the uphill struggle. B'Tselem have every reason to persist in their task. The reaction of the international media to both the Nil'in and Susya tapes was huge, and a massive shot in the arm to those behind its release.

The more pressure that can be put on the Israeli authorities to hold its own troops and settlers accountable for their crimes, from both inside and outside Israel, the better for all the victims of the violence. The world is watching, and thanks to B'Tselem's efforts to bring the truth to their television screens, thousands more pairs of eyes are scrutinising the situation with every new tape released.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017