Palestine and the video revolution
THE AFTERMATH of the Israel-Hamas war of May 2021 left many questions unanswered, but one decisive assessment: the images of war shot by the Palestinians were unprecedented.
The sense of a media shift was nearly universal, from the Twitter feeds of anti-occupation activists to the pages of right-wing Israeli newspapers. Some experts have pointed to the new speed of eyewitness images, which are now circulating at unprecedented speeds. Others pointed to videographic volume, including footage shot by Gazans in the midst of their aerial bombardment by Israel and footage of an emerging Palestinian protest movement that stretched from East Jerusalem to Haifa, connecting a set of communities and geographies that the Israeli state had long strived to do. maintain political separation.
Previous Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip had not been documented in this way. During the aerial bombardments of 2008-2009 and 2012, most Palestinians in Gaza lacked widespread access to mobile digital technologies and reliable internet connectivity, a condition rooted in extreme economic deprivation and Israeli restrictions on internet. electricity and broadband. Coupled with the Israeli state’s blockade of journalists entering the Gaza Strip and a growing military presence on social media, Israel has effectively maintained control of the visual message in times of war.
This was not the case in 2021. By now, smartphone testimony had become a regularized part of Palestinian political practice in the occupied territories. And for many Israelis, the resulting sense of political crisis was acute. Even as Israeli bombs fell on Gaza, Israeli TV commentators and military analysts warned live audiences of the torrent of “bad images” from Gaza, taken on the smartphones of Gazans under fire. Despite a growing army of pro-Israel influencers on social media, the military has failed to produce a counter “victory photo” that could mitigate the damaging images produced by their enemies. “[I]n the battle of the photos of pathos”, writes Moshe Klughaft in the Jerusalem Post, “we have no chance.” Israeli military spokesmen presented the images of Gaza’s devastated infrastructure and injured children as a public relations issue. They argued that Israel stood to lose both this media battle and the wider global fight for hearts and minds.
Anti-occupation activists in Palestine viewed the May 2021 media ecosystem as a source of considerable political optimism. Footage shot in Gaza and East Jerusalem appeared on TVs and mobile screens of viewers around the world. Many activists hoped that this growing Palestinian-produced archive, with its unprecedented size and speed, would create a body of evidence about the violence of the Israeli occupation that the global public could no longer ignore.
The video revolution in Palestine has its roots in the early days of the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1993). On February 26, 1988, a few months after its outbreak, a CBS television news cameraman filmed a group of Israeli soldiers assaulting two bound and blindfolded young Palestinians on a hill in Nablus. The timing was telling. Several months earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had ordered troops to quell the intifada with “force, force and beatings”. Indeed, his instructions were quite specific: “Break their bones,” he said. Military attacks on Palestinian protesters followed.
Personal video cameras were rare in those years. The production of images of the occupied territories is centralized in the hands of professional photojournalists and correspondents. Official military orders stated that the occupied territories were “open to the media, and members of the press [were] not be restricted from moving or operating freely […] in any case [was] violence to be used against media personnel. In practice, journalists were frequently blocked by the Israeli army, and often violently.
International media coverage of the Intifada has been extensive. However, only this blurry video from Nablus would go viral globally. It showed several young Palestinians – including cousins Wa’al and Usama Joudeh, sitting with their arms tied behind their backs as four soldiers kicked and rocked them. ‘Soldiers don’t appear to be in danger,’ Israeli journalist says would write later“they also don’t seem perturbed by the events. They are totally focused on administering the beatings.
The entire footage – approximately 30 minutes long – was never shown on Israeli television. Only part of it would be broadcast following the orders of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The political damage to the military was deemed too great. The video quickly circulated in international media, and a massive outcry ensued, as scholars later documented: “The incident sparked a storm of protests and Israeli embassies in Washington, London, Paris and Amsterdam have been inundated with angry calls. In some countries, the incident sparked anti-Israel protests. In Nicosia, Cyprus, a mob attacked the Israeli Embassy, barely subdued by the police. Elie Wiesel wrote: “I have never seen such intense hatred against Israel in the world.
On the pages of mainstream newspapers and on the floor of Israel’s parliament, these hazy frameworks have generated heated debate about the best “methods to act successfully against Arab rioters.” Some parliamentarians have proposed banning journalists from the occupied territories to avoid future viral scandals. The military responded by tightening press access. The four soldiers involved received short custodial sentences and eventually returned to their units. The Israeli parliament has refused to investigate Rabin’s role.
In the collective memory of the Israeli left, media representation of the first Intifada has been marked as a political turning point. Many have credited the photographs and video as catalysts for an Israeli political awakening. “Seeing the Israeli soldier point his gun at violent but unarmed Palestinian youths on TV that night was such a turning point,” wrote Yaron Ezrahi. Einat Wilf, Member of the Israeli Parliament, Agreed“The Palestinians were brandishing slingshots and the Israelis were in tanks. This upset the Israeli founding myth.
During those years, many on the Israeli left would invest in this dream of political change through media exposure, the hope that a more substantial flow of images and information from the occupied territories might alter national consciousness of their military occupation. The era of these political dreams was notoriously short-lived, collapsing in 2000 with the end of the Oslo process.
A variant of these political dreams would reappear in the second decade of the 21st century, attached to the new digital landscape. As mobile technologies proliferated across the world, many activists in Palestine and Israel, and around the world, pinned their political hopes on the ostensible promise of digital photography: the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement, the revolution Syrian, Black Lives Matter. Many of these social movements would be represented in the media by photographs of crowds waving their cellphone cameras. The image of digital camera phones held skyward would cement itself as an icon of justice, a highly recognizable symbol of popular protest.
Many would be disappointed, as when live broadcasts from Syria failed to stem bloody state repression, or when bystander footage of shootings by US police failed to result in convictions. The global rise and spread of surveillance states in these decades, alongside data governance, would further erode the investments of a previous generation of activists and scholars in “liberation technology” and “ digital democracy.
For anti-occupation activists around the world, the May 2021 Israel-Hamas war revived some of those investments — at least initially. During the war and its immediate aftermath, Palestinians have entered mainstream Western media in an unprecedented fashion, as Sheikh Jarrah activist Mohammed el-Kurd recently noted in The nation:
Newspapers published articles on Israeli war crimes […] and plastered pictures of murdered Palestinian children to their front pages. TV channels showed the Israeli army dropping bombs that reduced residential and media towers to rubble. Social media exploded with images of Palestinians – dead and alive – being pulled from under the wreckage. And, to some extent, Palestinian voices have led the global conversation.
But, al-Kurd continued, “once the bombardment seemed to stop, the film crews gathered their equipment and moved on to another story.”
This brief history of the video revolution in Palestine is a sober reminder that the political investments attached to media exposure tend to falter when the cameras move and the images fade. Let’s keep our eyes on Palestine, even after the viral images of Israeli state violence have faded.
Portions of this essay are taken from Screenshots: State Violence Filmed in Israel and Palestine by Rebecca L. Stein, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by the Leland Stanford Junior University Board of Trustees. All rights reserved.
Rebecca L. Stein is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.