The objective was very clear: to capture them red-handed

“These things are invisible. You see those things only in some art galleries”. Michael Zupraner, Eyal Danon and Chen Tamir talk about HEB2’s cameras project of B’Tselem.

Mich’ael Zupraner is an Israeli artist. He is one of the founders of the B’Tselem (Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories) Camera Distribution Project. He is best known for initiating an experimental community video project called HEB2 in the Israeli-controlled sector of Hebron, Palestine. Zupraner’s contribution to this edition of Ma’arav are two excerpts from these two projects – one his own and the other the work of Zidan Sharbati, a resident of Hebron.

Michael: I will start with a basic explanation about the video clips. The two clips document the starting point of the camera project, which started out as an independent project initiated by several individuals, including me, together with ‘Issa Amru from Hebron and Oren Yakobowitz who was then the head of B’Tselem’s video department. The project hands out home video cameras to Palestinian civilians in conflict areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – in locations characterized by a particularly high frequency of human rights violations by either troops or Jewish settlers – in order to document these violations as they occur. This may be used both in legal proceedings against the police and the IDF and as material for the media in order to raise a public interest in Israel and abroad. Just as the project began to gain momentum, the first camera provided by B’Tselem to the Abu ‘Aisha family of Hebron was used to shoot the Bitch Clip. In the clip, a Jewish settler, Yifat Alkobi, is seen cursing her Palestinian neighbor (who had the camera) and her family members and trying to force them into what she called the “cage” – the house perimeter protected by a mesh fence. The media hype also led to legal success, since the clip embarrassed the police and forced it to investigate the case and to station officers nearby. This, however, made no significant difference in the daily reality of those living there.

The first clip was shot on Purim[1] eve in March 2007: me and ‘Issa Amru and another guy called Fawaz Abu-‘Aisha went out to distribute cameras. Every Purim, many young Jews arrive in Hebron, get drunk and attack houses and people. There is also a costume parade which is often also accompanied massive attacks on Arab passersby.

The idea was to capture material with media or legal value, and this is the way the project was presented to the Palestinian. I arrived with Oren Yakobowitz, we brought a bunch of cameras collected from friends and met with ‘Issa and his friends. The objective was very clear – to capture them red-handed. You can see that when ‘Issa is talking to Zidan Sharbati, the one who shot the second clip. You can see him in the first clip – he’s the one receiving the camera – and this is the approach more or less: shoot your daily life, and we’ll use it to get the story out. Show us how you live at home, and show us the military and the settlers around so that we could show the world what you’re experiencing every day, that’s usually not filmed or otherwise represented. The project’s basic assumption is that something will change thanks to the cameras, and that is what convinced and still convinces many of the participants to keep filming.

Eyal: This is true for almost every social change project – the promise of change that enables it to keep going. Only seldom does it serve as an indicator for its success, however, because the change is very marginal, but this does not necessarily prevent us from considering the project a success. We provide cameras for people to document human rights violations that could be presented as evidence in court. I don’t know how often the films are used as evidence, but the project cannot be considered unsuccessful on the basis of these statistics.

Michael: It is a successful project in terms of its narrow objectives. Part of what keeps it going is the attempt to produce useful material, and this is what usually gets outside. Naturally, when you capture a human rights violation these are the bits you usually get to see in the media. This assumption that things would change if only people would get to see what’s going on has kept many people in the project. This promise, however, was not always kept, and it is a bit problematic.

Chen: Why do you use the past tense?

Michael: Because these materials are old – it’s been already three-four years now. In this clip, the freshness of exploring the camera itself is keenly felt. And this is something that happens throughout these materials – people film for a projected audience that’s supposed to see what’s going on in their life, because they got the camera from someone and they understand that the tapes are meant both to show someone on the outside and to document private moments. It is a somewhat odd format, a type of deliberate externalization of your private life as something that deserves more attention.

Eyal: Do you see any difference between the way daily life are being documented to tell the story to the outside world and the work of professional film crews?

Michael: I think there’s a difference, first in terms of location. When guests arrive, certainly when they’re strangers, they will almost always be received in the living room that’s dedicated to visitors, particularly men. In Hebron these rooms are almost uniform in terms of their internal design. You can also see it here: photos of family members, the father and mother who passed away, Koran verses. Usually when I arrive, especially for the first time, this is where I sit down among the menfolk, and if you are exposed to women, it is usually only those who serve the tea or coffee. There is something very controlled here, and the same goes for the content of the interviews: the interviewees know perfectly well why they are being interviewed.

Eyal: Do their materials manage to overcome this obstacle?

Michael: I think that in many cases it is the complete opposite. First, in terms of location: when interviewed by the press, the rest of the house is totally off limits, and it doesn’t really interest the media. Here the situation is opposite. First, in this particular case, Zidan or his wife are filming, and they are also filming the kids – who are usually out of bounds for you, and in other sections of the house. Also, you don’t feel that people are essentially speaking with high media awareness. We tried asking people to film a tape more consciously. They made us a tape which explains about the house. But this was still their own choice, and what they see is usually very different than what they would say to the press.

Chen: Actually they’re also filming for their own sake.

Michael: These tapes are a mixture of stuff. Sometimes a certain bit will be taped out of clear awareness of its future exposure. Here for example Zidan is filming his kids going to school, so he makes an effort to capture certain stops on their way. On the other hand, we have this bit in the bedroom where they are experimenting with the camera, and in this case you feel less awareness of exposure.

Eyal: Is there any difference between what he shot at first and one year later?

Michael: Yes – there is less personal material. This has a lot to do with the individual cameraman. In his case, I think that he tended to film the family less and the settlers more. Perhaps it also had to do with the feedback he received or the atmosphere on certain times.

When you review the archive you see that people often shoot stuff that looks important to them. And a lot of what they find important is political. For example, when someone is detained in the security station near the Beit Hadassah settlement across the road, or when settlers are doing something in the street in the middle of the night. He will also film private events, such as school ceremonies. Usually when the press talks to them they’re not so interested in their private life, but in their neighbors’ life: “Tell us what the Jews are doing to you”. So the focus is almost never on how you live, but a lot more on how they live, what they are doing.

Eyal: So it’s all about closing gaps?

Michael: Yes, and this was also a source of conflicts throughout the project. We tried explaining to Zidan that we are not necessarily looking for the political aspect, because it pervades the films constantly: “Try to paint a picture of how you live”, out of the assumption that the main thing here is what’s private and daily, and in this case also what’s confined to the home.

Eyal: I think this is also part of the idea of showing precisely these two clips, because what we are used to view in the B’Tselem project is always the conflicts, the veiled settlers. This project has been going on for so long and it is famous – very recently, last Friday, there was a big story about it on Channel 2 news. But these things are invisible – they have no visibility beyond the framework enabled by the project. You see those things only in some art galleries.

Michael: Sad but true – the public interest has always been focused on the political aspect in Hebron. Even when you show this stuff, this is always the focus. The difficulty is showing that their life is naturally complex, as life is everywhere, and that Hebron is not only a political hotbed referred to in identical terms both in the Israeli and in the international discourse.

Eyal: Clearly, the project cannot dissociate itself from the political discourse about Hebron. The question is whether it manages to facilitate alternative perspectives, other channels for discussion. It is very meaningful that in fact the only place this type of materials is presented are art galleries – in other words, only the artistic field allows for their presentation. Even within the artistic field I’m not too sure the representation is entirely different – eventually it reproduces itself. And as for the legal field where it is supposed to function differently, how many such cases have reached the courts and used as evidence?

Michael: Used as evidence – certainly. What finally came out of that? Almost nothing. There was this time when the Ni’lin incident was shot with a private camera. A girl filmed a Palestinian demonstrator getting shot in the foot [with a rubber-coated bullet] by an Israeli soldier [ordered to do so by his commanding officer] and this reached the courts eventually. [The officer was convicted to a two-year delay in promotion]. This was not the worst case, mind you, since they didn’t shoot to kill but only to frighten the detainee.

Eyal: It is strange that it is the relatively minor incident like the “bitch” thing…

Michael: What attracted me to the project in the first place what that a lot of stuff was going on and documented in Hebron that was far worst, but usually from the external point of view of a reporter filming both sides. This was one of the first times in which the Israeli audience got to see the Palestinian point of view, and when Yifat Alkobi is cursing in front of the camera and you find yourself suddenly trapped within the Palestinian perspective, taking the insults – I believe this was the power of the material, beyond what she may have been saying. It also has to do with your ability as an Israeli observer to understand the mockery of her “Arabic” accent and all that’s behind it, and the look that is pointed almost directly at us.

Personally, I often feel that when footage gets out to the media I cannot watch it anymore. In certain locations, the materials are the same all the time and when you want to get them out the resulting situation is somewhat pornographic in the sense that after Yifat Alkobi was seen by everyone you have to get the media something more violent, because the media has already lost any interest in rocks being thrown by settlers. But when a shooting in incident was filmed in Hebron it got to the media, and the threshold of shock keeps rising and the media will broadcast shocking materials regardless of whether they tarnish the IDF’s or the country’s image. It’s a free-for-all.

Chen: Susan Sontag discusses the way we become desensitized by such images. I really believe these images have power. Because if you think about the Vietnam war, for instance, it lost public support simply because the American viewers saw all that’s disgusting in war in real time. Forty years have gone by since and we are viewing footage that’s a lot more shocking and do nothing about it because we have become utterly desensitized. Therefore, what interests me in the project is how to produce an audience for it. The art gallery audience is a caged audience. First of all, it represents a tiny minority and the installation does not enable them to switch the channel in any case. So the question is: who’s your audience?

Michael: The question is what you get from watching. Are the materials supposed shock us and then make us want to put an end to the occupation? If the objective is to have as many Israelis follow that chain of thought to arrive at the conclusion, then obviously an exhibition will have a negligible effect. But I doubt whether it works that way. Most documentary cinema is about social and political issues – having the world’s downtrodden march on the screen so that now we will become outraged and get up from the armchair and go change something.

Chen: I think it is successful in this respect. When I watched it, it affected me and through the years I’m following this project, this chain-of-thought thing worked for me. But the failure lies perhaps in the fact that I honestly don’t know what to do afterwards: What can I do now, as an individual or even as one hundred thousand people who watch it on TV?

Michael: What you’re saying is that this has nothing to do with the medium, but with our helplessness as civilians?

Chen: Perhaps not helplessness, but still it is very difficult to do anything following this.

Michael: Even if such things helped me realize what’s going on, I still find myself stumbling on all the obstacles which prevent me from changing things that run counter to my values also in other contexts.

Chen: Suppose a person like me watches those images and feels outraged. In the end, what does he or she do? Donate money to B’Tselem?

Michael: The average person would settle for a lot less, and settle for saying: “This is terrible! What are we doing there anyway?”

Eyal: The question is whether it’s fair to evaluate the project with these criteria.

Chen: This is why I keep saying it can’t.

Michael: Suppose the project has achieved its most far-reaching objective – awareness of what is going on right now a few dozen miles from here. But what I find somewhat problematic, and this is directly relevant to the clip where we see the camera being handed out, is that there’s a certain implicit promise to the Palestinian cameraman that something would be done. His part of the project is his self-exposure, letting Israelis know things about him he would not necessarily share with his neighbors. I ask his permission to access his private space, perhaps the last area under his control. He has no privacy: the troops enter whenever they want, everything in his life is supervised, and Hebron is an extreme case even compared to the rest of the Occupied Territories. In other words, as a member of a traditional society only his home remains as the last territory under his control, and then you feel he’s giving up some of that control. In return for what? For having people watch, and then what?

Chen: On the contrary, I believe letting people who do not have much control over their lives control the way they represent themselves, rather than having somebody else film them – I believe this is a huge part of the project.

Michael: I think it’s both at the same time. On the one hand, he gains control over his own representation, but on the other hand he’s also exposed. Does he control what we see or do we ultimately retain control? To what extent does he control his self-representation? This reminds me of reality shows where you always ask yourself whether the characters choose to represent themselves as they like to, or whether this is ultimately a peepshow with all their defenses down. This is what I keep asking myself regarding these materials and what is done with them, with the things most viewers have never seen before.

Eyal: Ultimately I find the question of exposure less important. What it really does to people is perhaps more significant. I believe it is important to ask whether the fact people are given a camera in a situation they have absolutely no control over – whether it is facing the soldiers or the settlers – it gives them a tool that would enable you to see it too, a tool that can act as a deterrent under certain circumstances. Is the fact that they are somewhat empowered by that not enough to justify the whole endeavor? Perhaps this is the significant change – the fact that they can hold this thing, the knowledge that they’re not helpless.

Chen: The camera actually enrages and frightens the settlers – that’s power for you.

Eyal: What drives them completely nuts is of course the fact that it’s the Palestinians holding it.

Chen: This is why I believe there is an element of empowerment here.

Michael: I agree. I think this is something that’s thrown around a lot – the camera as a weapon in the context of this project. I believe it is not only a weapon in the sense that it then produces results, but also just like a loaded gun you can threaten with. And it also really empowers the Palestinian standing behind it and aiming it.

Eyal: This is true of every project we undertake. You have to set very modest targets. Reality is so huge that even if we hand out ten thousand cameras it will not make a real difference. Therefore, our criteria must be much more modest. I think we can settle for the fact that documentation is being carried out, even at the level of archiving life under occupation, an archive that could perhaps be used in the future when this whole thing will have to stand trial – this is also important. Once you set your sights at this level, you can become less skeptical about the whole thing.

Michael: This skepticism is also a result of the fact that throughout the project I have been collaborating with a human rights organization, with its discourse of targets and objectives, so that you find yourself making promises all the time. This tends to produce an attitude that cannot contain any doubt, failure or negative consequence, or the conflicts emerging within the project, such as conflicts over copyrights or at least who will receive the honor. Many people in the project started feeling bitter about being represented by somebody else. And there were also struggles by people who wanted to show their own footage. When foreign visitors would arrive, for example, they would screen their most intense and shocking things that happened to their neighbor while talking about themselves in an attempt to attract some of that victim’s glory – to put it to practical use. Almost everyone visiting Hebron does so for these purposes. All day long you see a train of human rights organizations coming in and out without anything really changing. These people enter their living room and talk to them and commiserate and leave. And the local inhabitants try to turn all that attention into something that could really help them in their daily life. Because apart for their political difficulties they have tremendous economic problems, some of which are a result of the political reality. All sorts of conflicts have arisen the more attention the project got – their desire to really benefit from it. If we take Zidan and the Abu ‘Aisha family as examples, your material can be broadcast in every corner of the globe and you’re still living in a cage. And the next day settlers will come and throw rocks at you and there’ll be nobody there to prevent it.

Chen: To return to the idea of the camera as a weapon, you can’t measure something that didn’t happen, such as deterrence.

Michael: I’m sure it made a difference, because at least when we started out in 2007 there was such little control over what’s happening on the ground – there was no deterrent. There was no enforcement, because soldiers don’t report and policemen don’t bother either. Before the project started out the street was very violent, and there were many more incidents. As soon as the camera showed up, the settlers became aware and even paranoid, thinking there was a camera everywhere, that everything was being documented. Many Jewish teenagers I spoke to, for example, were certain I was recording them. The idea that they were being documented everywhere certainly reduced the level of violence. Once soldiers and settlers realized that what a Palestinian kid was filming could find its way to the evening news, rather than just a leftwing or “anti-Semitic” organization overseas, so that the Israeli public would watch it – moreover, once they realized what the Israeli public thought about such things – this significantly reduced the number of incidents, their brutality. By the way, the settlers are also filming everything now.

Chen: There was this funny bit, the olive bit, when the French settler told her, “Leave the country, you don’t belong here…”, and she answered, “I was born here”, and then he took out his phone and began filming her back.

Michael: This happens all the time. I was also constantly filmed by soldiers.

Eyal: Perhaps this has to do with a more general issue – our region being a magnet of attention. The piece industry is being showered with funds, but I’m not sure this preoccupation is conducive to peace. On the contrary, it may be the very thing that keeps this going. Perhaps if Hebron is the main focus and it keeps producing media interest, we are actually adding to this overflow of images, and now the settlers are doing it to, so that we keep accumulating an endless collection of images and we are only reproducing the situation. Perhaps there was a moment when the Palestinians had a certain advantage with the cameras and it was unsettling for the settlers, but now they are doing it too. We saw this in the clip of the Purim parade, when the herald warned them that they were being filmed by policemen, and then you shoot the police officer shooting the demonstration – everybody’s shooting everybody. This makes for a zero-sum game.

Chen: This is what Renzo Martens claims in his movies [Episode 1 and Episode 3], that there’s an entire industry in which we produce the imagery so that people can consume it so that they think they know what’s going on in the world.

Michael: This is a somewhat cynical point of view, referring to documentation not as something that’s meant to solve anything or raise awareness but as something we expect to consume in order to reinforce what we already think about those places. To show the settlers once more as we always expect to see them, and the Palestinians as well, only a little bit fresher each time, with higher and higher tones.

This is compounded by the ongoing peace industry and the fact that we, and certainly the Palestinians, make a living thanks to the continuing conflict, and the fact that perhaps no one in the world would have taken any interest either in us or in them had it not been for the conflict, if we hadn’t been perceived as an extension of the west, as representatives of the clash of civilizations, as the west’s last stronghold.

Chen: This is perhaps what made the entire region so photogenic.

Michael: Hebron is simply a stage. All the elements are crammed into an area of a few square miles – you have the troops and the settlers and the Arabs and the barriers… it’s like the prop warehouse. Five minutes in there and you see everything, from the patriarchs to…

Eyal: Yifat Alkobi…

Michael: Indeed. You go through the whole history. Like an open-air museum. This is part of what constantly attracts people to Hebron.

Eyal: We still have to discuss those specific clips… Because the camera is very present – even if you don’t see it it’s clear that this is the focus… They say “press here”, and then you see the image zooming in and out. There’s the aspect of getting to know the gadget. You sense that this is the first time. It’s beautiful the way the tape ends when they are zooming on the settlers and the soldier outside, showing that they understand what can be done with the new gadget. We already discussed the fact that there’s always something going on that you have to be prepared for, and this can also be seen there [in the clip]. You feel that what you see now is not the issue, it only crosses the lens by chance – they are preparing for something.

Michael: That something doesn’t necessarily occur in the end, it’s part of the atmosphere in Hebron. Always foreshadowing, the calm before the storm. For example, in another clip one of the Palestinian cameramen took the camera on a trip to the Dead Sea, and it is recorded on the tape, and then part of this recording is erased because an incident has been taped over it, with settlers throwing rocks on their home.

Chen: In a way this is the very essence of photography. There is this concept of mortification – the minute you take the photograph it’s a little moment of death. It is a moment that went by and you are already picturing how you’ll seem in the future when someone will look at this picture – this is true for still photography. And you can liken the video camera to the resurrection – enabling you to watch people who’ve already died or could die real soon, especially in Hebron where everything is so fatal.

Michael: The people there also say this all the time, talking about films as mementos. For example, two things happened after little Ahmad died in a car accident. They went to a wedding and stood by the road and a car driven by a Palestinian hit the kid and killed him on the spot. Immediately following the accident Zidan came to me and asked me to come over to copy something important. He wanted me to come immediately and prepare a CD of the conference of the heads of the two families from Hebron and Nablus, where the driver came from. They convened in Hebron and agreed on the damages to be paid by the Nablus family to the Sharbatis – more than 100,000 NIS – to settle the matter and prevent a vendetta. He wanted me to make a copy of his video and send it to his family in Jordan so that nobody there would try to avenge the boy’s death.

Then he asked me if we had photos of the boy that can be extracted [from the video clip] because his school did not have a good enough picture. Now they have a blown-up photo of the boy on the wall [but not the one we gave them]. These are their cultural codes and this is how they prefer to make the dead present. This is also the basic reason why people document their lives on camera, not only in Hebron.

[1] The Jewish equivalent of Halloween.