Holding a Mirror: The Hidden Stories from the Occupied Territories

The footage is shocking. Israeli Border Police walk down a village road in the West Bank, casually holding their weapons, clearly not under immediate threat. A young Palestinian couple runs out of their house and down the road, the father holding his baby close to his chest. A border policeman emerges from a parked ambulance and throws a stun grenade at the couple, who keep running.

Filmed by veteran human rights organization Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights on March 2, the footage is another day in life under occupation. As always, there was an immediate controversy in the Israeli media. Palestinians of the village Burin explained that, prior to the footage of the couple running away, they had gathered to defend themselves after settlers from a nearby outpost approached the village. Border Police came and used tear gas, which affected several residents in one home who required medical treatment for smoke inhalation from a Red Crescent ambulance they summoned. The Border Police claimed the villagers were rioting and throwing stones, and that they permitted the Palestinian ambulance to enter but then saw a couple running away. Because the father’s back was to the policeman, he did not see the infant they carried before he threw the grenade.

One thing is for certain. Had there not been a Yesh Din staffer present, no-one in Israel – actually, no-one at all – outside of the incident would ever have known about it.

The same is true of another controversial video, aired last week, about an incident in occupied Hebron in February. A Palestinian from Jericho attacked some soldiers with a long object, this much seems certain. But what happens next is debated: at first, the IDF claimed that the Palestinian tried to steal a gun from a soldier, and later, they claimed that he was holding an iron rod. What is clear is that the man was repeatedly beaten and kicked by soldiers, and it turned out that he had been shot and disabled before the beating commenced. The Palestinian died from the bullet wound.

Released by the human rights group B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Hebron footage also brought the reality of occupation to Israeli TV. Unlike the controversy over Elor Azaria, a soldier filmed by B’Tselem who shot a disarmed and wounded terrorist lying on the ground, in the new footage the soldiers appeared to have been under immediate threat. But the beating and lack of medical attention, as well as the IDF’s changing story, again reminded Israelis that violence and a stark imbalance of power characterize what is now more than 50 years of military occupation.

In other words, being there matters.

“One of the ways in which we at Yesh Din challenge the government policy of occupation is making sure we get the facts right by documenting what is happening there,” said Lior Amihai, Executive Director of Yesh Din. “It so happens that one of our staffers lives in Burin and was able to videotape the incident. But this was not an isolated event; there is an escalation of violence by settlers in general, which is not being dealt with by the Israeli military, who are obliged by law to protect Palestinian residents.”

Even as the Israeli government continues to threaten and delegitimize Israel’s human rights organizations, the New Israel Fund remains committed to support the work of these organization that provide Israelis with an understanding of what their military is doing. It’s a role that civil society groups play in every democratic society.

“One of NIF’s most important focus areas is reminding the Israeli public about the occupation and the tolls it exacts,” said Avigail Kormes, NIF’s grants officer for Democracy and Human Rights. “Without the videos, testimonies, and photographs provided by Yesh DinB’Tselem, and other organizations, it would be next to impossible to prove the actual, violent reality of the occupation to Israel and its supporters around the world.”

“Of course, the government and the settlers will do everything they can to prevent this first-hand evidence from surfacing. It is our job, at the New Israel Fund, to ensure that the organizations that reveal what the government would rather conceal will continue to operate, telling the truth to power.”

Video documentation is particularly salient explains Amit Gilutz, spokesperson of B’Tselem. “In a reality in which anything related to the occupation is denied and criticism silenced, documentation is the best antidote. Videos in particular allow us to demonstrate what daily life is like under Israel’s military regime.”

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March 2018