American anthropologist Rebecca L. Stein: This is how the Israeli military occupation has changed in the age of smartphones

September 14, 2021

The recent events of the Israeli aggression on Gaza and Jerusalem are an important occasion that shows the importance of the image and the extent of its impact on the arena of political disputes. The policy of violence practiced by the Israeli side against the Palestinians has always been surrounded by the "image", as a means of showing the severity of the aggression against the Palestinian people, which Israel tried to combat. Always.

The importance of the recent events shows the importance of the “image”, as the international community began to change its opinion about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip due to the “image”, which explains the Israeli army’s targeting of the “Al-Jalaa Tower”, which includes the headquarters of Al-Jazeera and several media outlets in Gaza. Which also explains Israel's persecution of journalists and camera holders, and the arrest of Al-Jazeera correspondent Guevara Al-Budairi is a vivid example of this policy that recognizes the importance of the image, which contributed to changing the position of an important segment of the international community in favor of the Palestinian cause.

In an attempt to understand the effect of the image, Al interviewed anthropologist Rebecca L. Stein, an associate professor at Duke University who studies cultural anthropology.

Stein specializes in studying the Palestinian issue, and has presented important studies on it, such as the book "Paths in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians and the Political Lives of Tourism" issued by Duke University in 2008, and the book "Digital Militarization: The Israeli Occupation in the Age of Communications". Digital Militarism: Israel's Occupation in the Social Media Age issued by Stanford University in 2015, and finally "Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine" issued by Stanford University Stanford this year, 2021.

The book "Screenshots: State Violence in Front of the Camera in Israel and Palestine", published by Stanford University Press 2021. (Al-Jazeera)

The last book is an important study that shows Israel’s aggressive policies and its interaction with the image as a tool for “resistance.” The dialogue attempts to question the contents of the book in the light of the recent events in Palestine, including attacks and the presence of systematic policies to manage and direct the image, in order to make the story of the Israeli side float and spread at the expense of facts. And the attacks on various segments of society, whether in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, then to the dialogue:

You said that the "screenshots" give us a social biography of state violence in front of the camera, examined from the point of view of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Has this violence changed during the last two decades of the twenty-first century?

Screenshots investigates the following question: How has the Israeli military occupation changed in the age of smartphones?

Today, photography is a given. During the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza and Jerusalem, we expected that there would be many Palestinian activists on the site to photograph and broadcast violence in real time and directly, but it happened in a very recent way.

The study of Screenshots is particularly interested in the early years of the spread of digital cameras in Palestine and Israel, when all political actors, whether Israeli soldiers or Palestinian activists, were learning how to use cameras as political tools. In these early years, many images of Israeli state violence never circulated, due to the absence of cameras that did not exist, or Palestinian activists and human rights workers lacking the means to quickly convey their scenes to the general public.

In many cases, both Palestinian photographers and activists with cameras from the Israeli police or soldiers are targeted, as exemplified by repeated arrests and detentions, as well as broken cameras and confiscation of footage, which is chronicled in the movie “Five Broken.” Cameras). The relatively rare images of Israeli state violence in those days and in the "first intifada" were an example of this, and herein lies the importance of the digital present.

Screenshots began at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the midst of the second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005) and the early years of digital photography. It concludes in the era in which smartphones and social media became widespread in Palestine and Israel, how has the use of image policies changed since the beginning of this century until now?

Let me provide an example from the book "Screenshots" that explains the Israeli military response program to camera activity between Palestinians and international activists. The military has always viewed these cameras as serious threats to it, and Israel was particularly afraid that videos of the brutality of their attacks would spread widely, as they could have the ability to influence international public opinion.

The Israelis harshly criticized the Israeli army, considering that it "lost the media war" from their point of view, due to the Israeli army's failure to prevent the spread of videos and images that embody the violence of the Israeli state.

Which was embodied in the Israeli attack on the “Freedom Flotilla” among the important examples of this, and at that time the Israelis harshly criticized the Israeli army, considering that it “lost the media war,” according to their point of view, due to the Israeli army’s failure to prevent the spread of videos and photos that embody state violence. For years, the Israeli army has been trying to improve its media strategy.

Military strategists believed that the problem lay mainly in the "bad pictures" distributed by their enemies. Instead of talking about Israeli state violence, they focused on the problem of the camera threat.

This fear also appeared during the recent Israeli military attacks on Gaza and Jerusalem, as those interacting with the Israeli media repeatedly commented on the need to build a "portrait of victory", i.e. an image that convinces the international community that the Israeli attacks are justified, which they did not obtain due to the absence of the "image". The absence of this image is a source of grave concern to Israel.

Over the past two decades, the Israeli military has recognized the power of bystander cameras as anti-colonial tools; Therefore, they fear this force.

Over the past two decades, the Israeli military has recognized the power of bystander cameras as anti-colonial tools; Therefore, they fear this force.

You said that the work of Israeli photographers was often under threat of Israeli military and settler violence. Did this contribute to concealing the aggression against the Palestinians, or did reality show the opposite?

Throughout the long history of the Israeli occupation, Palestinian journalists have been subjected to threats by the Israeli forces. We have seen this clearly during the recent Israeli bombing of an important media center (Al-Jalaa Tower) in the Gaza Strip. These threats are a daily struggle experienced by the Palestinian press, and camera holders who witness repeated arrests and attacks by Israeli forces are no exception. In the past decade, Israeli-Jewish photojournalists have also been threatened, particularly when depicting violence by soldiers or settlers.

But the violence they face pales in comparison to the violence faced by Palestinian journalists. Palestinian press freedom is regularly attacked, as the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza have clearly demonstrated.

How did the "screen shots" contribute to developing the work of non-governmental human rights organizations concerned with defending the Palestinian cause, and was it effective in limiting the Israeli aggression?

Human rights NGOs in the Occupied Territories were among the first to use cameras as political tools. An example of this was the Israeli NGO B'Tselem, which was a pioneer in this regard, as they were among the first to distribute video cameras to Palestinians living Under the occupation, to be able to document the violations they are exposed to at the hands of the occupation forces.

The scenes they filmed were influential in both Israeli and international media, but they often failed to turn into evidence in Israeli courts; Even when scenes of abuse by occupation soldiers are present in abundance and presented as evidence in the courtroom, they often do not succeed in prosecuting Israeli soldiers for their crimes against Palestinians.

This is an important component of my story, namely, the failure of captured Israeli state violence scenes to generate new legal consequences, and we have seen the same scene  in courtrooms across the United States after police killings of African Americans, in Palestine as in the United States, Often "bystander cameras" fail to do justice. 

It can be seen that your recent book Screenshots is an anthropological extension of your important book Digital Militarism. Can you explain to the Arab reader how this is manifested?

Digital Militarism, which I wrote with Adi Kuntsman, focuses on the ways in which Israeli Jews have used social media to support the colonial project in Palestine. We started the book in 2011, during the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. In the aftermath, Many activists around the world have put hope in the power of social media as a pivotal tool.

Through the book, we tried to remind readers of the dark side of "social media", as we said that in the Israeli case, the exact opposite is true, as social media was an important tool for strengthening the military occupation. In this regard, we coined the term "selfie militarism", in which we wanted to describe the ways in which Israeli soldiers and civilians use selfies to celebrate Israel's occupation of Palestinians, such as by Israeli soldiers posting selfies with detained Palestinians. Israeli “digital militarism” has appeared strangely in the recent events in Gaza and Jerusalem, which has been embodied in many things, including the use of right-wing Israeli mobs on Facebook and Telegram to organize their violent campaigns against the Palestinians.

Social media has been an important tool for promoting the military occupation, and Screenshots, similar to Digital Militarization, argues that the Israeli occupation not only continues to use brute force on Palestinians, but also relies on the daily digital work of soldiers. Israeli settlers and civilians.

Similar to Digital Militarization, Screenshots argues that the Israeli occupation not only continues to use brute force on Palestinians, but also relies on the daily digital work of Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians.

The renewed Israeli aggression against the Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza recently. How did the photographers' activists play a role in revealing to the world the extent of the crimes committed against Palestinian civilians?

During the recent events in Gaza and Jerusalem, audiences around the world watched the horrific Israeli violence against Palestinians unfold in real time on social media. Palestinians have an important history of activism on social media, which has paved the way for the scale and speed of scenes showing Israeli violence in an unprecedented way.

The challenge - for activists around the world - is to keep the Palestinian liberation movement going after the images that emerged from Gaza have faded and caught the eye.

Many Palestinians pin high hopes on videos that have gone viral on platforms like Tik Tok showing the nature of the Israeli bombing, with one saying, “Now the horror of the State of Israel is visible to everyone.” I share this optimism, but the challenge - for activists around the world - is to keep the Palestinian liberation movement going after the images that emerged from Gaza have faded and caught the eye.

Source : Al Jazeera

Originally published in Arabic on Al Jazeera here.