Partnering in Peace, Documenting Occupation

If the mainstream media is paying much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days, its cameras are likely focused on the current round of negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Off camera, Ta’ayush, a grassroots Israeli-Palestinian group who work non-violently and in partnership to end occupation and civil rights for all, are keeping their own cameras on. The group works particularly to support the Palestinian residents of Area C of the West Bank, which remains under full Israeli military and civil rule. Early every Saturday morning a handful of Israeli and international activists leave Jerusalem to join with Palestinians in ploughing and planting fields, shepherding flocks, clearing wells and cave dwellings, in the face of frequently violent harassment by settlers and the coercive force of the Israeli military. A regular aspect of Ta’ayush’s work is to document the frequent harassment and obstruction – denial of access to land, dispersal of flocks, destruction of buildings and arrests, beatings, and so on – and the occasional success – a ploughed field, a lamb being born. Ta’ayush is a small organization, funded by its activists and supporters, and those taking video footage and photographs are not professionals, although adept at posting information from the field quickly. Most of what they post is raw footage, roughly cut into short clips. Nonetheless, in the several years that audio-visual recording has become part and parcel of its repertoire of actions, Ta’ayush has amassed a vast archive of evidence of the routine violence of Occupation. They are, of course, not the only grassroots anti-Occupation activists who collect such audio-visual evidence, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or international (or a blend of them), but Ta’ayush is a significant collator of this material.

The archive is not situated on a single social media site, but spread across several platforms, such that Web 1.0 complements Web 2.0. There is Ta’ayush’s Facebook page (created on October 31, 2009, and as of February 8th 2014, showing 3,289 “likes”), on which many reports and announcements of activities from similar anti-occupation grassroots groups are reposted. The Facebook page is linked to a Twitter account, which had 1763 followers and 1913 Tweets by the same date. Many of the photograph albums of Ta’ayush activities (often stills of video footage) are shared from the Facebook page of one of the group’s activists, Guy Butavia. The same activist also hosts a YouTube channel, as guybo111, which has 429 subscribers, 472 videos, and has attracted 595,646 views since November 28th, 2007. Ta’ayush also maintains a website with a Hebrew and English version, the latter of which holds a more organized archive of activities according to location and type of activity (agricultural, aid and solidarity, information, protests), each of which is further subdivided. It’s thus possible to track activities in some very specific locations, such as Umm el-Arayes, a small agricultural community in the troubled South Hebron Hills area, where the continued existence of some 30 Palestinian villages is threatened by the Israeli occupation. There are 19 items about Umm el-Arayes from November 17th 2012 until February 1st, 2014 on the English version of the website. I am focusing on Umm el-Arayes in this piece as I went there in December 2012 as a participant observer of Ta’ayush while conducting academic research (about which I wrote this blog piece, which has been included on Ta’ayush’s website). There is a mixture of 6 video postings with paragraph-long explanations, blogs or other written counts, 10 accompanied by photographs, and three without, including an article from Le Monde about Ta’ayush. The Hebrew version of the website is slightly different, as it doesn’t include the “information” category. On Umm al-Arayes, the Hebrew version has 12 items from 26th January 2013 until 1st February 2014, of which 7 are videos with explanations, 4 are texts with photographs, and 1 is text only (the article from Le Monde). The additional video clip in the Hebrew version is a report from Israeli Social TV about events at Umm el-Arayes, about which I’ll say more below.

It’s significant that the website includes textual explanations of the videos and photographs because the audio-visual material that appears on Ta’ayush’s Facebook page or the guybo111 You Tube channel sometimes has no contextualization, sometimes does not appear at all, and sometimes only as a photo album with the barest of captions. Of the 6 videos categorized under Umm el-Arayes, the one with the longest textual account is from November 23rd, 2013, on a page titled “An Organized Attack in Umm el Ara’is and More.” The video [#1 on the right] is only 47 seconds long, showing a melee of soldiers, activists and locals. Above the noise an activist can be heard shouting in Hebrew to one soldier, “You’re kicking a girl!”, to another who is grabbing a boy “Leave the boy alone!”, and to another who approaches him as he films “leave the camera alone and calm down.” The text explains that preceding the recorded incident, Palestinian children of families on whose land the illegal outpost of Mitzpe Yair have built hothouses, which are scheduled for demolition by order of the Israeli High Court, no less, had been attacked by the settlers when they approached the hothouses, along with the activists documenting the incident. The soldiers present did not intervene for about twenty minutes, after which they began enforcing a “closed military area” order, roughly arresting some of the Palestinians and Israeli activists – but not the settlers. The clip was posted to Ta’ayush’s Facebook page with captions in Hebrew and English about violence on the part of settlers and Israeli occupation forces, it’s source being on guybo111 (where it currently has 1851 views). A separate video [#2 on the right] lasting 42 seconds, embedded in the text, shows in slow motion a woman activist being attacked by a settler who grabs her camera and smashes it. That clip is also housed on guybo11, where it has attracted 1009 views. But without the longer textual explanation or a close familiarity with the situation and type of events, it’s hard to fathom what’s going, especially for those who understand neither Hebrew nor Arabic. These are short clips from a longer video record, but other than the slow motion of the second clip, there is no sign of editing other than the cut, and certainly no narrative framing, which instead is provided by the text on the website.

The pattern of settler violence and military and police coercion in relation to local Palestinians and activists runs through Ta’ayush’s archive, the coverage of Umm el-Arayes not showing the worst of it. Yet, in another longer clip lasting 8:34 minutes [#3 on the right], the heated exchanges between soldiers and Said Awad, the leading local Palestinian campaigner for his family’s land rights, the structural violence underlying the whole situation is articulated. The video starts with members of the Awad family making yet another attempt to reach their land that has been seized by the settlers of Mitzpe Yair, and being blocked by Israeli soldiers wielding a “closed military area” order (which in this case is invalid, as the camera shows it hasn’t been completed properly). There is some pushing and shouting, but it’s not really the physical and verbal violence that the web page title highlights that’s significant here, nor even the detention of the two activists that is mentioned in the paragraph of text that does provide useful, concise context for the local situation. Rather, what stands out is Said Awad’s determined dispute with the soldier whom he faces almost eyeball to eyeball. Said tells the soldier that he cannot claim to be a “man of the law” as he’s defending an illegal settlement. “Your weapon is your law,” he says.

The story is not always one of confrontation, though the context is. In one clip (from October 5th, 2013) that doesn’t appear on the group’s Facebook page, and is hosted on another activist YouTube channel, publicamir, we see the usual cat and mouse game between soldiers trying to enforce a “closed military area” and in this case a Palestinian boy who evades them and manages to reach a settler boy about his age who accepts his outstretched hand to shake it. The title of the Ta’ayush webpage on which it appears foretells the ending of the event, “You shook my hand? I’ll throw stones at you!”, as the settler boy throws a couple of rocks as the Palestinian boy heads back across the field to his family, while a nearby soldier does not even notice. The clip seems to have touched a few hearts, as it has attracted 11,000 views.

Yet, the most popular of the 6 clips is the most harrowing. On a tense day at Umm el-Arayes on January 19th 2013, in enforcing the routine closure order, the military and police arrested 15 local Palestinians and activists, among them a mother and her 18 month old baby. The 1:36 minute clip [#4 on the right] shows, among much shouting and shrieking, a man being forced to the floor as he’s arrested, and military policy surrounding the woman, gesturing and calling for her to be quiet and calm down as they seize her and lead her away as she carries her baby, while another activist holds a crying boy in his arms. The text on the web page adds some information about the release of the detainees, and on this occasion the video on guybo111 is accompanied by some explanatory text that names the mother as Reema and the baby as Quamar. This clip, credited to Nissim Mossek (who also has his own YouTube channel with material about Ta’ayush), has had 71,604 views. While in this case the video wasn’t posted to the Facebook page, there was a small album of 6 photos documenting Reema’s arrest as well as two postings in Hebrew about the event, and subsequently a link to a report in the quality Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz about it and other confrontations that same day between Palestinians and occupation authorities. On this occasion, Ta’ayush’s social media activism broke through to the mainstream press, though not its more popular channels.

Perhaps, though, it is not such occasional breakthroughs that measure the value of Ta’ayush’s archive of occupation, of Palestinian civil resistance and Israeli-Palestinian partnership. Although the Ta’ayush activists have neither the time nor resources to develop the archive beyond the web site, it can be a rich source for other professionals. Israel’s Social TV is an NGO that focuses on social justice and human rights issues and activism, broadcasting biweekly on a local channel and through the internet. In October 2013 the station compiled a report, mentioned above, on Umm el-Arayes that used a significant amount of Ta’ayush footage, including of Reema’s arrest in January, the boy who shook hands, an earlier clip [#5 on the right] of an armed settler from Mitzpe Yair chasing sheep, and another video by Nissim Mossek. (The report can be viewed with English subtitles here, the relevant segment being at 6:56 – 12:60 mins). For the Palestinians of Umm el-Arayes and the activists, the violence and coercion witnessed in this footage has become routine. There is, however, a bigger picture that cannot be told even with the combination of video clips and tests, but would require an ambitious editing and framing project to produce documentaries about the different local struggles and their place in the larger struggle against occupation.

Whether or not anyone should ever undertake such a project, the Ta’ayush archive, along with all the other social media activist projects about Israel-Palestine, places these multiple acts of civil partnership in a media space that the forces of occupation, and the forces that stand behind them, seek to occupy completely, but cannot. While the occupation forces aim towards dispossession and isolation, the documentation by the hand-held cameras of Ta’ayush shows a sharing of space, a dwelling in moments of partnership that will always be there, and so will always be here. Even if on the fields of Umm el-Arayes the coercion of occupation wins each round of the unevenly matched contest, the civil language of Ta’ayush’s “living together” perseveres and by doing so, sustains an “open civil area.”

Video #1: Palestinian Clashes with Settlers and IDF

Video #2: Activist Attacked and Camera Broken

Video #3: IDF Violently Blocks Palestinian Family from their Land

Video #4: IDF Arrests Palestinian Mother and 18-Month-Old Child

Video #5: Settlers Attack Activists

About Jon Simons

Jon Simons is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lived 1985-95. His research and teaching focus on the interface between media, social and cultural theory, with a particular interest in popular, mediated, democratic politics and images. He has published books, chapters and journal articles across the fields of political theory, cultural studies and media analysis, now specializing in political imagery and researching images of peace in the Israeli peace movement. He writes a blog connected to this research project: http://israelipeaceimages.com/

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