Documentation and Donations: B’Tselem’s cameras

The cameras of Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem are renowned for bringing the abuses of Israeli occupation to light. As they say on their web site:

In 2007, B’Tselem launched its camera project, in which the organization distributes video cameras to Palestinians living in areas in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip where clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are common. The project is a form of “citizen journalism,” a phenomenon that has been growing around the world. By this means, B’Tselem seeks to aid Palestinians to bring the reality in which they live to the attention of the Israeli and international public, and to expose human rights violations and subsequently bring about improvement in the human rights situation there.

A recent academic paper by Pini Miretski and Sascha-Dominik Bachmann goes as far as to characterize B’Tselem’s camera project as “the Panopticon of international law” that “caused soldiers and their commanders to become aware of the possibility that they and their actions are being observed and documented.” Certainly, B’Tselem have a reputation for being effective in documenting rights abuses, which has in turn generated a negative reputation among those who accuse them of undermining Israel’s international reputation, serving the enemy, and even staging scenes. For sure, the persuasiveness of much of the video content posted by B’Tselem on social media can be ascribed to its rawness and that it’s shot by Palestinians, giving it an air of realism and authenticity. Indeed, its Facebook cover photo is of Palestinians holding the cameras marked, in Hebrew, Arabic and English with the name and logo of B’Tselem. In a recent series of videos, Palestinian camera operators give testament to the ongoing misery of Gazans whose homes were destroyed in last summer’s war for international and Israeli publics (Israeli journalists are barred from Gaza by their government). Many of the videos show not the exceptional violence of the occupation, but the violence of its routine, such as this arrest scene.

At the same time, there is a political economy of such citizen journalism and human rights activism, and as an NGO B’Tselem needs to justify its existence and to raise funds. As the US tax year came to a close, and with it the deadline for tax-deductible donations, B’Tselem produced a one-minute fund-raising video, Just Another Day, which avoids sensationalism by emphasizing the routine character of the oppressiveness of occupation, its normality. As the verbal commentary accompanying the video on Facebook says: “That “normal” is morally reprehensible. It is deadly, guaranteeing the very opposite of peace and justice.”  Yet the soft piano music playing over the combination of short clips doesn’t avoid the sentimentality of its genre – selling suffering and highlighting the hatred of those who cause suffering in order to prompt donations for the cause of documenting rights abuses.

In her essay “Shooting with Intent: Framing Conflict,” Alison Lebow points out that B’Tselem retain shared rights to the material recorded by Palestinians in the occupied territories, and their very capable team re-package footage for media outlets. Unlike other activist video I’ve blogged about previously, B’Tselem’s videos are always posted with an explanatory verbal framing and often with sub-titles in Hebrew and English. In this case, they’ve re-packaged material for their supporters, but as a PR exercise it loses some of the persuasiveness of the usual “raw” footage. Lebow worries that especially in the repackaging of such footage, the reputation of B’Tselem as an Israeli organization is foregrounded rather than the active resistance of the Palestinians in their use of the cameras, and along with it, the potential of the documentary footage to undermine the power structures of occupation. And perhaps one of B’Tselem’s other pictures featured on its website shows precisely that – a Palestinian whose face is hidden by a B’Tselem camera with only Hebrew writing on it.

Should B’Tselem have foregone the fund-raising video with cheesy music? There’s no easy answer to that. As Ruthie Ginsburg comments in her recent book (in Hebrew) And You will Serve as Eyes for Us, Israeli human rights groups that practice “civil oversight” by visually documenting the occupation (such as B’Tselem) constantly and consciously deal with a series of contradictions and dilemmas as they negotiate between the “here” of Israel and the “there” of the occupied Palestinian territories, between the “them” and the “us.” Similarly, B’Tselem faces the dilemma of needing funds to continue its work, so even if this one particular video could have been done more artfully, it still needed to be done.


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:

Leave a Reply