Viral Occupation: Palestine and the Video Revolution

January 21, 2022   •   By Rebecca L. Stein

THE AFTERMATH of the Israel-Hamas war of May 2021 left many unanswered questions but one decisive assessment: the wartime footage shot by Palestinians had been unprecedented.

The sense of a media watershed was near universal, from the Twitter feeds of anti-occupation activists to the pages of right-wing Israeli newspapers. Some pundits stressed the newfound velocity of the eyewitness footage, now circulating at unprecedented speeds. Others emphasized videographic volume, including footage shot by Gazans in the very midst of their aerial bombardment by Israel and images of an emerging Palestinian protest movement that stretched from East Jerusalem to Haifa, linking a set of communities and geographies that the Israeli state had long endeavored to keep politically separate.

Prior Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip had not been documented like this. During the 2008–’09 and 2012 aerial bombardments, most Palestinians in Gaza lacked widespread access to mobile digital technologies and reliable internet connectivity, a condition rooted in extreme economic deprivation and Israeli restrictions on electricity and broadband. Coupled with the Israeli state-imposed blockade on the entry of journalists into the Gaza Strip, and a growing military presence on social media, Israel had effectively maintained control of the wartime visual message.

Not so in 2021. By now, smartphone witnessing had become a regularized part of Palestinian political practice across the occupied territories. And for many Israelis, the ensuing sense of political crisis was acute. Even as Israeli bombs fell on Gaza, Israeli television commentators and military analysts warned live audiences about the torrent of “bad images” coming out of Gaza, shot on the smartphones of Gazans under fire. Despite a growing army of pro-Israeli influencers on social media, the military failed to produce a counter “victory photo” that might mitigate the damaging images produced by their foes. “[I]n the battle of photos of pathos,” wrote Moshe Klughaft in The Jerusalem Post, “we don’t stand a chance.” Israeli military spokespersons framed the images of devastated Gazan infrastructures and injured children as a PR management problem. They argued that Israel risked losing both this media battle and the larger global struggle for hearts and minds.

Anti-occupation activists in Palestine viewed the media ecosystem of May 2021 as a source of considerable political optimism. The footage shot in Gaza and East Jerusalem was appearing on televisions and mobile screens of viewers across the world. Many activists hoped that this growing Palestinian-produced archive, with its unprecedented size and speed, was creating a body of evidence about the violence of Israeli occupation that global audiences could no longer ignore.

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The video revolution in Palestine has its roots in the early days of the first Palestinian uprising (1987–’93). On February 26, 1988, a few months after its outbreak, a cameraman for CBS television news filmed a group of Israeli soldiers assaulting two bound and blindfolded Palestinian youths on a Nablus hillside. The timing was telling. Several months prior, Israel’s minister of defense, Yitzhak Rabin, had directed troops to quell the intifada with “might, force, and beatings.” Indeed, his instructions were quite specific: “Break their bones,” he said. Military assaults on Palestinian demonstrators followed.

Personal video cameras were scarce in these years. The production of images from the occupied territories was centralized in the hands of professional photojournalists and correspondents. Official military orders stipulated that the occupied territories were “open to the media, and members of the press [were] not to be prevented from moving or operating freely […] in no case [was] violence to be used against media staff.” In practice, journalists were frequently blocked by the Israeli military, and often violently.

International media coverage of the intifada was extensive. However, only this blurry video from Nablus would go viral on a global scale. It showed several Palestinian youths –– including cousins Wa’al and Usama Joudeh, seated with their arms tied behind their backs, as four soldiers kicked and beat them with stones. “The soldiers do not seem to be in any danger,” an Israeli reporter would write later, “nor do they seem disturbed by the events. They are utterly focused on meting out the beating.”

The entirety of the footage — some 30 minutes in length — was never screened on Israeli television. Only a portion would be aired following orders from the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. The political damage for the military was deemed too substantial. The video quickly circulated within international media outlets, and massive outcry followed, as scholars would later document: “The incident aroused a storm of protest, and Israeli embassies in Washington, London, Paris, and Amsterdam were flooded with angry calls. In some countries the incident sparked anti-Israel demonstrations.” In Nicosia, Cyprus, a mob attacked the Israeli embassy, barely restrained by the police. Elie Wiesel wrote that “I have never seen such intense hatred for Israel in the world.”

In the pages of mainstream newspapers, and on the floor of the Israeli parliament, these blurry frames generated heated debate concerning best “methods for acting successfully against the Arab rioters.” Some parliamentarians proposed banning journalists from the occupied territories in order to avoid future viral scandals. The military responded by tightening press access. The four soldiers involved were given brief custodial sentences and eventually returned to their units. The Israeli parliament declined to investigate Rabin’s role.

Within the collective memory of the Israeli left, media representation of the first intifada was marked as a political watershed. Many credited photographs and video as catalyzing an Israeli political awakening. “Seeing the Israeli soldier pointing his gun at the violent, yet unarmed, Palestinian youths on TV that night felt like such a turning point,” Yaron Ezrahi wrote. Einat Wilf, a member of the Israeli parliament, agreed: “The Palestinians were wielding the slingshot and the Israelis were in tanks. It upended the Israeli founding myth.”

In these years, many on the Israeli left would invest in this dream of political change through media exposure, the hope that a more substantial flow of images and information from the occupied territories might shift the national consciousness about their military occupation. The era of these political dreams was famously short-lived, collapsing in 2000 with the end of the Oslo Process.

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A variant of these political dreams would reemerge in the second decade of the 21st century, tethered to the new digital landscape. As mobile technologies proliferated across the globe, many activists in Palestine and Israel, and across the globe, attached their political hopes to the os­tensible promise of digital photography: the Arab revolts, the Occupy movement, the Syrian revolution, Black Lives Matter. Many of these social movements would be represented in the media by photographs of crowds holding their cell phone cameras aloft. The image of digital camera phones held skyward would consoli­date as a justice icon, a highly recognizable symbol of popular protest.

Many would be let down, such as when livestreams from Syria failed to stem the bloody state crackdown, or when bystander footage of United States police shootings failed to produce convictions. The global rise and spread of surveillance states in these decades, alongside governance-by-data, would further erode the investments of a prior generation of activists and scholars in “liberation technology” and “digital democracy.”

For anti-occupation activists across the globe, the May 2021 Israel-Hamas war re-enlivened some of these investments — at least initially. During the course of the war and its immediate aftermath, Palestinians entered mainstream Western media in unprecedented ways, as Sheikh Jarrah activist Mohammed el-Kurd noted recently in The Nation:

Newspapers ran articles about Israeli war crimes […] and plastered photos of murdered Palestinian children on their front pages. TV channels showed the Israeli military dropping bombs that reduced residential and media towers to rubble. Social media networks exploded with images of Palestinians — dead and alive — pulled from under the wreck. And, to a certain degree, Palestinian voices steered the global conversation.

But, al-Kurd continued, “once the bombing appeared to pause, camera crews gathered their equipment and moved on to a different story.”

This brief history of Palestine’s video revolution provides a sober reminder that political investments attached to media exposure tend to falter when cameras move and images fade. Let’s keep our eyes on Palestine, even after the viral images of Israeli state violence grow dim.

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Portions of this essay were excerpted from Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine by Rebecca L. Stein, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.

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Rebecca L. Stein is associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University.