Surveillance cameras capture the violence as it unfolds in Gaza and the West Bank.
On May 15, 2014, Nakba Day—a day on which Palestinians commemorate the mass dispossession caused by the formation of the state of Israel—Israeli army snipers shot and killed teenagers Nadeem Siam Nawara and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu Daher during a protest outside of the Ofer prison, where Palestinian political prisoners are held near Ramallah. A few days after their deaths, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI) issued a video, “Unlawful Killing of Two Palestinians Outside Ofer,” featuring surveillance camera footage of the shootings from a nearby business, as well as an interview with the business owner.
In measured Arabic, the business owner explains that the area had been calm at the moment of the shooting. We see that at 13:45:08, according to the time code of the surveillance camera, one boy walks calmly toward a building on the right side of the frame. Suddenly he stumbles, sticking his arms out straight for an instant. By the time his body hits the ground he is limp, and then still. Just over an hour later, as black smoke likely from a fire in a dumpster clouds the left corner of the video, a boy walks slowly away from the building. He, too, suddenly crumples to the ground. By the time the time code reads 14:58:55, it is all over.
The video makes for good evidence of a crime: it shows that the boys were not throwing stones (or anything else) when they were killed, nor was anyone in their proximity. It demonstrates the brutal precision with which the Israeli soldiers shot them with live ammunition, despite, as the video states at its conclusion, the fact that “neither [Nadeem nor Mohammad] posed a direct and immediate threat to life at the time of their shooting.”
DCI’s video and accompanying report corroborate two patterns of Israeli human rights violations. First, Israel has killed many Palestinian children. By May, when DCI reported on Nadeem and Mohammad’s deaths, Israel had killed four children in 2014. By now, because of Israel’s assault on Gaza, that number has risen exponentially. As of July 28, Israel has killed over 200 children in Gaza alone since the assault began on July 7.
The same surveillance camera that by day innocently overlooks a parked car, by night captures the movement of soldiers coming down from the Israeli military base.
Second, the DCI video makes the point that that Israel uses excessive force to stop demonstrators, a case made strongly by the 2014 Amnesty International report “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank.” Again, recent events confirm this pattern with devastating excess. Israeli forces have killed at least eight Palestinians in recent days as these Palestinians participated in demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Among them is DCI’s own staff member, Hashem Khader Abu Maria, 45, who was killed at a demonstration on July 25. Israeli soldiers shot him in the chest with live ammunition.
In recent years, surveillance cameras have become more and more common in the West Bank, because insurance companies require them for businesses and non-governmental organizations. Often, the director’s office in an organization will have a monitor with nine or twelve boxes streaming video of what is going on inside and outside of the building.
At Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, surveillance camera footage does not only protect property; it also captures the everyday politics of occupation. The fact that the cameras are always recording evokes the ubiquity of Israeli occupation violence. One morning, Israeli soldiers hit Lajee Center employee Samer Awes with tear gas canisters outside the entrance to Lajee Center. Samer found the footage of himself dodging the canisters amidst whirls of white smoke in the security camera and posted it online: the day’s first indignity.
The same surveillance camera that by day innocently overlooks a parked car, by night captures the movement of soldiers coming down from the Israeli military base 100 meters away, and then returning to the base with a new arrest in tow. These videos have both evidentiary and affective dimensions. You can count the number of soldiers who have come to take away a boy or man. You can try to ascertain whether the boy or man is limping, how badly he has already been beaten. But you also look at the grainy picture to glimpse a friend: his familiar gait, the shadow of his facial hair, a nod he may make toward the camera as he is walking by. It is usually the last time people from the camp will see the political prisoner for a long time. Commonly, families do not know the whereabouts of a prisoner for hours or days, and parents cannot see them for months except during court cases. No one other than first-degree relatives can ever visit prisoners.
These miniature films have their own aesthetics. Toward the end of the surveillance video of soldiers taking away several boys and young men created by Mohammad Al-Azza, the media director at Lajee Center, we see a bright explosion of a smoke bomb on the ground. The smoke unfurls, and then, over the next 50 seconds, engulfs the screen. The slowness and inevitability of the process itself is what compels you to watch. The prisoners have already disappeared, now everything is fading to gray. As a viewer, you can do nothing about the former or the latter.
Similarly, DCI’s video of Mohammad and Nadeem's deaths also has a powerful affective dimension. People shared it on Facebook over and over. They watched it sitting around computers and phones throughout Palestine and beyond. It might seem that surveillance camera footage has an impersonal quality, because it is shot from above and far away, because the camera does not move. Yet, surveillance cameras mimic the perspective of all the people who watch soldiers in the streets from their balconies and windows.
Sharing the video and watching it with friends and family can also complicate the visual sense of being above and far away from events. I saw the video for the first time alone on YouTube directed from a Facebook link. Then I saw it with a friend, a Palestinian man in his twenties, at Lajee Center. When he opened the link, I was about to turn away, to tell him that I’d already seen it, and I did not need to see it again, but it was clear from his introduction that he, too had seen it before.
He and I had been part of a large group at a demonstration on Nakba Day in Bethlehem, at which soldiers fired tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber bullets at the protesters. I had generally stayed back from the real action, but when I passed through rings of barbed wire to approach the soldiers, I did so with the assurance of a person who soldiers will identify as a white woman. After the demonstration, we walked back toward the bus. Then we heard about the shooting in Ramallah, not because of Nadeem and Mohammad, but because a third boy, whom we knew, was also shot that afternoon. By four o’clock, we were at the Ramallah hospital where Mohammad Abdullah Al-Azzeh, 15, was receiving care. The scene there was teeming with medics’ exertion and families’ grief. I remember how strange it felt to know that Mohammad was lucky, though live ammunition pierced his lung.
Watching the video with my friend and thinking back on the demonstration we had attended together, I hardly felt distant from the events, as the surveillance camera footage might seem to position me. I tried to imagine the distinct horror and rage with which one might view this video if one were a young man who regularly went to demonstrations. How does such a person hold in his head the knot of knowing that if he were the next one killed, his death would be completely insignificant to those that caused it and also grasping, just as fiercely, how much his life actually matters to those around him, to himself? How might this might affect what one might do at the next demonstration, or how one might feel the next time one walked by any of the several Israeli military watchtowers around Aida Refugee Camp?
Now we see from Gaza images of destroyed bodies, some very small. We see images of moments of grief that we know will not end. We see video of people being killed, caught on camcorder. One of the most affecting images of this war so far for me is a video still taken from a TF1 report of three boys on a beach, fleeing after a missile fell nearby killing one of their friends. Moments later, they, too would be dead from a second Israeli missile strike. We know that this is a picture of terror, because the story of the Bakr boys—Ismael, Zakaria, Ahed, and Mohammad, all between the ages of seven and twelve—has become infamous. But without this context, the photograph could be picture of how children embrace the world—the sand, the water—with every bit of themselves. It is the juxtaposition between children’s possibility for joy and the fact of these children’s terrified flight before a bloody death—the excruciating resemblance between these things—that makes the image so cruel.
The video from which this still was taken was shot by a TF1 cameraperson likely located in the hotel nearby where many journalists were staying. It is not surveillance camera footage, but like such footage, it is grainy, shot from above and from far away. Seeing this image from the West Bank, which is perhaps an hour from Gaza, but which feels much farther, evokes for me not only of the agony of children dying and their parents, friends, and communities mourning them, but also of the anguish and rage of watching something from afar, unable to do anything. From the balconies, at least, people can call out in rage; they can throw stones to frighten the soldiers. Here, we can only watch.