“Cameras are our kryptonite”
One morning last September, Nadel Shafiq Taher Shatiya heard the loudspeakers of the mosque in his village, in the Nablus region, announce that settlers were approaching the village’s land. Shatiya, a photojournalist by trade, grabbed two cameras and raced to the scene.
Based on his account, it turns out that when he arrived, several tractors and settlers – who, according to the reports received by Shatiya, came from thenearby Elon Moreh settlement – were trying to plough the village’s lands while several dozen Palestinian farmers tried to expel them. A settlement security vehicle showed up, and two settlers stepped out of it (Shatiya believes he can identify them), and started shooting live ammo at the farmers. Some of them took cover; Shatiya kept taking photos. That’s his job.
About ten minutes later, a large IDF force arrived at the scene, and did what it usually does: joined the settlers. The soldiers fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades at the farmers, and as the area is full of dry thorns, a fire broke out. The Palestinian farmers tried to put it out, and the two armed settlers demanded that the troops stop them (Yours truly was present for another incident, in which IDF soldiers fired at Palestinians who tried to put out a fire which had erupted after a demonstration due to canister fire.) The soldiers confronted the Palestinians, and Shatiya saw – and documented – one of the soldiers pull out a knife and threaten one of the farmers.
Our brave troops don’t know how to deal with nonviolent resistance. Major General (res.) Amos Gilad became famous abroad when he told the American embassy “we don’t do Ghandi very well.” In such cases, the IDF’s instinct is to use excessive force. It makes for bad publicity, and the soldiers know that – so they try to suppress the evidence.
Shortly after Shatiya photographed the knife-wielding soldier, other soldiers assaulted him and took his cameras and camera bag from him. He witnessed another soldier tearing a phone out of the hands of a farmer, who was using it to document the incident; the farmer was beaten and detained.
So far, no surprises. Anyone who has either served in the West Bank or demonstrated there is familiar with the loving care the soldiers lavish on photographers. But in Shatiya’s case, the story underwent an unusual twist: the soldiers took his cameras to an officer, who turned them over, along with his camera bag, to a settler. Shatiya protested to the officer, saying “you’re in charge of security, and if, as part of your duty, you want to confiscate the cameras, keep them; why do you give them to the settler?” In return, the officer blamed Shatiya for the fire. Later on, Shatiya saw a settler moving among the detained Palestinians, telling the soldiers who should be kept in detention.
Turning the cameras over to the settler caused some fuss, with Israeli DCO officers telling the army it had no authority to detain journalists or confiscate their cameras, that only policemen may do so. This is inaccurate, by the way: in the West Bank soldiers have the same authority as cops, until the latter reach the scene. The Military Commander is the sovereign in the West Bank, as it is legally considered to be held under belligerent occupation; the police only acts in the West Bank because they have been delegated that authority by the Military Commander. In the end, several officials promised Shatiya he’d get his cameras back, but afterwards they simply ignored and then began avoiding him.
Some 12 days after the incident, the Israeli DCO contacted the Palestinian DCO, and informed the latter Shatiya could come and retrieve his cameras. He found them broken and rubbed with sand. The damage to the cameras is estimated at 21,000 NIS (about 6,000 USD). That’s what happens when you try to document the most moral army between the Jordan and the Mediterranean while it fails to move into Ghandi mode.
So, to sum it up, we’ve had settler violence, immediately backed up by the army; the destruction of evidence by soldiers, using a settler for this purpose; yet another example of problematic cooperation between soldiers and settlers, where a settler tells soldiers who to detain and they obey, and, finally, another example of the security forces in the West bank misunderstanding their role. There’s a strain of thinking in Israel, particularly among the center and on the left, which says that the problem in the West Bank is the settlers, and that the soldiers are not at fault.
But the soldiers know full well that they are at fault – Had they felt no guilt, they wouldn’t have felt the need to destroy evidence, and they would neither have broken the farmer’s cell phone nor given Shatiya’s cameras to a settler, in order to rid themselves of responsibility for taking the cameras away from him. In the West Bank, the soldiers and the settlers are part of the same pattern, the pattern of an occupation whose inner logic is annexation by a quiet population transfer of the Palestinians.
Yizhak Shamir, an Israeli prime minister, once said that one is allowed to lie for Eretz Israel (the ‘Land of Israel”). The IDF soldiers take this one step further: in the name of Eretz Israel, they destroy evidence and intimidate journalists and innocent civilians.