Rebecca L. Stein, Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine (Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Rebecca Stein (RS): As an anthropologist who has worked in Israel and Palestine for the last two and a half decades, I have been fascinated by the ways that changes in global media ecosystems have made their mark on political realities on the ground. In the last decade, I have studied the development and proliferation of mobile digital technologies, from smartphones to social media platforms, with attention to how they have changed the everyday experience of colonial rule for both Israelis and Palestinians. Screen Shots focuses on the role of digital photography in this equation. Today, as we know, cameras and viral images are indispensable political tools for all parties across the demographic and political spectrum, from Palestinian activists to Jewish settlers. Of course, these tools are politically flexible: the same viral footage can function as a vehicle of anti-occupation protest and a surveillance tool in the hands of Israeli state actors.
Screen Shots is also a minor history of the digital present in Israel and Palestine, with a focus on the early years of widespread internet access and mobile networked technologies. I am interested in how political tactics shifted as communities and institutions in Israel and Palestine, from military institutions to anti-occupation activists in Palestine, began to gradually integrate these proliferating technologies and infrastructures into their political toolboxes.
My introduction begins at the tail-end of this history: with the 2016 execution of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, a killing that was famously captured on camera by a Palestinian activist-bystander. Most Jewish Israelis embraced Azaria as a hero, reading the footage as a portrait of self-defense, while Palestinians saw yet another instance of lethal military violence with relative impunity. This viral episode of killing on camera, and the highly discrepant responses it generated, was a powerful barometer of the Israeli colonial present. This is the subject of Screen Shots: the camera as colonial barometer.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RS: In the last decade, anti-colonial scholarship on Israel and Palestine has paid increasing attention to the politics of visuality. While this work has been enormously important, its predominant focus on representational politics has obscured the workings of photography as an everyday social practice. Screen Shots focuses here: on the lived experiences of Israelis and Palestinians with their cameras. Part of the book’s intervention is to place these actors and communities—settlers, military, human rights workers, and anti-occupation activists—in the same analytic frame. I argue that across these political divides, in these early years of digital experimentation, they shared a set of technological investments in the political power of digital camera when trained on the scene of military occupation. Each believed in the capacity of the viral image—an image that was now faster, closer, and sharper than ever before—to deliver political justice as they saw it. And most of them, I argue, would be let down.
Screen Shots is also a study of Israeli perpetrator culture, a topic that has also concerned me in prior scholarship. The research for this book included interviews and ethnography with settler media outlets and with the Israeli military, particularly its spokespersons’ unit, then responsible for its online hasbara, or propaganda. For example, I chronicle the early years of the military’s social media project, as they labored to perfect their online image. I also narrate the early efforts of settler journalists to repudiate Palestinian eyewitness footage of state and settler violence. In the same years that camera phones were becoming crucial eyewitness tools for Palestinians under occupation, they were being employed by soldiers and settlers as tools of colonial exoneration. I am interested in the ways that a long history of colonial exoneration was being refigured in the digital age through the use of new photographic practices and visual literacies.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RS: Screen Shots is my second book to explore digital politics in Israel and Palestine. My first was Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age, co-written with Adi Kuntsman. We were interested in the interplay between digital culture and right-wing politics in Israel during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. In the very same years that Israeli mobile digital technologies and digital literacy were spreading through Israel, mainstream Jewish populations were embracing militant nationalism in new forms and degrees.
In part, Digital Militarism was an attempt to respond to the Israeli state branded narrative of the “start-up nation,” an ostensibly apolitical story that has been deployed by the state as a hasbara machinery of distraction from the military occupation. Digital Militarism argues, by contrast, that digital culture in Israel is inextricably linked to military rule—and this is an argument I develop in Screen Shots, and which the recent revelations about the NSO group’s Pegasus Project make abundantly clear. For Israelis, this interplay between militarism and digitality often takes very ordinary forms. For example, we study a phenomenon that we term “selfie militarism”: namely, the ways that the ordinary genre of the selfie—replete with beautified poses for the camera—were employed by Jewish Israelis to support and sustain the Israeli colonial state. Selfies, in other words, helped make militarism beautiful—a phenomenon that was dramatically on display in the US context earlier this year when Trump supporters stormed with capital with their smartphones.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RS: I wrote Screen Shots in an accessible style with crossover readers in mind. So, while it is informed by academic debates, this work happens chiefly on the margins. I am hoping that it will appeal to readers who are interested in Israel and Palestine, but who do not ordinarily read scholarly books. To make the book more readable, I grounded chapters in the stories and biographies of particular communities and individuals who have been using their cameras as political tools over the course of the last two decades, such as the celebrated video activists from the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RS: In the course of writing Screen Shots, I became increasingly interested in Zionist conspiracy theorists: that is, pro-Israeli publics who employ conspiracy as a means of supporting the Jewish state project. In chapter four, I study the “Pallywood” accusation: the argument that Palestinians are theatrically staging their death and injury for the media in order to secure political gains. I argue this conspiracy theory was, for its proponents, a convenient way of banishing the viral visibility of Israeli state violence in an age of proliferating Palestinian activists armed with smartphones. By labeling Palestinian eyewitness footage as fake, many political problems are solved—or so these conspiracists hoped.
Of course, this is a very old colonial story: the notion that native people have faked their indigeneity in various ways. Again, I am interested in how these very old colonial storylines have been updated to meet the demands of the digital present. The Trump era has proven the need to take conspiracy seriously as a US political form. The same argument can be made in the case of Israel.
J: You are particularly interested in moments of failure, instances when cameras do not work as promised. How is “failure” important as a political and analytical category?
RS: In part, the book responds to a techno-optimism that still shadows activist conversations about the political potential of digital photographic technologies as radical tools. In the Middle East context, as we know, the dream of digital democracy would rise and fall after the Arab revolts of 2010, and would continue to erode in the subsequent decade amidst the expansion of digital authoritarianism across the globe. Nonetheless, there remains a recalcitrant investment in the capacity of bystander footage to deliver justice, an investment that was enlivened during the recent Israeli attacks on Jerusalem and Gaza, particularly following the work of video-activists from Sheikh Jarrah. As we know, such footage played an instrumental role in fueling the global wave of pro-Palestinian solidarity and activism that followed the Jerusalem uprising of 2021.
Screen Shots reminds us that dreams of political justice, as tethered to new media technologies, have a very long history, at least as old as the camera itself. They are dreams that if only the picture of suffering is clear enough, if only the footage is fast enough, or the lens close enough to the victim and her suffering, then politics will shift. Once the picture is perfected, justice will follow. Equally long is the lament that follows when such dreams fall short, as we learned during the Syrian civil war, once hailed as a YouTube revolution.
Of course, such lessons are tragically familiar from the US context, amidst the continued killings of black men and youth by the police. As we know far too well, bystander videos do not guarantee legal justice for victims and their families. To the contrary, as we have seen in the US legal system since the time of the Rodney King beating by the LA police, this footage can be manipulated to assist in exonerating the state.
Screen Shots is a study of political dreams as tied to digital photographic technologies. It is equally a sober story of these media dreams at their limits.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-9)
On 24 March 2016, a Palestinian was lethally shot by an Israeli soldier in downtown Hebron, in the occupied Palestinian territories. The event was captured on camera. The footage was clear, filmed by a Palestinian neighbor from his adjacent roof, and the shot was audible. The soldier could be seen methodically cocking his weapon as he approached his Palestinian target, an assailant who was already lying immobilized on the ground, and firing a single bullet at close range. The footage quickly went viral in Israel, played and replayed on the nightly news, dominating social media. The three-minute video would be committed to Israeli national memory.
Few Israelis knew the name of the slain Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif. All knew Elor Azaria, the soldier. Azaria’s trial in Israeli military court captivated and polarized the Israeli public, a national media spectacle that many likened to the OJ Simpson case in scale and symbolic import. Military leadership supported the legal process in the name of their “ethical code.” In an unprecedented break with their military, most Jewish Israelis disagreed. Thousands demonstrated in solidarity with Azaria in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, demanding his exoneration in the name of “everyone’s child.” “If we don’t protect our soldiers,” their posters read, “who will protect us?” One prominent Israeli magazine named him “man of the year,” decorating its cover with his portrait. Azaria would be convicted of manslaughter in Israeli military court in 2017—the first such conviction of an Israeli soldier in more than a decade—but released from prison after serving nine months of his sentence. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Azaria’s celebrity status would grow in months and years hence, coveted for election endorsements, welcomed in Tel Aviv nightclubs and West Bank settlements by cheering crowds. Within the voluminous Israeli national debate that the incident spawned, Israel’s status as an occupier was not open for popular discussion. On this, there was no real disagreement.
The case was deemed a landmark for the ways it pitted the Jewish public against their military, the nation’s most sacred institution. It was also a milestone in another sense. Although cameras were prolific in the West Bank in 2016, footage of this sort remained a rarity—that is, footage of Israeli state violence that captured both the military perpetrator and Palestinian victim in the same frame: “Azaria was not the first, nor will he be the last, Israeli soldier during the violence of this past year to shoot a Palestinian attacker who no longer posed a threat,” wrote one Israeli left-wing commentator. “But he was the only one to find himself caught on film so blatantly. . .” For Palestinian communities living under occupation, the case was yet another incident of military violence with legal impunity, for which there was considerable precedent. Azaria was the occupation’s rule, they argued, not its exception. Mainstream Israeli Jews, for their part, read it as a parable of the Jewish state, an illustration of their existential battle against enemies that sought their demise. Through the viral frames, all had told their own story of Israeli military rule.
Screen Shots is a social biography of state violence on camera, studied from the vantage of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The historical context is the first two decades of the twenty-first century, a period when consumer photographic technologies were proliferating globally, chiefly in the form of the cellphone camera, even as communities across the globe were growing increasingly accustomed to life under the watchful eye of cameras. At the core of this study are the various Israeli and Palestinian individuals and institutions who, living and working in the context of the Israeli military occupation, placed an increasing political value on cameras and networked visuals as political tools: Palestinian video-activists, Israeli military and police, Israeli and international human rights workers, Jewish settlers. All trained their lens on the scene of Israeli state violence—some to contest Israeli military rule, others to consolidate it.
Palestinian and Israeli activists and human rights workers were among the first to adopt cameras as political tools. Israeli military spokespersons would follow, as would (belatedly) Jewish settler communities. Their political aims were radically divergent, as was their access to the technologies, infrastructures, and literacies of the digital age. And yet, across these radical divides, many shared a version of the same camera dream. Many hoped the photographic technologies of the digital age—with the scene of state violence now visible at the scale of the pixel, circulated in real time—could deliver on their respective political dreams. Some, particularly the Israeli state institutions among them, harbored a techno-deterministic fantasy that technological progress (smaller, cheaper, sharper, faster) and political progress were mutually enforcing. All hoped that these new cameras could bear truer witness and thus yield justice as they saw it.
Most would be let down. Israeli human rights workers would painfully learn this lesson: even the most abundant visual evidence of state violence typically failed to persuade the Israeli justice system or Israeli public, as the Azaria case would make spectacularly visible. Palestinian video-activists living under occupation had additional frustrations, rooted in the everyday violence of military rule. Contending with poor internet connectivity and frequent electricity outages, byproducts of the occupation itself, they found that their footage often failed to reach the international or Israeli media for on-time distribution. Or they often faced punitive and violent responses from soldiers at checkpoints, sometimes taking aim at cameras and memory sticks. And even the military grew frustrated. Their footage from the battlefield seemed to be perpetually inadequate and belated, military analysts lamented, always lagging behind their digitally savvy foes. They dreamed of a more perfect public relations camera that would finally redeem their global image. The fantasy was perpetual, the dream always deferred.
Israeli and Palestinian anti-occupation activists, working together and separately, began using cameras as political instruments during the second Palestinian uprising as part of the wave of transnational Palestine solidarity activism that the uprising had catalyzed. The joint Israeli–Palestinian photography collective Activestills (founded in 2005) emerged within this political context, showcasing images of Israeli military repression and its Palestinian victims that had been largely occluded from mainstream Israeli media spheres. Israeli camera-activists worked on the margins of the national political consensus and often under threat of military and settler violence. As years progressed, such activism would be increasingly targeted and constrained by the Israeli state, often violently so.
Video activism and photojournalism were far more encumbered for Palestinians living under occupation. The Israeli military crackdown on Palestinian photographers and journalists was particularly fierce during the second Palestinian uprising, but such assaults and restrictions would continue in its wake. Military beatings and detentions of Palestinian camera operators remained frequent, as did seizures of equipment and targeting of cameras, particularly those in the hands of Palestinian activists, as immortalized in a celebrated film from this period (5 Broken Cameras). As late as 2010, despite a boom in mobile telephony in the West Bank and Gaza during the preceding decade, many Palestinian families in the West Bank lacked access to photographic technologies or reliable internet connectivity—the latter a byproduct, in large measure, of the myriad forms of control that Israel exercised over the Palestinian telecommunications sector. The growth of Palestinian camera activism was nonetheless rapid in years that followed. By 2012, the West Bank’s centers of nonviolent popular struggle—for example, Bil’in and Nabi Saleh—had become crowded theaters of competing cameras. Palestinian video-activists were at their helm.
Israeli human rights organizations working in the occupied territories were also at the forefront of camera adoption.Such efforts were led by the NGO B’Tselem—the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories—an organization that will figure centrally in the chapters that follow. In 2007, before cameras were widely available within the West Bank, B’Tselem launched a camera project that delivered hundreds of hand-held camcorders to Palestinian families living in areas of the occupied territories with elevated state and settler violence. In these years, the integration of digital videographic technologies and human rights institutional practices was still in its nascency for human rights organizations working in the occupied territories and across the globe. Videographic protocols were still being developed, including standards for authentication and models for protecting visual privacy. Video and digital forensics would be gradually integrated into evidence assessment and argumentation, as would discussions of its legal and ethical dimensions (“To function as legal evidence,” human rights workers would increasingly ask, “what does the video need?”). The very notion of a human rights violation was changing, increasingly routed through videographic logics of evidence, rights, and humanity itself.
Official Israeli military photography would also develop markedly in these decades. In the early twenty-first century, beginning amidst the second intifada, the military would expand its program for combat photographers, aware of the need to respond to its camera-savvy enemies in kind. In the same years, the division of the Israeli military tasked with media and public relations, would enhance their social media presence—struggling, in the early years, with the institutional changes required (“it’s just not what armies do,” I would be perpetually told). Military spokespersons noted that “the gap between the documentation abilities of the enemy and those of the IDF” had been evident since the first Palestinian uprising (1987 to 1991–93). But it was widening exponentially in the digital age—and, they argued, dangerously so. In the military’s estimation, the perceived threat to Israel’s global standing was considerable. They longed for “victory images” (tamunot nitzahon) from the battlefield with the power to cement a military triumph and combat the “bad images” of their foes.
Jewish settlers and right-wing Israeli nationalists came to camera politics somewhat belatedly. As years progressed, settler raids on neighboring Palestinian villages would increasingly include cameras as tools of terror and documentation, and the resultant footage would be shared on right-wing Israeli media outlets. Israeli populists and their international supporters were increasingly mobilizing online against the digital “incitement” of their Palestinian foes: namely, eyewitness photographs and videos of Israeli state violence. They would gradually embrace the charge of “fake news”—well in advance of its uptake in the US political context—in order to repudiate Palestinian videographic claims. These accusations performed a disappearing act: removing Palestinian victims and Israeli perpetrators from the visual field of Israeli military rule. Or this, anyway, was their fantasy.
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.
Note: A fuller set of endnotes appear in the print version.