By Akram Salhab – The West Bank
As I lead a delegation of UK students around the West Bank, I thought about how the trip was to benefit the Palestinian people. When they spend money, they help the Palestinian economy, their solidarity helps boost morale and when they record incidents of abuse they help give legitimacy to Palestinian claims of oppression.
The power that international qualifications of abuse give to Palestinians was shown by the release, earlier this week, of a video showing the shooting of a Palestinian youth. The video shows a soldier grabbing the young man and dragging him to his feet. He is blindfolded and handcuffed and looking unstable as he stands, the senior officer holding him instructs a nearby soldier to shoot him in the leg. The soldier raises his gun and shoots, at which point the photographer drops her camera in surprise and by the time the camera returns to him, the victim is on the ground in what appears to be quite a fair amount of pain.
When coming to respond to this incident, the usual IDF trick of denying any knowledge wouldn’t fly, unfortunately for them it had been caught on film. The brief suggestion by the IDF that the moment where the camera was out of focus represented a sinister editing trick was also quickly dropped for fear of embarrassment. In the end there was nothing to do but begrudgingly apologise and try as hard as possible to suggest that the incident was a one-off. The incident, claimed Ehud Barak “was a grave and wrong one and is not indicative of the IDF’s norms”, "Warriors do not behave like this", he concluded philosophically.
It would seem safe to assume that Ehud Barak, in his long and brutal career would have, whilst not abided by one, at least heard of such a thing as a human rights report. This novel type of document normally contains within it an assessment of what is taking place in a certain area of the world and compares how well the actions of groups in that area correlate or fail to correlate with norms established in international human rights agreements. For somebody who had never read such a report on Palestine, seeing a video of a Palestinian man being shot for no immediate reason would indeed be surprising.
For an Israeli minister however, there can be no excuses. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, reports frequently on abuses that take place and concludes that, “Both the army and the Border Police have yet to make it unequivocally clear to security forces serving in the Occupied Territories that it is absolutely forbidden to abuse and beat Palestinians”. Their attempts thus far are deemed by B’Tselem to be “more lip service than a frank and honest attempt to uproot the phenomenon once and for all.”
Amnesty International’s report into how soldiers treat Palestinians is also worth quoting at length:
"impunity remained widespread for Israeli soldiers and settlers responsible for unlawful killings, ill-treatment and other abuses of human rights of Palestinians and attacks against their property. Investigations and prosecutions relating to such abuses were rare and usually only occurred when the abuses were exposed by human rights organizations and the media."
Similar reports by Human Rights Watch, Al-Haq, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence and many, many others paint a similar picture; that on top of the systematic abuse legitimized by the Apartheid regime in the West Bank, individual soldiers consistently violate, with impunity, the thin legal protection that is afforded to Palestinians. For anybody who took the time to goggle ‘human rights’ and ‘Israel’ the brutality of the situation faced by Palestinians would be readily evident and they would see that the incident in the video, instead of being a singular freakish occurrence, is actually wholly indicative of the way that Israeli ‘warriors’ behave.
Why then was there such an outpouring of anger and sorrow for the case of this one individual caught on camera?
There is definitely something to be said for the power of photography. A photo often does, paint a thousand words and seeing very often is believing. But beyond the clichés there is a deeper more sinister reason why despite mountains of evidence on other cases, it is only this one that will get the attention, if not the justice which it deserves.
The prevalent attitude that leads to Palestinian claims being ignored are evident in all facets of the history and politics of Palestine. Benny Morris, one of Israel’s most frank historians come political commentators managed to write an entire book about the greatest crime committed against Palestinians, the Nakba, using precious little first hand evidence from Palestinian witnesses. The reason? Because according to Morris, Palestinians (or Arabs as he calls them) have a “penchant for exaggeration” therefore they cannot be considered credible sources. Arabs, he tells us, are simply unable to tell the truth.
Edward Said wrote 30 years ago about the West’s orientalist attitude in its dealing with the Arab world. He argued that Arabs were represented as ‘the noble savage’, ruthless, merciless and untrustworthy. When one looks today at the occupation of Palestine and the way in which Palestinian claims of abuse are ignored, one can’t help but thinking that orientalism is alive and well.
As our delegation heard time and time again of beatings, torture and daily harrassment, one of them felt compelled to ask me "if there are so many incidents of abuse and so many first hand accounts of it, then why isn’t action being taken?". One man who they met explained how his mother was shot on the front step of their house. He took us to her grave, he showed us the injuries that he suffered during her murder and the bullet holes on the nearby walls. Why was he still waiting for justice?
Another B’Tselem report explains that when Palestinians come to complain about their abuse, they are faced with “a system which tends not to believe them, and which tends to protect rather than prosecute those who injured them”. In most cases where a crime has been committed, procedure is to take an account of events from all those concerned, and use them, along any evidence at the scene to form a picture of what happened and thereby dish out justice accordingly. The fact that Palestinian complaints are ignored so out of hand suggests that Palestinians are not deemed human enough to be considered serious winesses.
Part of the statement by Barak is very revealing in this regard. Amongst the stream of empty words and crocodile tears of sorrow, he committed to “exact the full extent of the law in this case". ‘Only in this case’ because no Palestinian, with their deceptive lying ways, would ever be able to prove to the world that the abuse that they had suffered was real and even if they could, unless the crime they suffered was as blatant as the incident caught of film, then a suitable lie can be fabricated to explain it away.
Even when a crime is caught on film, however, it is not sufficient evidence for a conviction and as the criminal soldier from the indicent above walked free on Tuesday, Palestinians will be wondering what they need to do to for the world to take seriously the daily attacks that they face. In Palestine, it would seem, even the camera lies.
-Akram Salhab is a Palestinian from Jerusalem who is currently studying an undergraduate degree in Politics at the University of Leeds. He is active with the UK student movement, Action Palestine, as well as being the national student coordinator for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He works with these organisations on campaigns to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and to give momentum to the BDS movement to end Apartheid. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.