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Women behind the lens: Palestinians filming the occupation

For the past several years, Palestinian women from all walks of life have been taking part in a video project to document human rights violations under occupation. In honor of International Women’s Day, one of them tells her story. 

By Manal Ja’bri

My name is Manal Ja’bri, I am 38-years-old and I have seven children, between the ages of 9 and 18, and I am the sole breadwinner in my family. I grew up in a house near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. Settlers burned my family’s home and used to beat us on our way to school. One of the problems in Palestinian society is that people don’t differentiate between Israelis, Jews and settlers – they are all settlers to us. I used to think the same way, but over the years I learned to tell the difference.

Three years ago, I read a wanted ad in the newspaper for field researchers for B’Tselem, an Israeli organization dedicated to documenting human rights violations in the occupied territories. B’Tselem trains Palestinians in specific locations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where tensions are high and clashes are commonplace, to use video cameras to capture those violations. The footage exposes the Israeli and the international public to the reality of life under occupation.

'Atta Najar, Salam Najar and Mi’ad Najar check out the cameras and compare footage in Hebron. (photo: B'Tselem)

‘Atta Najar, Salam Najar and Mi’ad Najar check out the cameras and compare footage. (photo: B’Tselem)

When I first started working for B’Tselem, I was frequently criticized by Palestinians for working for an Israeli organization. Over time, however, Palestinians have learned to trust B’Tselem, because they know that our cameras are out there to safeguard their human rights. Today, I am in charge of B’Tselem’s video project, and I feel prouder, stronger and more self-confident.

My children used to get criticized at school by their friends because “their mother works with the Jews.” Meanwhile my family did not approve of my work, claiming that “it is a man’s job.” Yet, as time went by, everyone saw that what I did worked for their benefit, and my family saw how I was able to support my children.

Watch: Ja’bri’s films the IDF detaining two eight-year-old Palestinians:

My phone rings non-stop: victims call in to report abuses; volunteers call to report incidents they’ve filmed; journalists and human rights activists from other organizations call to ask about specific events; and young men and women call and ask about joining the video project. All this makes for a long list of responsibilities and even longer work days. With a camera in one hand and papers in the other, I start my day racing from checkpoint to checkpoint, all the while stopping on the way to chat with passersby about the situation. The job has unusual hours, such that I often get back home late at night, or must leave at a moment’s notice to document late-night abuses.

Many times the soldiers and settlers curse at me; sometimes I am even attacked and arrested. The humiliation of being arrested and our treatment by the soldiers is often very difficult to deal with.

Watch Manal Ja’bri speak about her experiences filming the occupation:

Today, in addition to my family’s support, I also have the support of my colleagues.  This has made me what I am now: a role model in the eyes of the women volunteers of the video project. I am very proud of these women, and can see how volunteering in the project made them much stronger and more self-assured.

We have introduced a new culture into our conservative society, a culture where women stand bravely, gripping their cameras tightly as they face soldiers and checkpoints. Soldiers have grown accustomed to this sight, and the presence of the camera often makes them calmer, thereby preventing potential violence. Along with the video volunteers, I feel that my job is but one way of fighting the occupation. By documenting and filming, I am shooting back.

On this International Women’s day, I wish for a better life for Palestinian women, too many of whom have been killed in domestic violence incidents as of late.

I wish for us to be able to walk freely without needing a camera to defend ourselves or to document the indignities of the occupation.

I wish to start using cameras to show the beauty of our nature and cities.

I wish for a dignified and just life for all the women around the world, for them and for their families and children.

Read more:
Meet the Israeli women who have stood up to the occupation for 26 years
PHOTOS: African women march for their rights in Tel Aviv

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    1. Kolumn9

      “One of the problems in Palestinian society is that people don’t differentiate between Israelis, Jews and settlers – they are all settlers to us.”

      Fortunately she found Israeli organizations that think likewise.

      Reply to Comment
      • Nonsense. Those who document abuse do so because they know not everyone is like you.

        This women films, listens, and speaks, and still, still, you must find a way to release your hatred here.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          These women are sponsored by B’tselem, which is an organization funded primarily by European governmental institutions in order to generate negative propaganda against Israel. The basic idea behind this program is that if you put enough cameras out there you will be able to create a 30-60 second propaganda clip. Organizations that puts themselves at the disposal of foreign governments in order to undermine Israel’s image abroad are often driven by a deep hatred of the country out of an identification with pro-Palestinian causes.

          In other words, yes, she found an Israeli organization that basically accepts the Palestinian view on the conflict to such a level that it is willing to be subsidized by foreign governmental organizations that are funding a full array of anti-Israeli propaganda, including this site.

          Reply to Comment
          • No, the basic idea is to place cameras in the hands of those living the occupation so that you will no longer be able to deny statements by saying there is no evidence. Now there is evidence, so you charge an attempt to gather evidence as tainted through “foreign governments” to obfuscate what is filmed; and I assure you those in the European Union would be quite pleased if the cameras revealed no abuse at all. It is not abuse itself which bothers you but its agents and targets as ethnically categorized. Manal Ja’bri is far beyond this attitude, having decided that

            “One of the problems in Palestinian society is that people don’t differentiate between Israelis, Jews and settlers – they are all settlers to us. I used to think the same way, but over the years I learned to tell the difference.”

            Instead of seeing this as an improving stand for us all you would blind distant eyes so that your “side” could do what it wants, leaving these women in fear of no witness. Jews endured abuse for centuries, indeed, still do; it is abuse itself which must be targeted, not used for ethnic end. You do Judaism a disservice, you shame it.

            In any case, this detracts from this marvelous piece. I’m not going to do so further.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            If the cameras caught nothing there would be no funding. The cameras *must* catch something or the entire business goes bankrupt. Fortunately, with sufficient footage pointed at the right direction and a decent editor it is easy to put together propaganda clips for pretty much anything. Were I to follow you around all day with a camera I could make you look like anything I want. The same applies for the various ‘reports’ generated by this industry of lies. They produce a product and the consumers are the European organizations that sponsor them. Of course the organizations that produce this filth are tainted. They have a priori made themselves agents of foreign governments and organizations by agreeing to the funding and the underlying political biases such funding ensures. I know of a hotline for battered women which was offered foreign funding were they to produce a report that blames the ‘occupation’ for the abuse. This is how this industry operates.

            The products are the propaganda videos and propaganda reports. The consumers are the European organizations and governments that consciously sponsor them in order to generate negative publicity against Israel (and yes, this is an entirely explicit goal). The producers are Israeli organizations that allow themselves (or willingly volunteer themselves) to be used by foreign organizations to generate the hatred of Israel. This conversation is being had on a platform that is funded in order to create a platform for the products of this industry. This are the basic economics in play.

            “One of the problems in Palestinian society is that people don’t differentiate between Israelis, Jews and settlers – they are all settlers to us. I used to think the same way, but over the years I learned to tell the difference.”

            This is a statement made by a Palestinian. It is a characterization made by a Palestinian of Palestinian society and its view of Jews. The statement was made openly, explicitly and matter-of-factly. This generalization of Palestinian society is one you don’t like, but you are going to have to argue with the ‘hero’ that wrote these lines, not me. Then again, you wouldn’t, would you? You, a foreigner would be an idiot to argue with a Palestinian about Palestinian society. Come to think about it, a similar position could be taken on you arguing with an Israeli about Israeli society, but here you are.

            And then there is the kicker. I “shame” Judaism. This is the usual garbage about Jews having to conform to some ridiculous image or standard. Were I to express myself openly to that last bit my comment probably wouldn’t pass moderation. So, I shall just insist that you depart from here to go enjoy your own company.

            Reply to Comment
          • JG

            If there weren’t an opressive occupation regime, there would be nothing to catch. You hasbarists never think things from the beginning.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Of course there would be. That’s the point. If you invest enough with a specific political purpose you can always generate whatever you want. The point here is not to make the “occupation” look bad. We are way past that point. The organizations that participate in the demonization of Israel wish to see the state of Israel eliminated while hiding their intentions behind the perversion of the language of human rights. We are at the point where European governments and organizations are directly funding propaganda to generate hatred for Israel, as a country, as a society and as a people.

            One of the objectives is to dehumanize every Israeli that lives in Judea and Samaria. Even here, among supposedly enlightened people, I see common references to treating Israelis that live in Judea and Samaria like dogs. As if they are not human. As if there are no children there. No civilians. No innocents. Throw them out, kill the civilians, hurt them. This is what passes for enlightened conversation on this enlightened site sponsored by various foreign organizations.

            The other objective is to demonize Israeli society as a whole. To paint it as an evil society so as to make people feel fine about calling for hurting Israelis, as a whole, and as individuals. On this ‘enlightened’ site there are writers that explicitly believe that the Arabs have the right to murder Israeli civilians and that doing so is no crime. The point of the propaganda generated is to demonize, not point out flaws, not to fix. Because the intent is to destroy and to damage. That is the enterprise sponsored by foreign organizations and governments here. Those that cooperate with such an effort are properly perceived in Israel as people that have sold their souls to foreigners and are now sponsored to generate propaganda to demonize Israeli society.

            It is a large enterprise and it is about time that it is stopped in its tracks. The whole thing is built on foreign (mostly European) money that sponsors *every* *single* Israel-hating organization in Israel. There is no reason to allow foreign money to enter Israel for the purpose of political interference and subversion of society. The French would have banned half the organizations that operate on the far left in Israel, and would have banned the vast majority of foreign contributions to such organizations. We are in an absurd situation where we are in the middle of a conflict and we are allowing foreign governments and organizations to try to subvert our society, while democratic countries at peace have no problem preventing such situations.

            Reply to Comment
          • No, K9, her statement about prevalent views among prior West Bank residents is not one I “don’t like,” but I have noticed you often understand your enemy better than they themselves do.

            I of course can not address you example of offered funding for women’s abuse on condition it be tagged to occupation. It is not inconceivable. But it would not imply what this woman here does is tainted. Underlying your logic is the premise that there are no abuses worth noting, and I think many lines of evidence vastly disconfirm that. I think your position would be more honestly described as saying that there are abuses, but they are deserved, and necessary for the security and prosperity of Israel. Including those few hundred Hebron settlers who throw things, such as sewage, onto those passing below.

            You can “insist” I leave as often as you like. You do shame Judaism. As said earlier,

            ‘you would blind distant eyes so that your “side” could do what it wants, leaving these women in fear of no witness. Jews endured abuse for centuries, indeed, still do; it is abuse itself which must be targeted, not used for ethnic end. You do Judaism a disservice, you shame it.’

            You are exhibiting increasing signs of political paranoia. If it is foreign, it is against Israel. If Jews accept grant funding from the EU or one of its governments, they act as foreign agents bent on the destruction of Israel (unless, of course, you like the funding aim, such as business enterprise); if a Palestinian woman accepts a camera paid for by a foreign grant, she become a tool of foreign intervention to destroy Israel. It is not that “foreign” is a problem, actually; it is that those granted hold a different view of Israel than you, and that must be blotted out.

            I really do think you should take a look at the rhetoric of National Socialists before their supremacy. Jews were everywhere, controlling, manipulating, foreign. They had to be eradicated. You are employing the foreign puppet master trope as well.

            In any case, the author of this piece has acted in the world far better than I ever could. I cannot speak for you, of course. And I will insist on that.

            Reply to Comment
    2. This is one of the most remarkable pieces I have ever seen on 972. A construction requiring both sides to begin (B’Tselem providing the cameras, training, and support) she alters her own life and the expectations of those around her in what may well be the ugliest continuing theater of conflict, Hebron. It is extremely difficult to endure such continual oppression in a positive way, yet she has, for herself and others.

      Out of violence, something else may come–and, here, has. This is the gift some in Palestine can share with us all.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jessica

      You are an incredible, courageous woman. Keep doing what you’re doing.

      Reply to Comment
    4. directrob

      Thanks for sharing, I deeply respect your work and courage.

      Reply to Comment
    5. The Trespasser

      >Now there is evidence, so you charge an attempt to gather evidence

      And if there is no evidence than you fake it, because you are paid to have evidence. That’s what they call Pallywood.

      >Instead of seeing this as an improving stand for us all…

      As long as Jews how live in Hebron are regarded by Arabs as “settlers” there is no hope for an improvement in the stand. For some of us, at least.

      Reply to Comment
      • The role of B’Tselem, besides providing cameras and training, is to filter evidence through their people; if they fail in this, they fail their name. Equating all YouTube video as identical is to destroy the B’Tselem label, similar to calling it the agent of “foreign governments,” instead of dealing directly with what it presents. We both know what B’Tselem presents is real. Pallywooding to all YouTube video is just more misdirection, a lot easier than changing yourself.

        Reply to Comment
    6. berl

      great woman, great article

      Reply to Comment
    7. concerned1

      Indeed the proof is required , Israel was closed to the world since decades and Israel has committed and continues to commit human rights abuses but with B tsaleem it is now possible to know whats really happening there .
      Now that she is exposed mossad will now take her down !

      Reply to Comment
    8. Danny

      Going on appearances, the officer talking to the kids is a Mizrahi/Sephardic Jew, many of whom harbor intense hatred of Arabs. The sad thing about this guy is that he is not that rare in Israeli society. Most Sephardic Jews come from Arab countries, are themselves culturally and genetically Arabs, yet are the source of some of the most despicable vitriol against Arabs in Israel today (the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem fan base is just one despicable example out of many). I hope we can identify this guy by name and publicly shame him.

      Reply to Comment