B’Tselem is an organization of prominent Israelis that labels itself “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.” For more than 20 years, the group has strived to foster empathy among the Israeli public for Palestinians living under Israeli rules. In Hebrew, B’Tselem means “in the image of,” as in humans are created in the image of God. The term can be used as a synonym for human dignity.
In 2007, B’Tselem launched its camera project, distributing video cameras and instructions to Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The point of the videos, aside from bolstering the organization’s documentation of human rights abuses, is to show the world outside the Green Line what everyday life is like as a divided, stateless people.
In the army, I was in an intelligence unit; I was watching Palestinians a lot, not really knowing who these people are. It took me years to really understand the problem, because the problem is so normalized.
B’Tselem’s video department director, Yoav Gross, is a 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker who joined the group five years ago. Gross speaks to TakePart about digging out entrenched beliefs, the perception shift needed to see an “other” as a person, and why hate emails don’t matter.
TakePart: How is it possible that the Israeli public is unaware of realities in the Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem or the West Bank?
Yoav Gross: By now they are aware. B’Tselem and many other journalists and public figures have been successful in bringing information to the public. But in terms of change, the factors on the ground are huge and a really tough mix.
TakePart: What are the factors on the ground?
Yoav Gross: Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza 44 years ago. For 20 years, Palestinians moved pretty freely inside Israel itself, not only on the West Bank. But the Palestinian people started the first Intifada uprising in 1987 to protest Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. It was very dramatic. As a child, I was living in a kind of suburban house near Jerusalem. I remember that Palestinian workers passed there every day, and I said “hello” from the window. It just stopped.
During the Oslo years, from ’95 until 2000, it seemed common knowledge that there would be some kind of peace agreement. But in 2000 the second Intifada came—a very scary time for Israelis and Palestinians. You’ve probably seen the images of buses exploding in Israeli cities. Palestinians had a very hard time as well. More than 4,000 Palestinians died in the second Intifada. It brought us to a situation where Israelis commonly see Palestinians as an enemy. It made it very hard for Israelis to look at Palestinians as anything but “the other”—the other that lives beyond the green line.
A little bit after the second Intifada, the separation barrier was started.
Basically, there are almost no connections between Israelis and Palestinians today, who live maybe five minutes from each other. To tell Israelis stories about Palestinians, who have been perceived as an enemy, as the complete other, is a huge challenge for us.
Yoav Gross: For me, coming from a pretty mainstream Israeli background, I was in the army. After the army, I was making documentaries that dealt with poverty and daily social problems, until I figured out that the real social problem—the thing that keeps this land and society from being just—is the occupation. This is when I joined B’Tselem. I started to think about how I would take film and video and try to make Israelis a bit more open.
And then, almost accidentally, one of the field workers gave a camera to a Palestinian family in Hebron. Hebron is the only Palestinian city where you have Jewish settlers sitting right inside the heart of the city. You have a situation where Israelis and Palestinians actually live on the same street.
This Palestinian family reported a lot of harassments from the side of the Jewish settlers. In Hebron you find extreme right-wing Jewish settlers, who have declared intentions to push away Palestinians from their neighborhood, out of belief that Hebron is a sacred Jewish place, and it is. Anyway, two weeks after we gave this camera, we got the tape.
Yoav Gross: It was filmed from the point-of-view of a 16-year-old Palestinian girl. Her neighbor was very aggressively pushing and cursing her, calling her repeatedly “whore.” The clip was all over the television news and the Internet. It got featured on the Israeli Saturday Night Live, with a character based on the settler.
After that, we adopted citizen journalism as a central tool in what we do. We spread more and more cameras and got more and more disturbing and dramatic footage. Suddenly, you started to see a night invasion from the point-of-view of a Palestinian. Soldiers are entering his house and taking pictures of his kids.
There’s a lot of very dramatic footage, but the reality is mostly the routine daily experience of checkpoints and being held up here and there, and seeing soldiers around your village, and people getting arrested.
In the army, I was in an intelligence unit; I was watching Palestinians a lot, not really knowing who these people are. It took me years to really understand the problem, because the problem is so normalized. Palestinians are the “other.” You’re not supposed to wonder what they go through. For me, what B’Tselem does is about getting these images of what it is like to be Palestinian today into the Israeli mainstream. It’s a bit scary, to be honest. In Israel, most people run away from this issue. It’s an issue that you won’t bring up at dinner when you’re with your girlfriend’s family. As people start to argue, the debate starts to be aggressive, and um…
TakePart: What’s the best hope for reaching understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian people?
Yoav Gross: One step the government could take is to start Israelis learning Arabic at a young age, at second grade. Personally, learning Arabic for me was not just being able to communicate with my colleagues and the volunteers that we’re working with. It also opens up a spectrum of understanding the culture and the reality that you’re close to. Imagine hearing people talking next to you in a foreign language for years. This reality creates a world of strangers. Learning the language opens it up. In a deeper sense, it’s about accepting the presence and accepting the other as a person, as a partner you want to share this country with.
TakePart: How do you, or do you, reconcile your efforts to empower Palestinians with Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians?
Yoav Gross: First of all, B’Tselem monitors human rights violations from both sides. We condemned, for example, the abduction of [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit as a severe human rights violation. Every time a civilian population is threatened by a Palestinian organization, which happens almost daily or weekly in Gaza, where rockets are openly shot at civilians, that’s a very serious human rights violation. We are trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis under the same roof, to have the same rights and to have the same basic responsibilities.
It’s a part of the work. We can’t let ourselves be too much concerned if people hate us.
If you attack civilians, it is illegal under international law and immoral. We put the same standard to everybody, to Palestinians and to Israelis. Civilians in the West Bank and outside Gaza, and also in the south of Israel, are targeted by rockets almost weekly. When people are able to live freely without this threat, I’m sure a solution will be easier to find.
TakePart: Has the Israeli public given any pushback on the camera project?
Yoav Gross: Opposition is inherent in what the project does. We are touching Israeli society’s most sensitive nerve. Everything we do, even when we say positive things, even when we touch the Gilad Shalit problem, people will have something to say. When B’Tselem condemns Hamas activities, Palestinians criticize us. Definitely the camera project, we get a lot of criticism and a lot of hate comments, from both sides. This is an expression of the tragedy. On one hand, Israelis criticize us in ways you wouldn’t want to repeat. From the other hand, you have anti-Semites who still hate Jews and are cursing Jews, kind of the same way there are people who hate Arabs. Then you have the Arabs who hate Jews and are cursing them just as violently. It’s a part of the work. We can’t let ourselves be too much concerned if people hate us.
TakePart: What is your most satisfying achievement of the videos?
Yoav Gross: A while after the 2009 war in Gaza, we decided, because the debate in Israel about the war was so violent, and there was almost no reference to the price Palestinians had to pay, we felt that Israelis were not open to learning about human rights violations. So, basically, we gave Palestinians in Gaza cameras, and we asked them just to film small moments from their lives—sometimes sarcastic moments, sometimes stupid moments—and create these miniature film peeks into their realities. We managed to create five really interesting pieces—Gaza: An Inside Look. What I like about it, is they moved beyond the B’Tselem website. We managed to convince Ynet, which is Israel’s biggest news website, to put them on its front page. Many Israelis saw the films.
We managed to overcome a barrier. These small moments were the only real way to connect. Any other videos that we would have put there just wouldn’t have been shown. The New York Times picked it up. What they liked, aside from the films themselves, is that an Israeli website showed snippets of Gaza reality to an Israeli audience, and the dialogue and action that this produced. There are five videos, and they are really short.... This was an important moment for me.