Screen Shots: State violence on camera in Israel and Palestine

The following is 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. 

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. [1] The footage was clear, filmed by a Palestinian neighbor from his adjacent roof, and the shot was audible. [2] 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. [3] Military leadership supported the legal process in the name of their “ethical code.” [4] In an unprecedented break with their military, most Jewish Israelis disagreed. [5] Thousands demonstrated in solidarity with Azaria in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, demanding his exoneration in the name of “everyone’s child.” [6] “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. [7] 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. [8] He was greeted with a hero’s welcome. [9] 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. [10] 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. . .” [11] 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 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. [12] ⁠ 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. [13] 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. [14] 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). [15] 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. [16]  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. [17]

Israeli human rights organizations working in the occupied territories were also at the forefront of camera adoption. [18] Such efforts were led by the NGO B’Tselem—the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.  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. [19] 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. [20] 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. [21] 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. [22] 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.


  1. B’Tselem, “Video: Soldier Executes Palestinian Lying Injured on Ground After the Latter Stabbed a Soldier in Hebron”; Roth-Rowland, “Nobody Should Be Shocked at the Hebron Execution.
  2. The photographer was Imad Abu Shamsiya. He would experience abuse and intimidation after the footage aired.
  3. Galdi, “Everyone’s Favorite Murderer.”
  4. Bob, “IDF Finds Ambulance Driver Tampered with Knife After Shooting of Hebron Attacker.”
  5. Cohen, “Hebron Shooter Elor Azaria Sentenced to 1.5 Years for Shooting Wounded Palestinian Attacker”; Kershner, “Israeli Soldier Who Shot Wounded Palestinian Assailant Is Convicted”; Omer-Man, “Nearly Half of Israeli Jews Support Extrajudicial Killings, Poll Finds.
  6. Cohen et al., “Thousands Rally for Soldier Who Shot Palestinian Assailant.
  7. Marom, “The Camera That Made Elor Azaria ‘Man of the Year.’”
  8. Cook, “Elor Azaria Case”; Kubovich and Landau, “Elor Azaria, Israeli Soldier Convicted of Killing a Wounded Palestinian Terrorist, Set Free After Nine Months”; Omer-Man, “Extrajudicial Killing with Near Impunity.”
  9. Konrad, “Elor Azaria and the Army of the Periphery.”
  10. Harkov, “Likud Deputy Minister Enlists Elor Azaria in Primary Campaign
  11. Marom, “The Camera That Made Elor Azaria ‘Man of the Year.’”
  12. The Israeli organization Machsom Watch and the joint Israeli–Palestinian organization Ta’ayush were also early adopters of cameras as activist anti-occupation tools. Guy Butavia, interview with author, Jerusalem, 5 May 2013. Also see Ginsburg, And You Will Serve as Eyes for Us.
  13. Maimon and Grinbaum, Activestills.
  14. Bishara, Back Stories.
  15.  5 Broken Camerasis a firsthand documentary about the experience of Palestinian activist photographer Emad Burnat from the West Bank city of Bi’ilin. The title of the film refers to numerous retributive attacks by the Israeli authorities. 
  16. Tawil Souri, “Hacking Palestine.”
  17. Ehrenreich, The Way to the Spring.  Also see Nabi Saleh Solidarity and the YouTube channel of video-activist Bilal Tamimi, chronicled heavily in this book.
  18. On the politics of human rights work in Israel during this period, including its tactical deployment by the Israeli right, see Perugini and Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate. On the “cynical” politics of transnational human rights in Palestine during the same period, see Allen, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights.
  19. This global project would be led by the NGO WITNESS. See Diamond, “Killing on Camera”; Gregory, “Ubiquitous Witnesses”; Ristovska, “The Rise of Eyewitness Video and Its Implications for Human Rights.”
  20.  Shavit, Media Strategy and Military Operations in the 21st Century.
  21. Ibid., 57, ch. 2.
  22. Stein, “‘Fake News!’ The View from Israel’s Occupation

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