Shooting the Occupation: The Palestinian Villages of Popular Resistance

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I haven’t done much shooting since relocating to Oslo about two months ago, but I have been busy. One of my most recent projects was to represent Activestills at the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair on October 24. There was a gallery exhibition of Activestills photos with the title “Shooting the Occupation: The Palestinian Villages of Popular Resistance,” that displayed during the entire fair, and I had the opportunity to speak on Friday night while presenting slides and stories. The turnout was great, certainly 200+, and the audience was very engaged. I also had the honor of speaking before Raja Shehada, who offered some very kind words of affirmation after my talk.

The exhibition included images by Activestills members Ahmad Al-Bazz, Keren Manor, Anne Paq, Yotam Ronen, and Oren Ziv. Click here for a gallery of my contributions to the exhibit.

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So while I’ve posted versions of this before, at the encouragement of one of the attenders on Friday I’m posting the latest iteration of my ever-evolving manifesto on they whys and hows of my activist journalism. I must also give credit to Israeli activist Yonatan Shapira, whom I met recently in Oslo, for the catch-phrase, “co-resistance before co-existence”, which perfectly captures so much of what is needed from solidarity movements in relation to Palestine.

I lived in Palestine with my wife Ingrid for four years, the first two in East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives and the last two years in the West Bank in Bethlehem, where our first child, Lukas was born.

My first visit to Palestine was in 2002, and I traveled there two more times on freelance photography assignments in 2004 and 2009 before going to live there in the summer of 2010. My work was sponsored by a U.S. and Canadian church-based relief, development, and advocacy organization that has worked in Palestine since 1949, when it was one of the first foreign aid agencies to provide relief to Palestinian refugees from the Nakba.

For the last two years, my NGO sponsored me to work with the Alternative Information Center. The AIC is a Palestinian-Israeli activist media organization with a clear commitment to joint struggle against Israeli oppression. In its words: “politically responsible cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis and a counter to the prevailing philosophies and practices of separation between the two communities.” At the same time, I became a member of Activestills, a collective of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers. Activestills was established in 2005, based on the belief that photography is a vehicle for social and political change. It uses the power of images to shape public attitudes and to raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse. Rather than take a mainstream approach of so-called objectivity, Activistills views its work as part of the struggle against all forms of oppression, racism, and violations of basic human rights.

It may seem strange for a North American church-based NGO to sponsor an activist photojournalist. In most parts of the world, they fund more typical development projects like agriculture, schools, and health. They support all of these activities in Palestine as well, by funding projects with about 20 local partner organizations. But in Palestine, one of clearest and most consistent calls from local partners has been the need for advocacy and storytelling about the reality of the Israeli occupation. These stories are often in sharp contrast to the narratives that prevail in Western media, especially in my home context of North America. Some partners have even said that without political advocacy in our home countries, development aid is useless. No matter how many projects are funded by foreign aid, as long as the occupation remains, Palestinian society can never truly prosper and flourish, and Israel will continue to become a more militarized, fearful and isolated society. We see this clearly in the discourse surrounding the “reconstruction” of Gaza, with the U.S. offering to aid rebuilding what its military aid to Israel has just destroyed.

As a Christian, part of my calling to journalism is based on the biblical principle expressed in the book of Proverbs 31:8-9 where it says, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” As in many other passages in the Bible, these verses speak of God’s concern for the marginalized. And in any liberation struggle it is essential to give priority to the voices of oppressed people. Thankfully, with the proliferation of digital media and social networks, more and more of the marginalized are able to speak out for themselves directly to a global audience—as is their right.

However, I feel a personal calling and responsibility to help translate these stories, literally and figuratively, in order to directly challenge my own people, my own culture, and especially my own church, so that they can understand their complicity in what is happening in Palestine. In this way, I try to follow the example of Jesus as he proclaimed “good news for the poor” while he harshly criticized the religious and political leaders of his own community.

But being a so-called “voice for the voiceless” is inherently problematic. I believe in the concept of joint struggle as a general principle. Perhaps this is partly from self-interest, since as a U.S. citizen I have inherited privilege from unjust social structures and have long tried to struggle against those structures in my home context, specifically against U.S. wars, human rights abuses, and systemic racism against minorities and immigrants. I want to be an ally to those struggling under oppression while I resist from my place of unjustly inherited privilege. If joint struggle is not possible, as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, straight, white, Christian, male, middle-class tax-paying citizen born in the USA, I have no place in the global justice movement broadly and in resistance to Israeli oppression specifically. Because even if I myself am not an Israeli, my government, my culture, and members of my church have all supported the Zionist project, making me just as much a part of the machinery of oppression as any Israeli.

We did not choose where we were born, but we can choose whether to ignore our complicity or to resist it.

I believe that one very effective way to do advocacy to such an ignorant, privileged, racist, colonialist society as my own is to make them hear voices from both Palestinian and Israeli communities, in that order. As I’ve said, the oppressed have the right to speak for themselves, and people of privilege have a duty to listen—even if it makes them uncomfortable, which it usually does. Though some would prefer feel-good models of “dialogue” and “reconciliation”, we instead must practice “co-resistance before co-existence”, basing our activism on equal rights rather than capitulation and acquiescence to injustice, also known as “normalization”.

But no matter how hard I as an individual or Activestills as a collective tries to achieve the ideal of co-resistance and joint struggle, human problems remain. Some are practical: Face-to-face meetings are important but difficult. We usually tried to meet in the West Bank, often Ramallah as a central point. Our Palestinian member lives in Nablus, in the north, which means a long journey even when checkpoints are open. Members in Gaza and Europe sometimes join by Skype, but this plagued by technical problems due to poor Internet connections.

The bigger problems are philosophical: How do internationals and Israelis as people of privilege leverage our privilege on behalf of those whom our societies are oppressing—while not becoming an extension of that oppression in a more subtle form? How do we co-resist without co-opting the Palestinian cause for our own personal or professional agendas? How do we make ourselves accountable to Palestinian voices—especially when they tell us things we fundamentally disagree with? Our answers to these questions are highly imperfect, but the greater sin would be to stop asking them.

As difficult as these questions are, one value of joint struggle in a media context derives from the popular craving to hear voices from “both sides”—often referred to as “balance”. This desire is generally rooted in a sense of fairness that desires to remain “objective” and not take sides in a conflict. However, these concepts as popularly understood and practiced are highly problematic in situations of injustice. Moreover, they are rarely practiced according to the mythological ideal of objectivity. Dominant narratives become the privileged norm, and voices challenging prevailing narratives are automatically suspect and must be balanced by voices reinforcing the dominant narrative.

To avoid this kind of farce, we must seek a different kind of balance than an oversimplified version that seeks two extremes with opposite views. These balancing acts often reduce the Palestinian-Israeli situation to a roughly symmetrical conflict between two peoples with competing narratives and mutually exclusive claims, without understanding the power dynamic between Israel as the dominant regional military power and the Palestinians as a people living under oppression and colonization. Instead of explaining this power dynamic, mainstream media will typically repeat the claims of one side versus another, without providing factual context to evaluate those claims.

The classic example is the Israelis-claim-Palestinians-claim template about the separation wall, reproduced in most articles on the subject. It goes something like this: “Israelis claim that the wall has stopped terror attacks, but Palestinians claim that it amounts to a land grab.”

For a specific example, this direct quote from The Daily Mail:

Israel argues that the barrier is needed to protect its people from Palestinian terrorism, and since construction began the number of suicide bombing attacks have fallen significantly.

But critics of the policy object that the route of the barrier deviates substantially from internationally agreed boundaries into territories occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. They argue that it uses security concerns to mask an illegal attempt to annex Palestinian land.

Well, let’s provide the facts regarding those claims. The construction of the wall may correlate to a drop in attacks on Israelis, but the simple fact that only 2/3 of the barrier is complete, and thousands of Palestinians enter Israel illegally on a daily basis looking for work, demonstrate that the so-called security function of the barrier is a farce. The only people stopped by the barrier are those who comply with Israel’s movement restrictions. Those who are willing to enter Israel without permission—for work to feed their families, or, hypothetically, to attack Israelis—remain unhindered. Even a former Defense Minister Moshe Arens has admitted that: “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

Add to that the fact that the barrier lies 85% inside West Bank territory and effectively annexes 10% of prime West Bank real estate—which is why the International Court of Justice deemed it illegal as early as 2004—and one can only conclude that one side’s claim is true and the other is false. But almost no mainstream media outlet—even those that provide some of the relevant information—will have the courage to state that conclusion explicitly.

It’s also important to note that Activestills coverage does not only focus on the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Many of our members are Israelis and we have also extensively covered issues inside the State of Israel, including discrimination against Palestinian citizens—especially Bedouins, the plight of African asylum-seekers, housing rights, and other social justice issues affecting Israelis. I try to be careful not to speak only in terms of “occupation”, but instead of Israeli oppression and colonization. The injustice did not begin in 1967—it began in 1948 with a state founded for the benefit of one ethnic group at the expense of others.

Nor can this or any conflict be reduced to only two sides. Of course, in any conflict there are many sides, and within the Israeli or Palestinian communities there are many diverse elements, many of which go unreported. Elements within each community have committed obvious injustices, though in differing magnitude and proportion. Elements in each community have also struggled for justice, though often marginalized within their own societies.

Through my work with Activestills, I try share some of these untold stories. This can mean exposing Israeli settler or military violence against unarmed Palestinians to a Western audience who tends to see Israelis as perpetual victims. It can also mean telling the stories of new and creative forms of Palestinian popular resistance to those who stereotype Palestinians as militant extremists.

It also means telling the stories of Israelis refusing to serve in the military, or the corruption or ineffectiveness of some Palestinian politicians. In so doing, I try to avoid being predictably biased or “one-sided” by instead telling both positive and negative stories from both communities. However, these kinds of examples will always be presented within the overarching context of Israeli oppression. In this way, I try to participate in joint struggle while providing information that does not distort or exaggerate a situation that requires no exaggeration to express the reality that Palestinian people experience every day.

In addition to the impact on our audience, we also hope that our physical presence in various situations helps to protect people from violence and demonstrates solidarity. As an Israeli soldier once said, “Cameras are our kryptonite”—complaining that the presence of photographers prevented them from acting as aggressively as they would otherwise. We know this to be true—even though we’ve witnessed serious violence even when many photographers are present. We’ve also witnessed and experienced violence against us as photographers.

We also hope that our presence simply as human beings, whether it’s to put it aside the camera to pick olives, plant a tree, kick a tear gas grenade, or help an injured comrade—demonstrates to those around us that we’re not just there to take pictures.


Introductory text mounted with the exhibition:

The Activestills collective was established in 2005, based on the belief that photography is a vehicle for social and political change. It uses the power of images to shape public attitudes and to raise awareness on issues that are generally absent from public discourse. Rather than take a mainstream approach of so-called objectivity, Activistills views its work as part of the struggle against all forms of oppression, racism, and violations of basic human rights.

Most of Activestills’ work focuses on issues in Israel and Palestine, such as the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, the plight of African asylum-seekers, social justice struggles in Israel, and ongoing military action in Gaza. Activestills currently has eight members and seven contributors, including Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers.
As part of its coverage of the Palestinian popular struggle, Activestills documented each of the major protest camps established as direct actions to resist ongoing confiscation of West Bank land for Israeli colonization. Lasting seven days, Ein Hijleh was by far the longest standing of the protest camps established since 2013, when the first such village, Bab al-Shams (“Gate of the Sun”) was built to protest Israeli settlements in E1, a key region east of Jerusalem where continued colonization threatens to cut the West Bank in two and sever Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied territories, thus denying territorial contiguity to any hypothetical Palestinian state.

Other protest camps included the short-lived Al-Manatir near an Israeli settlement outpost overlooking the northern West Bank village of Burin, and the “Ahfad Younis” neighborhood of Bab al-Shams, timed to protest a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama. Several smaller actions in the Bethlehem area and South Hebron Hills were dismantled almost immediately.

In each case, the camps were established on sites with permission from the landowners. But due to their proximity to Israeli settlements or military bases, as well as the political nature of their presence, Israeli authorities forcibly evicted and demolished each one. Arrests of activists were often brutal, with many requiring hospitalization.

When the Ein Hijleh protest village was created in the midst of U.S.-brokered negotiations in early 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already stated that he “did not intend to uproot any Israeli citizen” from the West Bank and insisted on indefinite Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. In the midst of the most recent offensive in Gaza, he was even more explicit, stating, “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

While Israeli colonization and military offensives continue with impunity, nonviolent direct actions like the protest camps have been one of the few ways that Palestinians have been able to create alternative facts on the ground.

In the words of the organizers of the Ein Hijleh protest village, the action was organized with the aim of “refusing the political status quo, especially given futile negotiations destroying the rights of our people for liberation and claim to their land.”