Stein, Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine
Full text: 

In Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine, Rebecca L. Stein attends to the ways in which the mass proliferation of consumer cameras in the first two decades of the twenty-first century transformed digital technologies and photography into political tools that can work to shape and mediate Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Stein’s argument starts at an impasse: the same technologies that Palestinians and Israeli objectors to the occupation have adopted in their activism have also been harnessed as tools to both authorize and obfuscate Israeli state violence. Accordingly, Stein is interested in cameras “as social forms because they often function as proxies, surrogates for the political dreams and anxieties of their users” (15). In Screen Shots, Stein cogently depicts the realities of “the Israeli and Palestinian colonial present in the digital age” (3), expressing an interest in what such a study could offer as a methodological and incisive gateway toward “other political futures” (162). The book is ordered around what she calls “camera dreams” (6), or the different investments and aspirations ascribed to digital photography across the political divides of a protracted settler-colonial occupation. Stein focuses predominantly on the incorporation of digital media into Israeli military practices and media policies and the consumption of these media forms by Israeli settler society, in contradistinction to attempts by Israeli anti-occupation NGOs like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence to harness digital photography and videography as witness and testament to Israeli settler and military violations of Palestinian human rights.

Screen Shots is Stein’s second book-length study of the digital mediation of Israel’s occupation regime. It follows Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015) co-written with Adi Kuntsman and further expounds upon the shifting terrain and status of images in the digital age of smartphone cameras used by Israeli human rights organizations, soldiers, the military, settlers, and Palestinian civilians living under occupation to mediate settler and state violence. Through a focus on the “breakdowns, glitches, and interruptions in the photographic process” (160), Stein traces the trajectories of settler fantasies, anti-occupation initiatives, and the Israeli military’s pursuit of total control over the visual field.

Chapter 1 explores the introduction of personal digital cameras into the military theater of occupation where they were recalibrated against the backdrop of the second intifada as part of the Israeli soldiers’ arsenal and as tools of military documentation and intimidation during house raids into Palestinian homes. The chapter features interviews with the soldiers who formed the anti-occupation veteran organization, Breaking the Silence. Chapter 2 recounts the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s camera project, which it launched in 2007, and the difficulties faced by the organization and the Palestinian videographers who collaborated with them in capturing and circulating video evidence of human rights abuses perpetrated by settlers and soldiers in Palestinian cities and villages, mainly in the highly mediated and charged zones of Hebron and in Nabi Saleh.

Chapter 3 follows the production of the “Israeli repudiation script” (75), a framework through which Palestinian death and suffering is subjected to scrutiny and denial by mainstream Israeli media. Stein argues that no matter how clearly documented or corroborated the images of slain or maimed Palestinians are, even the most blatant documentation of Israeli state violence against Palestinians—like the infamous video of the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah—are consistently met with charges of deception by self-proscribed Israeli specialists in media manipulation and consumed as such by an obliging Israeli public audience. The following chapter returns to the West Jerusalem office of B’Tselem where Stein studies the curatorial efforts of the organization’s largely Israeli staff (though there are a few Palestinian). Stein documents how the organization has tried and often failed to serve justice to the Palestinian videographers who send in their video evidence of Israeli state violence in the West Bank via legal channels that rarely result in action. Instead, B’Tselem’s expository project has been shaped around serving Israeli “media appetites” (118) which, in the context of the normalization of the repudiation script, has meant the imposition of strict parameters around what makes a recording of violence against Palestinians both believable and spectacular enough to cause outrage. Stein observes that to the detriment of the project, the quotidian forms of state and settler violence Palestinians face under occupation rarely, if ever, make the cut.

The final chapter investigates the Israeli military’s responses to changing media ecologies, namely, the presence of bystander cameras that have been “making Israeli state violence visible at the scale of the pixel” (159). Stein takes interest in the Israeli military’s responses to media crises spurred by genocidal attacks in Gaza, ethnic cleansing in Jenin, and the slaughter of international solidarity activists aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla that attempted to deliver aid to the blockaded Gaza strip in 2010. Through extensive interviews with upper-level military personnel, Stein uses her privileged access to these interlocuters to investigate the military’s approaches to managing the influx of incriminatory photographs and videos from its actions in the West Bank and Gaza, or in other words, military hasbara (propaganda). She argues that the main tactic the military deploys to divert scrutiny of its crimes is to shift the emphasis in the discourse from the military’s perpetration of state violence to a logic of “technological solutionism” (155) via the further institutionalization of military photography policies and social media campaigns.

What was most striking in Screen Shots, and could have used further elaboration, were the reasons behind why camera dreams fail, specifically for the Palestinians who are both subject and subjected to these dreams. In Israeli media, including the anti-occupation media created by Israeli NGOs, Palestinians are reduced to impossible witnesses and figments of an old colonial ideology of “native fraudulence” (99), so much so that even in forensically clear documentations of their deaths, Palestinians can be neither witness nor victim. Instead, they are designated “Pallywood” actors (77), their deaths framed as propaganda meant to undermine the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Stein accurately and meticulously details how photography and mediated images operate in the deeply militarized Israeli public to further entrench the protracted occupation and delegitimize Palestinian human rights.

But a question that could have used further attention is: why have so many well intentioned engagements with photography within a human rights paradigm that seeks accountability from the Israeli state to adhere to international law failed repeatedly to procure justice for Palestinians? Even when the crime or killing caught on tape is rendered in perfect resolution, Palestinians do not ever seem to bleed enough, according to Israeli officials (93). What dreams, desires, and motivations must be unlearned so that new approaches to mediating the occupation might emerge? Stein’s emphasis on Israeli organizations limits the book’s ability to respond to this question because even in the critique of the way that Palestinians are rendered as impossible witnesses and disposable life in Israeli media forms, there is limited space dedicated to Palestinian attempts to subvert and deflect the settler-colonial gaze. Nevertheless, the book gives critical foresight into the shifting media ecologies of the occupation and describes in attentive detail the Israeli military, Israeli NGOs, and the Israeli public’s investment in digital medias, documentary forms, and depictions and denials of state violence against Palestinian bodies, lands, and infrastructures.

Author biography: 

Sherena Razek is a PhD candidate and graduate student worker in modern culture and media at Brown University.