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'We'll burn you like we burned the Dawabshehs' - life as a video activist in Hebron

The video camera allowed us to document attacks. The whole family started to film, and much of the neighbourhood. As Palestinians, we try to do things and speak for ourselves.

Isaeli army and border police troops stop Palestinians entering Al-Shuhada ( Martyrs') St., Hebron, during the demo on the twent Israeli army and border police troops stop Palestinians entering Al-Shuhada ( Martyrs') St., Hebron, during the demo on the twentieth anniversary of the street's closure in 1994. Wikicommons/Mustafa Bader. Some rights reserved.Last Thursday, a video emerged, shot by ‘a local Palestinian activist’, which showed a Palestinian youth called Abdul Fatah al-Sharif being shot in the head.

If you haven’t had the unpleasant experience of watching that video, here is what it shows. There are two young Palestinians lying on the ground, having recently been shot after one of them inflicted a light knife wound on an Israeli soldier.

Two Magen David Adom ambulances rush to the scene (Magen David Adom is Israel’s branch of the Red Cross). They offer no assistance to the two critically injured Palestinians (one of them was in fact probably dead at this point), and do not even attempt to assess their situation. All their efforts focus on the soldier, whose condition can be easily seen (and has subsequently turned out to be) far from critical.

At this point another soldier – an army medic, as it turns out – walks forward a few paces, hefts his rifle, and casually shoots the still moving Abdul Fatah in the head.

Nobody present appears to be surprised or disturbed in any way by what they have just seen.

But I was present. And I was disturbed. My name is Imad Abu Shamsiyya. I shot that video. I was the local Palestinian activist.

We have huge respect for B’tselem. But we feel it is important that, as Palestinians, we try to do things and speak for ourselves.The video has got a lot of coverage and generated a lot of discussion worldwide. For my own part, I’ve spent much of the past few days giving interviews for some of the big news networks. I’m pleased my work has had an impact. I had hoped this video would be a ‘media bomb’ that would shatter any illusion that Israeli soldiers – for all their talk of self-defence or rules of engagement – do not routinely kill our children and young people in cold blood and without a shred of justification.

The video isn’t about me as an activist. It’s about a Palestinian who was murdered three times – once when he was first shot, once when he was denied first aid and for the third time in which he was callously executed on the ground; and it’s about the army who murdered him. But I do feel that I’m part of the story. Because I’m not an anonymous fly on the wall. What I film is also what I live.

As Palestinians, we never feel safe. We have lived all of our lives in a country where we are made to feel that we are always in the wrong place at the wrong time; where we have no stake at all in the forces that control our destiny, and where each of us has always had to deal with the nagging feeling, sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, but always there, that we, or those we love could any day be shot down. My great uncle’s house had long been abandoned, while the Israeli army had built an observation post on its roof.

We moved – my wife Faiza and I – to Tel Rumeida, the street where all this happened, in 2009. At that time we were living with my parents but eager to find somewhere for ourselves. That was when the idea occurred to us: why rent a new house, when the family already owned one? Back in the 1950s, my great uncle had built a handsome town house in what was then the thriving centre of a prosperous city with a world-famous shoemaking industry.

But that was back then. First came the military occupation of the West Bank in 1967. In 1984, a small group of Jewish fundamentalists set up an ad hoc settlement of caravans right in the heart of the city, overlooking Tel Rumeida and Shuhada Street – the grand high street of our city, which leads down to the shrine of Ibrahim – or Abraham. Hebron is a sacred place to Jews, as it is to us Muslims. But the fundamentalist settlers don’t want to live in the bustling city as it is now. They live in a dream in which we don’t exist.

Then in 1993, a radical American settler called Baruch Goldstein walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque with a machine gun and killed 29 people. The Israeli state seized the opportunity to close off the centre of the West Bank’s largest city to Palestinian business and traffic, and to expel most of the Palestinians from it.

Tel Rumeida, just above Shuhada Street was now subject to intense military control. My great uncle’s house had long been abandoned, while the Israeli army had built an observation post on its roof. Two months after that, by a lucky coincidence, I happened to see a settler on our roof. He was trying to poison our water tank.

Some people must have thought it was a crazy idea to try to set up in such a place. But we needed somewhere to live, and we liked the idea of reclaiming a small piece of Palestine for ourselves from under the noses of the occupiers. The house wasn’t in great condition after being left uninhabited for so long, and the restrictions placed on us by the army made things more difficult. We weren’t allowed to bring a car into the area, so we had to bring the furniture in piece by piece. But in the end we managed it. 

It wasn’t long after we had moved in that we had our first bitter taste of the reality of living cheek by jowl with the occupier. While Madeleine, our eldest child – then in tenth grade - was walking to school, settlers standing on our own roof threw a rock which hit her in the face.

That was when I got involved with the Israeli human rights group B’tselem. They were distributing cameras, encouraging Palestinians to film the attacks we experience. I had worked in the past as a wedding photographer, so I didn’t really need the training. But I did need a camera. They also provided training in how to stay safe while filming – the regulation number of metres distant we had to be from checkpoints and so on.

As time went on, the attacks against the family continued. Our younger daughter, Marwa, had her hair set on fire. Saleh, the baby of the family, was stabbed in the hand. Our eldest son, Awni, was hassled by soldiers and police and arrested on numerous occasions.

Then there have been the attacks against the whole family. About a year ago I woke up after midnight and realised that there was a fire burning outside of the house which had already reached one of the rooms. The neighbours rushed to help us put it out. Two months after that, by a lucky coincidence, I happened to see a settler on our roof. He was trying to poison our water tank.

The video camera meant we were able to document these attacks. And by this time the whole family had started to film, and much of the neighbourhood. With a local activist friend, Badia Dwaik, I helped found a local grassroots organisation, Human Rights Defenders. We try to produce and disseminate videos to get the word out in similar fashion to B’tselem. We have huge respect for B’tselem. But we feel it is important that, as Palestinians, we try to do things and speak for ourselves. From about 2010 I started training people in how to make activist films in my turn.

Faiza and I now work very much as a team. Whenever there is trouble, people call on us to come round with our cameras. It has helped a bit. The settlers will never respect us. But sometimes they respect the cameras and back off. It’s also symbolically important. When Faiza stands filming, fearlessly, in front of a gang of violent settlers, it helps to show that we still have our resolve. When you have a camera in your hands, you feel that there is at least something you can do to take control of a situation in which you can easily feel powerless.

A photo contrasts life in a busy Hebron market (1999) with life on that street since the centre of Hebron was closed to Palestin A photo contrasts life in a busy Hebron market (1999) with life on that street since the centre of Hebron was closed to Palestinians. Wikicommons/ Trocaire. Some rights reserved.

Since I filmed that recent video where the Israeli army was caught red handed carrying out an extra-judicial execution, I’ve known that I’m a marked man. At the police station where they took my testimony, they warned me that the settlers would have their revenge. ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ they asked me. ‘Why should I be afraid?’ I replied. ‘I’m not the murderer’.

To me, that exchange felt like a threat. But it wasn’t long before the real threat came. The next night, the phone rang. The voice at the other end said ‘we will burn you just like we burned the Dawabshehs’ – a family that was completely wiped out, but for one horribly injured infant – in an arson attack carried out by radical settlers last summer. The next day, a crowd of settlers tried to storm the house, shouting obscene insults. We’ve been frightened before, but not like this. We try not to leave the house. We’ve started sleeping all in the same room.

It’s difficult to have much hope for the future in Palestine. We dream of freedom and a country of our own. But it looks more and more like the two state solution is dead. And what we have experienced from the settlers and the soldiers makes the idea of a just, secular regime for everyone feel like an absurd pipe dream. In the meantime, many people have started calling for an international force to protect us. But each injustice we document feels like a small step to freedom all the same.

About the author

Imad Abu Shamsiyya is a Hebron-based activist, videographer and founding member of Human Rights Defenders.


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