For a few years now, Palestinians in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh have held a weekly demonstration to protest the Israeli occupation that has confiscated village land for a nearby Israeli settlement. These protests don't usually make international news.
But last week's was different. Friday's demonstration in Nabi Saleh escalated into a violent confrontation between an Israeli soldier and a young child — all caught on camera by the press who had attended the protest. The result was a video of an IDF soldier placing an 11-year-old child in a chokehold, holding a gun near his head, and then sitting on him as he screamed in fear and pain.
This isn't the first time something like that has happened in the West Bank. But with this video of a panicking soldier crushing a screaming child beneath him, Israel may have the opportunity to learn the lesson that the United States learned last year when a New York City police officer choked a black man named Eric Garner to death: video forces a conversation. When a bystander with a camera captured Garner choking, "I can't breathe," on a Staten Island sidewalk, it forced a conversation about police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. Now that a camera in Nabi Saleh has captured the panicked screams and gasps of 11-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, maybe this will force a conversation about the moral costs of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians.
What the Nabi Saleh video shows
On Friday, during the latest Nabi Saleh protest, small clashes broke out between the protesting villagers and Israeli soldiers, as they often do. An 11-year-old Nabi Saleh boy named Mohammed Tamimi, whose left arm was in a cast, did something to anger one of the Israeli soldiers. The Israeli military says the boy was throwing stones; Tamimi's family denies this. But whatever sparked it, the soldier began to chase the boy, which is when the boy's father switched on a camera and captured the moment.
In the video, the soldier throws himself on Tamimi, putting the boy in a headlock and holding him over a rock as he screams for help. There is a moment, at 1:06 in the video, when the soldier holds his rifle next to the boy's head and, disregarding the most basic weapons safety training, places his finger over the gun's trigger. Thankfully, after a moment he slings the rifle behind his shoulder, but then tries to wrestle and carry the boy off. After a short struggle, the soldier places his hand around the back of the child's neck and pushes his face into one of the rocks.
Several nearby women from the protest then attempt to intervene. One woman tries to pull the soldier's arms behind his back; he panics and grabs the boy again. Tamimi's young sister curls around her brother, shielding his body with her own as she attempts to drag him away, but the soldier pushes his hand into her neck and shoves her away. The nearby women again throw themselves on top of the soldier and, at this point, another soldier, reportedly the first's commander, intervenes, eventually pulling him away. The soldier punches and slaps at several of the Palestinians as he's led away, throwing what appears to be a tear gas grenade or other non-explosive grenade on the ground.
Why the Nabi Saleh video is so controversial
As with everything in the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are two narratives to this video. The Israeli narrative is that it shows an Israeli soldier being attacked by a mob of angry Palestinians. The Palestinian narrative is that it shows an Israeli soldier brutalizing an 11-year-old child. You can judge for yourself based on the video, but it is difficult to imagine any universe in which this soldier's treatment of an adolescent child is even remotely justifiable.
But the video's real controversy is not over what it shows, but what it represents. Both Israelis and Palestinians feel that the international community and the international media have failed to understand the conflict and are biased against them. This video is thus another opportunity to show the world the truth as each side sees it, and to litigate global public opinion on the conflict.
So, for example, when the right-wing Israeli outlet Israel Hayom published a column defending the Israeli soldier — and alleging that the entire scene had been deliberately staged by the Palestinian children who are beaten in the video — the point was not just to defend the soldier, but to defend Israel's moral standing vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The argument around the video, then, is really an argument about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that has been ongoing for almost half a century, and of the story this video tells about that occupation. Is it a story in which violent Palestinians provoke and attack well-meaning Israelis, dragging Israel into a conflict it doesn't want? Or a story in which cruel and inhumane Israelis are so committed to forcibly maintaining their occupation of Palestinian land that they will attack even children?
Is this an Eric Garner moment for the Israel-Palestine conflict?
But there is perhaps something more than that going on here, something that explains why this video has attracted attention beyond the dozens of prior such videos of West Bank clashes gone wrong. Because the video is so brutal in the particulars, and yet so very typical of the daily norms of the occupation, it has taken on a symbolic quality somewhat akin to the July 2014 video of New York City police arresting Eric Garner.
In that video, a policeman put Garner in a chokehold while attempting to detain him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner died as a result. The video became a focal point for an argument about something much larger: police violence against black men and boys in America.
For some, the video showed NYC police taking regrettable but understandable actions against a 6-foot-3, 350-pound criminal — and showed that police are underappreciated for the daily dangers they face. But for many others, it showed the propensity for American police to use excessive and extreme force against black men and boys, part of a larger problem of racism in policing that does terrible and sometimes fatal damage to black communities.
That conversation is still unfolding, and likely will be for many years. But the conversation itself is an important step, and is calling greater attention to the problem of racial disparities in policing.
There are of course many, many differences between Nabi Saleh and Eric Garner specifically, as well as Israel-Palestine and American racial disparities generally. My point is not to argue that the issues are even remotely the same, but rather to draw a parallel between these two videos and their potential to demonstrate a larger injustice, as well as to call attention to how that injustice affects both its victims and the people who, willingly or not, enforce it. As with Eric Garner, the Nabi Saleh video may help to force a similar conversation about the terrible toll of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, about the brutalities of military occupation that could lead to a moment such as this.
There are hints, just barely, that the Nabi Saleh video may be forcing something like an Israeli version of this conversation, even if only among a few Israelis. Not that the occupation is wrong for its harms to Palestinians — yes, a number of Israelis do oppose the occupation, though they are a minority with relatively little political influence — but rather that the occupation is wrong for the moral toll it takes on Israelis who must enforce it.
There is something to this. It is easy to watch this video and fume at the Israeli soldier for assaulting a child, and indeed his behavior is wrong, and one hopes he will be appropriately punished under Israeli law. But he could be considered a victim of the occupation as well. Many Israeli soldiers in the West Bank are only 19 or 20 or 21, speak little or no Arabic, and are conscripted into enforcing a settlement policy they didn't ask for and protecting a settlement that may be full of ultra-Orthodox Israelis probably exempt from military service.
"It’s a strange thing that conscript (draftee) soldiers who are paid wages of between $150-$300 a month are asked to be both expert soldiers, riot control professionals and sometimes a kind of social worker and media relations expert to deal with daily duty in the West Bank," Seth Frantzman writes at the Jerusalem Post. "What no one seems to wonder is why, after 48 years of Israel running the West Bank, is the regular conscript army sent in to deal, again and again, with stone-throwing children."
Frantzman concludes that the problem is the Israeli military should stop using regular army conscripts — as many as 3,000 of whom are sought for possible desertion, he says — for the West Bank occupation.
I'd reach a slightly different conclusion: that the occupation itself is dehumanizing, that it dehumanizes both the enforcers of the occupation and its subjects, and that it makes moments like Nabi Saleh inevitable, regardless of the character of whichever 20-something Israeli conscript happens to be on camera at that particular moment.
David Zonsheine, a former Israeli soldier and a co-founder of the anti-occupation group Courage to Refuse, explained this well (thank you to Lisa Goldman of the New America Foundation for translating from Hebrew):
The bad news is that the Israeli public, including those who send their children to serve there in the army, don't really care about what goes on in the occupied territories. Whether they're leftists or rightists, people don't really care if we have a presence there or not. There are a few soldiers who are there due to the fact that they must obey orders, so they shit on the Palestinians. And they eat shit too, but under far better conditions. Every image like the ones you see here [of Nabi Saleh] just contributes to the predictable, stuck discourse. This is nothing new. Soon we'll mark 50 years of control. Only a change in the power structure will convince Israelis to lift their control over the Palestinians. For example, a halt to the transfer of enormous sums of money from Europe and the United States to Israel and the Palestinians.
Zonsheine's point about Israeli apathy toward the occupation reminds me again of the Garner video, which was shocking to black and white people alike in America, but shocking in a special way to white Americans who had heard about racism in policing but perhaps had not seen it play out quite so explicitly. The video was so powerful for showing the horrifying and unnecessary death of Garner, but also for showing a New York City police officer whose actions are shaped by social forces much larger than himself.
For a white American watching the Eric Garner video, it was possible to see the effects of racial disparity not just on Garner, but on the police officer as well, the way they were both trapped in a larger system of injustice. Could it be possible that Israelis who support or are indifferent to the occupation could watch the Nabi Saleh video and have a similar realization of the occupation's moral and human toll? It is too much to expect that one video alone will change anything. But as Eric Garner's death showed, a video can start conversation. And having that conversation matters.