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East Jerusalem: Bearing Witness With Cameras

By David Snyder

Seated on a covered couch in a small room of their family home, twins Mona and Mohammed Alkurd are at obvious ease with the technology scattered on the coffee table before them. At 13 years old, Mona and Mohammed are among the youngest of a unique group of volunteers in the West Bank and Gaza, telling their sometimes harrowing stories through the lens of the video camera.

Mohammed and Mona with video camera

Mohammed Alkurd, 13, and his twin sister, Mona, review video footage on a camera provided by CRS partner agency B'Tselem. The pair are project volunteers who videotape tensions between Israeli settlers and local Arabs. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"One of our neighbors had a camera. There was fighting between Arabs and Israeli settlers, and he gave us the camera to use," says Mohammed. "Through that we met B'Tselem."

Documenting Violence

An Israeli human rights organization working to document the effects of Israeli policies and practices in the West Bank and Gaza, B'Tselem launched the unique Visual Impact project in 2007 with three main goals: to promote debate among the Israeli public, to provide accurate information to the international community about human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, and to encourage policy changes to ensure protection of human rights there.

Through the project, B'Tselem set out to equip volunteers in the Palestinian territories with video cameras they could use to document human rights abuses.

"The idea was to give a camera to a family in Hebron who lived surrounded by settlers," says Ehab Tarabieh, camera project coordinator for B'Tselem in Jerusalem. "We gave them a camera to document the violence there."

Mona films in her community of Sheikh Jarrah

Using a video camera provided by an Israeli human rights organization, Mona Alkurd, 13, films the effects of Israeli policies on her community of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

From that one idea, the Visual Impact project was born, spreading quickly to include more than 200 volunteers across the West Bank and Gaza. Supported by Catholic Relief Services, the project provides each volunteer with a video camera and basic operating instructions, including how to transmit the video to B'Tselem. B'Tselem uses the unedited video in legal cases involving human rights abuse. The organization also makes the video available to national and international media free of charge.

"I think if we can make something better for someone who has a problem, then the project is a success," says Tarabieh. "This is the aim of the project."

But in a region fraught with often explosive tensions, Tarabieh is also careful not to place volunteers in harm's way. In addition to their technical training, volunteers learn that no shot is worth risking physical harm.

For Mohammed, who has filmed several confrontations with Israeli settlers in his community of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, it is a lesson he takes to heart. "Every time I record a settler, I am careful about what will happen to me," he says.

Capturing Everyday Life

For Mohammed and Mona, however, the cameras are not just used to record acts of violence. As often as 3 days each week, the twins walk the neighborhood to videotape their daily lives—even events as mundane as picking olives or relaxing with their family. Their footage, and that of other volunteers, is archived at the B'Tselem office, where more than 3,000 hours of video have been gathered since the project began.

Intelligent and confident, caught up in a complex and emotionally charged conflict, Mohammed and Mona have both come to rely on the camera as a way to express their hopes, fears and frustrations. Of his many aspirations, Mohammed says his time with the video camera has encouraged him to pursue a career as a storyteller and videographer. Mona, drawn more toward the still image, says that her experience with the project has shaped her insight and inspired her to share her voice with others through the visual arts.

"At first I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I began to think that I had the ability, so I want to become a photographer," Mona says. "I would like to tell our story through the image."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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