Smile For the Camera, That’s an Order

Lt. Col Eisner hitting an ISM activist in the face with his M-16 rifle. Will soldiers soon be armed with cameras as well as guns? | Photo credit: ISM

Combatants trained as photographers

“We concluded that it was preferable to present our own material rather than rely solely on the material that the other side rushes to put out. We started developing the field of tactical documentation. The idea was that we would carry out documentation wherever the army was active,” Kitri explains.

Initial courses were offered at the time. Having purchased dozens of cameras and video recorders, the IDF preferred to train some of its combatants as photographers rather than embed external photographers within its ranks.

Kitri admits that there have been many gaffes and blunders in the area of tactical documentation. The issue has not been sufficiently assimilated into commanders’ awareness, and regional brigades have repeatedly avoided letting in a tactical documenter.

“During that period,” says Kitri, “the question was ‘a photographer or a sniper?’ In other words, when you send a vehicle on a military mission and you have one vacant seat, who do you do? Take a military photographer or another sniper with you?”

“We tried to develop the theory that it would make more sense to take a photographer and to instill the idea among commanders that this was a type of weapon. That dismissing or ignoring this principle would boomerang. But it was hard to make that trickle down to the troops in the field.”

In the following years, further attempts were made to embed tactical documenters in a more widespread and professional fashion. But this largely failed, in part because of the prolonged and unwieldy process of disseminating the filmed material and photos, and because of the IDF’s difficulty in competing with the enormous number of cameras making the rounds in Judea and Samaria.

These include cameras of human rights organizations like B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and its Camera Project, which provides cameras to Palestinians in high-conflict areas. This also includes Jewish settlers who understand the power and importance of documenting police and military activities following the 2006 demolition of homes in the Amona settlement outpost.

There has been a palpable shift in recent years in the IDF’s understanding of the importance of documenting its activities and in its professional preparedness to do so. Efforts have been made to tailor its capabilities to these fast-paced technological times. The IDF has begun to employ cameras at flash points of conflict. This is not just for the sake of defense but a means of collecting evidence during incidents of public unrest and confrontation between Palestinians and settlers or soldiers.

There is an increasing realization among officers and soldiers in the field that everything is now documented by means of digital camera or mobile phone. Everyone does it: Jewish settlers, Palestinians, Israeli left-wing activists, and foreign activists. Priorities have changed and awareness has increased. As have the orders to soldiers in the field.

A position paper distributed to every battalion deployed in ongoing security operations in Judea and Samaria outlines “dos and don’ts.” It stresses to soldiers that Judea and Samaria are awash with cameras and that their working assumption should be that they are constantly being photographed.

When preparing to evacuate settlement outposts, for example, commanding officers in the field receive a clear order to bring a camera to every event. There is an emphasis on the importance of capturing broad shots, including as many details and incidents as possible in one frame. In addition, they are asked to “freeze” the entire picture upon their arrival at the scene. In other words, to film and document the outpost before evacuation begins. They will later film and document every minute of the evacuation-in-progress, including dialogue between the military and police or settlers, any clashes that occur, and finally, the demolition of buildings.

A senior defense official told me about a briefing of soldiers that took place a few months ago on the eve of a major, predicted demonstration by Palestinians at one of the most sensitive conflict sites in Judea and Samaria. The division commander stressed the following: “Don’t play into their hands. Don’t use unnecessary force. Assume that everything will be documented on camera.”

The greatest shift and upgrade in the field of tactical documentation took place over the last year. In response to orders from the head of the IDF Ground Forces Command, about 100 combatants now also serve as tactical documenters. They are distributed among all battalions, with particular emphasis on divisions in Judea and Samaria.

After attending a special training course, they are equipped with the most sophisticated cameras on the market, featuring mobile communications which permit the broadcast of footage in real time. In the past, a military photographer had to leave the field after taking pictures and travel as far as the IDF Spokesman’s Office in order to disseminate them. This ate up a great deal of precious time. Current technology permits tactical documenters to send material directly from the field to a special war room established in the IDF Spokesman’s Office at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The IDF is also now taking steps to establish a special tactical documentation company. It would in effect serve as an elite company within the IDF Spokesman’s unit. Soldiers with a background in professional photography would serve in it, and candidates would be identified as early as their initial enlistment screening. After completing the course and settling into the new company, they would be deployed and dispatched to events and missions which could have a significant and explosive impact in the media.

Tactical documenters do not merely film conflict – they document military exercises, briefings, etc. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit previously provided material to the media at a very late date, when it was no longer relevant or interesting. The unit should now be able to distribute material at an expedited pace.

Still, the unit finds it difficult to keep pace and compete with the speed of social networks. “It was never this way before,” says Kitri. “The army is a fighting organization, with different skills. The mobile phone is the declared enemy of a military spokesman. When any incident in the field requiring clarification takes place, IDF spokespeople send a query up and down, the chain of command to get an answer, and this takes time. The query goes to the division level, then the battalion level, then the company level, until it reaches the sergeant in the field who saw what happened, and who now has to provide the answer.”

“By the time the answer gets back to the IDF spokesman, the event has already been publicized on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every possible blog, before anyone has taken the time to clarify or process the issue. The information has been distributed, and by that point, it’s over. The IDF spokesman will forever continue to play catch-up with events and try to explain them. That’s the reality and it isn’t going to change.”

Despite that pessimistic assessment, the IDF is attempting to contend with “digital speed.” The IDF opened its first Twitter account three months ago. It is operated by a few soldiers who take pains to tweet ongoing reports about various news events. The army’s official Facebook page was also launched for the first time this year, and has already earned 95,000 “likes.”

The problem is conduct

If awareness of cameras has increased to such an extent, how did the shameful event in the Jordan Valley involving Lt. Col. Eisner take place? The IDF admits that it had no preliminary knowledge of the protesters’ intention to block the road. Thus, when the reserve company under Lt. Col. Eisner’s command arrived at the site, they lacked a tactical documenter, and there were no batteries in the one camera that was available. IDF officials say that what happened in the Jordan Valley was a gaffe. Not because Lt. Col. Eisner was caught on camera, but because his conduct was unbecoming to an army that prizes ethics and morals.

“A correct analysis of what happened there would take the media into account,” said Reserve Brig. Gen. Kitri. “One can see from the footage that many photographers were present and surrounded the event. When examining the photographed material in hindsight, one realizes that media were not taken into account.”“It’s like walking forward, knowing there’s a pit, and falling into it anyway. This was by definition a provocative situation. It was a demonstration. In such cases, it is incumbent upon us to take the media side of things into account, not get into a situation where you don’t think about the implications of your presence and actions. The damage was more the result of the officer’s violent actions toward an unarmed civilian than from any lack of documentation on our part.”

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