"We who came out of Unit 8200, men and women reservists past and present, declare that we refuse to take part in activities against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as instruments to deepen the military rule over the occupied territories."
So began a letter drafted and signed in September 2014 by veterans of Unit 8200, Israel's most elite and secret Army intelligence unit. The letter, which addressed the state's political and military leaders, declared a rejection of Israel's military rule over the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The signatories pointed to practices of information-gathering that expose the Palestinian population to surveillance and use espionage as a tool to expand military control. In an effort to uphold national security, all media interviews with the signatories were performed with their faces obscured, and the Military Censor removed aspects of their testimonies before they became available to the public. In their piece Image Blockade (2015), artists Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela of the collaborative Exterritory revisit the issues of censorship in Unit 8200 by scientifically examining how enforced restriction of information shapes and affects visual and auditory cortices of the brain.
Currently on display in the New Museum's Triennial, their single-channel video depicts an experiment designed by Exterritory in collaboration with neurobiologists at the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel. The scientists used MRI technology to measure the brain activity of a random group of subjects and a group of active-duty veterans from Unit 8200 as they watched clips of media interviews with anonymized 8200 dissidents. Additionally, the artists overlaid the clips with unconfirmed allegations on classified topics that would not have gone uncensored, including cyber warfare and violations of international human rights treaties. Subjects were then asked to identify the clips that had been altered to contain censored texts.
After watching the clips, participants spoke while laying in the claustrophobic space of the MRI machine staring upwards, the tops of their heads barely visible. Although their faces were hidden, a split screen revealed the inner workings of their brain. Comparing brain activity during the screening of the clips with the "rest period" in which no footage was shown, a scientist explained that 'yellow' indicates an increase in response, while 'blue' indicates a decrease. Unlike the other subjects, members of Unit 8200 experienced an increase in brain activity while watching clips containing sensitive information that would have been removed by the Military Censor. When methods of cyber warfare were mentioned, for example, their brain scans lit up yellow in the frontal lobe and auditory cortices, areas of the brain associated with regulating critical thought, speech, and vision.
1.1 Designation (documents or information) as officially secret or to which only authorized people may access.
The first clip shown to the subjects begins with a veteran of Unit 8200 describing the process by which he and his colleagues in the intelligence corps began to question their roles in upholding the military occupation. He asks, "How were we responsible?" This type of video is nothing out of the ordinary. Avi Mograbi, Israeli documentary filmmaker known for his film Z32 about an anonymous Israeli ex-soldier, calls confession "the mother of all testimonies in Israel."1 The continuous reproduction and reinterpretation of myth and traumatic memories are a popular genre within Israeli culture. The soldier who ‘shoots and weeps’ became a prominent symbol in Israeli popular discourse after the 1967 War, giving way to a derogatory phrase: “The Shooting and Crying” syndrome.
While soldier testimony produced today, most notably by NGO Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika), exposes the Israeli public to IDF abuses, including invasive body searches, the destruction of Palestinian property, and the sanctioning of settler violence, the Unit 8200 interviews are unique in that they center on the invisible structures that uphold the occupation – practices of hacking, encrypting, and transmitting information to monitor Palestinian society, among others. As the soldier in the first clip explains, “We now understand that the 8200 intelligence unit is the foundation of military control in the Territories and we understand that not only the soldier at the checkpoint or the soldier that pulls the trigger is accountable, we are accountable too.”
Yet the oppositional stance of Unit 8200 is limited, since from the beginning it follows the national security laws, allowing interviewees’ faces to be obscured and their words to filter through the Military Censor before being broadcast. Image Blockade is a commentary not only on censorship “from above,” but also on how the rubric of secrecy surrounding vast machinery of intelligence gathering, surveillance, and intimidation is inscribed into the individual brain. Just as Eyal Weizman’s “forensic architecture” considers the impact of spatial structures on political violence, so too does The Exterritory Project reimagine subjectivity, the relationship between the body and mind, and how notions of national security impact both. By focusing on how the internal workings of occupation alter the internal structures of the brain Image Blockade raises further questions on the potentiality of using medical technology for purposes of witnessing and truth seeking.
1.2 Arrange (a group of people of things) in classes or categories according to shared qualities of characteristics.
The piece moves beyond questions of mere censorship to consider the complicated ways that ideology impacts upon sight and actively arranges not only what we see, but also how we perceive what is visible. In Israeli society, conditions of visibility and how data is interpreted are linked to demands that nation, state and occupation impose at particular moments. Ariella Azoulay writes about “visual literacy lessons”, in which it is possible for a 1948 photograph of Israeli soldiers sitting with goods looted from Palestinian homes to become evidence of wartime triumph rather than atrocity2. Within the dominant image regime, the photo fails to signify Israeli violence and is instead re-classified as heroic nation-making.
Image Blockade raises even more important questions on how data is made intelligible and put to work for state projects. Participants grapple, verbally and neurologically, with what is or should be classified as an unacceptable injustice versus so-called ‘acceptable’ or ‘necessary’ violence. In one piece of footage, a soldier recounts how after successfully bombing a target from afar, soldiers filled the control room with cries of joy and marked an “X on the headphones, X on the composites on the wall,” indicating yet another “hit.” Another anonymous soldier recounts the blackmail used against Palestinians: “If you’re a homosexual who knows someone who’s wanted, we had to know about that and then Israel will make your life miserable.”
In the first testimony, most participants agreed that while it is possible that the soldiers could speak openly about hitting targets, the description of the Xs and the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the killing would surely be cut by the Military Censor since it throws into question the standing of “the world’s most ethical army.” In the second testimony, participants for the most part commented that blackmail of Palestinians is common knowledge in Israel. One participant wondered whether “the end justifies the means” and commented that blackmailing is “not something that 8200 invented, every intelligence agency does that to procure information.” Another participant jokingly noted that Unit 8200 is so lesbian friendly that indeed “they’re all lesbians.” When asked whether they could’ve been blackmailed with that information, he responds, “No, not me, but if I were a Palestinian then I assumed [I] could.”
This moment captures what Jasbir Puar terms "assemblages," in which complex manifestations of sexualized racism, racialized nationalism and gendered practices converge at specific political moments. The limit of what is perceived as an acceptable injustice is tied to an awareness of Israel’s exceptionalism, both as a ‘lesbian friendly’ state that can mobilize sexuality as a policing mechanism, and as a state that perceives itself as existing in a continual state of emergency in which the ends always justify the means. Critical public discourse ends at the boundary at which the state can no longer be perceived as exceptional or acting under exceptional circumstances. A deep understanding of this border, in which information is classified as acceptable or inacceptable, as injustice or necessity, is reflected not only in the actions of the chief Military Censor but also in the inner workings of the brain.
1. Joram ten Brink, “The Killer’s Search for Absolution: Z32, Avi Mograbi,” in Killer Images: documentary film, memory and the performance of violence, eds. Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (London: Wallflower Press, 2012), 258.
2. Azoulay, Ariella (2011). “Declaring the State of Israel: Declaring a State of War”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 2 (winter), p. 279 and Azoulay, A. “Palestine as Symptom, Palestine as Hope: Revising Human Rights Discourse”. In Critical Inquiry Vol. 40, No. 4, Around 1948: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Global Transformation, edited by Leela Gandhi and Deborah L. Nelson (Summer 2014), pp. 332-364.
Shimrit Lee is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Her research concentrates on visual cultures of militarism with a focus on the commodification of war in international arms fairs, specifically in Israel/Palestine.