The Precarious Life of the Palestinian Image: Reflections in the Wake of Gaza

By Nick Denes

nakba-ryuichi-hirokawa.jpgNakba: Palestine 1948, 2008

The Gaza Strip was turned into “death’s laboratory” over the new year as Israel’s festively-named Operation Cast Lead saw it wage war against an effectively defenceless population – one already starved, and brutalised by years of siege.[1] To counter a perceived loss of deterrence resulting from the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel’s strategists determined that the military would now “refrain from the cat and mouse games of searching for Qassam rocket launchers” applying instead “force that is disproportionate to the enemy's actions and the threat it poses”,[2] and aimed at causing “intense suffering among the population”.[3]

Over 22 days, more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them civilian – over 400 women and children.[4] While the international media was corralled at a distance, defence technology journals overflowed with breathless accounts of “gear making its combat debut”[5] and British counterterrorism experts assured us there had never “been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.”[6]

As news of atrocities continued to seep out of Gaza it seemed crude to trouble over an image; to ask if, and how, these latest barbarities could, or should, be brought home. What fresh images of carnage might Israel’s experimental deployment of Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) anti-personnel ordinance yield? What spectre of despair might its “unprecedented, coordinated use of the one-ton MK84 Joint Direct Attack Munition”[7] on the world’s densest urban/human fabric furnish? And what would such images do beyond grimly confirming the claim of weapons scientist and politician Yitzhak Ben-Israel that Israel’s “new rules of play” signalled a “milestone that would be etched in the historic memory of the Middle East”?[8]

But the struggle to become visible, to be recognized, and the struggle to simply exist, are – as the harmonised media and combat management strategies of the Israeli army underscore – inseparable. If the Palestinian body, home, and family is today targeted in a gruesome arithmetic linking existence with resistance and resistance with death, Israel’s latest efforts to place Gaza beyond the media gaze confirm that even that ephemeral moment of visibility in death is itself to be eradicated. This turn to targeting the Palestinian civilian is perhaps new – if not doctrinally or operationally, certainly in terms of the overt articulation of that doctrine. But Israel has form when it comes to targeting its counterpart – the Palestinian image. Tactics of eradication and fabrication link the historic erasure of native presences undertaken to transform Palestinian space into the “Zionist homelandscape” with the Israeli military’s new YouTube channel, launched on the eve of the Gaza offensive.[9] The battle for an image is an indispensible corollary of the battle for survival; and it is a battle in which filmmakers play a crucial role.

Azza el-Hassan’s Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image (2004) seeks out the lost Palestinian film archive – targeted by Israel in 1982 – recounting the sacrifices of the PLO Film Unit cadre who first set out to assert Palestine’s revolution on celluloid. Not by chance did one of the few films to survive take its defiantly ironic title They Do Not Exist (Mustafa Abu-Ali, 1974) from Golda Meir’s notorious bid to wish away Palestinian existence. Even as this formative period of militant cinema furnished a particular repertoire of iconic images of guerrilla heroism, it was always richer than mere nationalism. Palestine’s revolution resonated with global significance. Godard, Gorin and Miéville used the same 16mm camera Abu-Ali would use for They Do Not Exist while covering the resistance movement in their study Here and Elsewhere (1974)[10]. Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi joined Ghassan Kanafani and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to produce the militant battlecry JRA [Japanese Red Army]-PFLP Declaration of Global War in 1971. The Palestinian films made in this period thus emerged redolent with the symbols and vocabularies of global as well as national revolutions in political, aesthetic, and cinematic grammar.

By the 1980s, the Hollywood imaginary of the Arab and Islamic world was defined by US imperial traumas. The Iranian revolution, followed by military losses in Lebanon, exacerbated wounds inflicted on the US self-image in Vietnam. As Melanie McAlister shows, Israel’s Entebbe operation, its perceived military prowess, and the affinities involved in its status as a favoured US ally allowed these failures to be washed from cinematic consciousness in a tide of productions lionising Israel’s victories over a mutilated ‘Arab’ object. Israel came “to function as a stage upon which the war in Vietnam was refought – and this time won.”[11]

In the resulting deluge of racist objectification, colonial misogyny, and orientalist fantasy, the Israeli-directed/produced Delta Force franchise, where Chuck Norris’s Vietnam-vet repeatedly pulverises a demonic ‘Abdul’, is arguably the most torrid example. That the film’s climactic scenes called for “Oriental” buildings to be spectacularly detonated led the crew to the Palestinian town of Jaffa, where Zionism’s colonial imperative of architectural erasure and the film’s own violences dovetailed to clear the way for an upmarket Israeli housing development on the ruins of Palestinian buildings razed by Norris.[12]

This outpouring of denigration proved fertile ground for a quintessential sub-genre of Palestinian video art. Masterfully lampooning its content, Jayce Salloum and Elia Suleiman’s Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990, showing LPFF 2009) is a foundational exercise in subversive filmmaking. A variant of what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam call “media jujitsu”, the film “hilariously deconstructs mass-media orientalism” such that “the stereotypes fall of their own weight”.[13] The work, which saw the emergence of Suleiman (Divine Intervention, 2002, showing LPFF 2009), should be considered alongside a series of interventions critiquing “Western” cine-tactics. Jack Shaheen’s 2001 Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People catalogues these repertoires, finding 52 “even-handed” and 12 “positive” depictions out of some 1,000 films featuring Arabs since 1896.[14] The US Media Education Foundation turned Shaheen’s book into a documentary in 2006. It also provoked Palestinian filmmaker Jackie Salloum’s spoof trailer Plant of the Arabs (2003).

space-exodus-larissa-sansour.jpgSpace Exodus, 2009

Palestinian artists have challenged for the image by spiking the orientalist gaze in other novel ways. With a series of shorts, Larissa Sansour has reimagined “Western” TV and celluloid classics, often casting herself, the Palestinian diasporic female, in paradigmatic screen roles. With Happy Days (2006), SBARA (2008) and now A Space Exodus (2009, showing LPFF 2009), she re-orients iconic imaginaries to confront the Palestine question. Artist Sharif Waked maps the humiliating violence of Israel’s occupation across the commodified aesthetics of the designer catwalk in Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints (2003). And Ihab Jadallah’s The Shooter (2007) mocks genre Westerns while asking, in Baudrillardian fashion, if ultimately “Palestinians have become ‘performers’ of dramatic international newscasts” and Palestine merely a “stage” in a production of uncertain substance.

The Palestinian cinema voice has always been too diffuse, complex, diasporic, and intersectional to indulge the absolutism inhering in sections of postcolonial thought on authenticity, authority, and indigenousness. The new award-winning Palestinian fiction of Annemarie Jacir (Salt of this Sea, 2008, showing LPFF 2009), Najwa Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh, 2009) or Sameh Zoabi (Be Quiet, 2006) is enriched by these directors’ explorations of complex personal-geographic and aesthetic-political trajectories involved in exile, return, and the pursuit of home.

Moreover, as Suleiman’s collaboration with Lebanese-Canadian Salloum underlined, this struggle to assert an image is not just about who asserts it but how it is asserted. This point is critical to understanding why the global success of Waltz With Bashir has caused consternation. What should we conclude when it is a perpetrator’s rite of expiation for atrocities occluded beneath layers of rotoscope irrealism, that brings one massacre of Palestinians to world screens while another is being prepared and executed? Director Ari Folman submits a context of discretely bracketed (and hence forgotten) Palestinian pain, but also, and ultimately, of Israeli trauma. In terms of providing useful historic or political context, as Hussein Ibish writes, the film “does a significant disservice to its audience”; Naira Antoun wryly notes that this absence makes “the film great for a general audience because one doesn’t need to know any background information to appreciate” it. Thus divested of past or present context, Israeli Lebanon War veteran, Liel Leibovitz argues “all we have is just a pretty animated film.”[15]

Compare this with Ryuichi Hirokawa’s Nakba: Palestine 1948 (2008, UK premiere LPFF 2009). Hirokawa was one of the first photojournalists to enter Sabra and Shatilla after the massacres in 1982, just as he was one of the first to enter Gaza this January. His documentary charts a four decade visual, personal, and political excavation at the heart of the Palestine question. His is a context of overlaid histories and contested narratives, huge losses, appalling suffering, and enduring resistance. But it is one of continuity and coherence rather than Folman’s amnesia. As the film’s name suggests, Hirokawa never once loses sight of the defining element which unites the cruel barbarism of Sabra and Shatilla with this winter’s atrocities in Gaza and the fragmented ruins of Palestinian homes he finds part-hidden beneath Israel’s Kibbutzim. This is a trajectory marked by expulsion, destruction, and exile – the core context which explains the vulnerable condition of both the Palestinian life and image.

It is in Abdelsalam Shehadeh’s latest documentary, To My Father (2008, UK premiere LPFF 2009), that this historic struggle to exist and be visible as image and nation, gains its most direct treatment. Gaza-born news cameraman turned producer-director, Shehadeh is no stranger to the politics of the gaze. His film draws on archival stills and contemporary interviews to map a genealogy of the portrait photograph in the Gaza Strip. From fanciful studio portraits of newlyweds or graduates, to poster-portraits of the slain; from portraits exchanged to tie scattered families together, to albums seized so soldiers can trace and imprison loved ones; from their global distribution in aid agency PR campaigns, to their proliferation as tools of surveillance and control under occupation, Shehadeh shows the portrait to be the contested artefact of life-and-death struggles at the very heart of the Palestinian experience. His recollection of anxiously waiting for school portraits captures the precariousness of this condition – “Will it be nice? Ugly? Or burned?”

they-do-not-exist-mustafa-abu-ali.jpgThey Do Not Exist, 1974

What is at stake in this contest is, of course, more than an image. Affirming, illuminating, and powerful, though these vital interventions are, they can never convey the true horror of Gaza’s latest ordeal. Lebanese director Carol Mansour’s A Summer Not to Forget (2007, showing LPFF 2009) perhaps comes closest to doing this. Short, visceral, deeply disturbing, her unflinching account of the 2006 war and its civilian toll is far too real, too raw, and too honest to have yet made it onto UK screens. But these images provide a necessary reminder of what is at stake in a struggle being fought against forces seeking to eradicate the lives and homes, as well as the images and evidences of Palestinian existence.


[1] Halinan, Conn, “Gaza: Death’s Laboratory”, Foreign Policy in Focus, February 11th 2009: The name “Cast Lead” (יצוקה עופרת) is taken a Hannukah poem by Haim Nachman Bialik; it refers to the spinning top, or dreidel, traditionally enjoyed by Jewish children during the holiday.
[2] Siboni,G., “Disproportionate Force: Israel’s Concept of Response in Light of the Second Lebanon War”, INSS Insight (74), Oct. 2008.
[3] Eiland, G., “The Third Lebanon War: Target Lebanon” INSS Strategic Assessment, 11 (2), Nov. 2008, pp. 9-17, p. 16.
[4] Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Press Release, March. 12th 2009.
[5] “Israel Uses New ISR Systems, Ordnance”, HS Daily Wire, Jan. 5th 2009. Online
[6] Col. Richard Kemp, interviewed on BBC World, January 9th 2009.
[7] “Israel Uses New ISR Systems”, op. cit.
[8] Ben-Israel, Yitzhak, “New Rules of Play: Strategic Importance of Gaza Operation Much Greater than we Assume”, YNET, Jan. 30th 2009.
[9] Azrayahu, Maoz, and Golan, Arnon, “Zionist Homelandscapes (and their constitution) in Israeli Geography”, Social and Cultural Geography, 5(3), Sept. 2004, pp. 497-513.
[10] I thank Mohanad Yaqubi of Idioms Film for bringing this to my attention.
[11] McAlister, Melanie, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 , Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 2001, pp. 157-9
[12] Monterescu, Daniel, “The Banality of Neo-Liberal Urban Planning: Gated Communities and the Politics of Palestinian Dispossession in Jaffa”, Presentation, States of Exception, Surveillance and Population Management: The Case of Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, December 6-7, 2008.
[13] Shohat, Ella, and Stam, Robert, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, New York and London: Routledge, 1995, p. 351
[14] Shaheen, Jack, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, New York: Roundhouse Publishing, 2001.
[15] Ibish, Hussein, “A Waltz With The Dogs of Memory”, The Nation, February 24th 2009 Antoun, Naira, “Film Review: Waltz With Bashir”, Electronic Intifada, February 19th 2009. Leibovitz, Liel, “Waltzing Alone”, The Nation, February 19th 2009.

The 10th London Palestine Film Festival runs from April 24th to May 8th 2009 at the Barbican Cinema and SOAS, University of London. Along with others, Ryuichi Hirokawa and Abdelsalam Shehadeh will be attending and speaking about their films for the first time in the UK. Full programme details and ticketing information are available online:

Nick Denes is co-director of the Palestine Film Foundation, which curates the London Palestine Film Festival. He is completing a PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London (