What To Make of This Picture?
It appears on the front page of the June 21 Times, prominently displayed over three columns, albeit below the fold. Young Palestinian girl, dead Palestinian militant. “Terrorist,” in Israeli parlance. Human being, obviously, in the girl’s language, hopefully too young to have acquired the promiscuity of adults’ linguistic perversions. The fatal dichotomy is all there — not between innocence and “evil.” That would too easily play into prejudiced assumptions. But between the attempt to dehumanize the enemy and the ultimate futility of the attempt. In the end, the truth is in the girl’s eyes, not her tormentors’, no matter their side.
The photograph is by the Associated Press’ Eyad Albaba. The cutline: “A girl mourned over the body of a militant who was killed yesterday in the Gaza Strip. At least six Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank.” The cutline supposedly refers to the story inside, on page A10 of the national edition. But it doesn’t, really. And there, right off, is a subtle, if maybe unintentional, way to mislead the reader. The news from Gaza in the last few days has been all about the internecine war between Hamas and Fatah, the two Palestinian factions battling for control of Gaza. Fatah lost. The picture, at first glance, could be assumed to have been part of that battle. The cutline clarifies the story somewhat: apparently clashes have been fierce enough between Israelis and Palestinians to lead to casualties on that score, too. Maybe the story on A10 goes into details.
It doesn’t, except for those 94 words: “Also on Wednesday, at least six Palestinian militants were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli Air Force attacked two rocket launchers in northern Gaza after they had fired two rockets into Israel. It was the first time the Israeli military had responded to rocket fire or clashed with Palestinians in Gaza since Hamas seized power there last week. Some nine Qassam rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza, with one Israeli lightly wounded. Islamic Jihad and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, linked to Fatah, claimed responsibility.” If, then, the “militant” in the picture was killed in clashes with the Israeli army, he couldn’t possibly be a terrorist. The Times judiciously referred to him as a militant, although no effort is made to identify the circumstances of his death, nor even to confirm that he was, in fact, a militant. Age and demeanor shouldn’t substitute for certainty in journalism, as they so often do for the Israeli army. This, then, is about the old battle going on between Palestinians and Israelis.
The dispatch on A10 is datelined Gaza, for a change. American reporters covering the Gaza war like doing it from the remote and comfortable confines of their offices in Jerusalem, within proximity to their favorite coffee shop and the slickest Israeli public information officer. Not this time. The article is by the seasoned Steven Erlanger, who pulled off an interview with Mahmoud Zahar, “perhaps the most influential leader in Gaza.” The perhaps is necessary, Israeli missiles being in the habit of making the notion of a Hamas leader as ephemeral as that of Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety. As noted a moment ago, the story doesn’t refer at all to the girl or the militant, who could be Hamas, Fatah, Republican, or even a militant from one of those teeming break-away larval groups that thrive and multiply in the muck of anarchy, like the supposed “Army of Islam” holding BBC correspondent for 100 days, whose leader even Hamas’ Mahmoud Zahar calls “ignorant and illiterate.”
None of which should be relevant in the context of the picture. Affiliations and convictions are meaningless with death. The corpse in front of the girl isn’t that of a militant anymore, but of a man who’ll no longer be in her life. In her eyes, as in the eyes of most children who can’t even spell partisanship or militancy’s multi-syllabic zealotries, the man is what he would be if he had been just killed while driving down an American interstate: a father or a parent, his claim to extremism no more remarkable than any ordinary man’s frustrations with suburban stupor, his dearth no more explicable than if he’d been hit by lightning—which, in this militant’s case, may very well have happened: there is such a thing as manufactured, laser-guided lightning with explosives for a bonus. Made in the USA, too.
In Gaza’s context, men are made beasts, children are made vermin, and when they act as such, they’re termed terrorists and animals. It’s not a stretch to assume that most of those seeing that picture, among American readers, would see the word “militant” as code for “terrorist,” and would judge the man as such, and the girl as someone vaguely related by complicity rather than by blood: hasn’t the history of Palestinians’ intifada been replete with images of young boys stoning Israelis? Well then… The reality is that nothing, absolutely nothing, separates that girl from a West Bank girl or an Israeli girl mourning over a dead man killed in her family, keeping in mind, of course, that for every Israeli death, Israel makes sure to tally up at least ten Palestinian deaths. The surprise, in this case, is that it’s a militant who’s about to taste the fauna of six feet under, as opposed to a child. Nevertheless, the child in the picture is tasting death plenty, and too proximately. So goes the lot of life in Gaza. This is no longer a war between an unjust and a remotely just cause. This war within a war within a war has become no different than a generalized cancer that indiscriminately attacks and destroys as uncontrollably as the body it’s infecting will allow, until it dies. There are no good cancer cells and bad cancer cells anymore than there are good Palestinians or bad Palestinians, let alone good or bad Israelis. This is what they’ve created together, with generous help from their friends, the United States, drug-pusher like, chief among them. This is the consequence of intransigence and indifference. Hamas, for all its monstrosity, could not possibly exist without an environment made propitious for its existence. That environment, Israel, more than anyone, enabled, by turning Gaza, and to a lesser extent the West Bank, into a hermetic garbage dump with its own methane for oxygen. Hamas is the cholera that Israel’s fixation on demeaning Arabs to the level of parasites has made possible.
It’s no wonder monstrosities like Hamas emerged, although they’re merely less polished monstrosities than the neatly uniformed, eloquently imperious Israeli monstrosities from whose sub-prime rib they emerged. To say that they deserve each other (as even I have in the past) is too easy, too convenient, too dismissive of the truth at the heart of it all. No, it’s not what they deserve, because this is not what the girl deserves. It’s not what 1.5 million people living on a literal and littoral strip of land no bigger than the average small meaningless American county deserve, nor is it what the 6 million-odd Israelis living in their New jersey-like strip of land deserve, although let’s not be coy with relativizing everything: Israelis aren’t living anywhere near the dehumanized conditions they impose on Palestinians, nor is their battle anywhere near the “existential” one Palestinians have not only been fighting, but effectively losing: There is no such thing as a Palestinian identity, let alone a Palestinian homeland, to speak of. Not even in the quasi-Palestinian lands known as the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, this is undeserved. But until every last Palestinian sees every Israeli the way this girl in the picture sees the dead man, and until every last Israeli sees every Palestinian, “militants” included, the way the girl sees the dead man, there is no hope. The only hope is in the girl’s grief, the moment it’s understood and accepted as universal, and the moment the origins of her grief are accepted as universally reprehensible.