Special section: Gaza in focus
Seeing Gaza differently
by Inez Hedges
2024 marks the centennial of the death of Franz Kafka, whose writings presaged the apocalyptic events of the 20th, and now the 21st centuries. Today Gaza is like the landscape he described in a nightmare: “I was walking in a great illuminated hall, but when I went to open the door to leave, the door opened onto an abrupt cliff that blocked the exit. The same happened with the second door—you could see all the way up and into the distance left and right but there was no way out.” 
The air, land, and sea blockade of Gaza is now in its 16th year. Children that were 5 and 6 years old when the blockade started are now in their 20s and trying to plan their professional futures within the travel limits set by Israel and Egypt. According to OCHA (the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), even before the outbreak of new hostilities between Hamas and Israel, of the more than 2.3 million people living in Gaza, 26 % of the workforce was unemployed, including 38% of youth; 75% of the population required food aid; over 90 % of the water was undrinkable and had to be purified. Residents were subjected to rolling electricity blackouts. Since the start of the blockade, Gaza has endured four major bombing attacks by Israel, in 2009, 2014, 2021 and just now in 2023. Despite all this, Gaza has refused to be reduced to the world’s image of suffering and disaster. Women worked to support their families (see the UNRWA video by Motaz Azaiza, https://www.instagram.com/p/CrMBXJLglOW/). Talented musicians took up the violin. Families enjoyed time at the beach. Young people learned computer skills—there is no blockade in cyberspace. Children played hide-and-seek, soccer, hopscotch—and sometimes made sorties to throw stones at soldiers manning the border crossings.
The varied aspects of Gaza are the subject of this special section of Jump Cut. Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone comments on the ongoing genocidal assault in Gaza. Gaza on Screen, the new book of essays edited by Nadia Yaqub (reviewed in this issue), rejects the “tired image of Gaza as victim.” Joan Mandell reflects on her experience of co-directing Gaza Ghetto in 1985. Israeli documentarian Yoav Shamir remembers filming the IDF as it removed settlers from Gaza in 2005. Alia Arasoughly, the founder of “Shashat Women Cinema,” explores the rich contributions of young women Gazan filmmakers, and celebrates their audiences, many of whom have lost their homes, livelihoods, and even lives in the past few months.
We need to see Gaza differently. In a July 2023 interview with Oraib Toukan, an artist, writer and educator based in Berlin, I asked her to comment for this introduction on the theme of seeing/not seeing in her art films. In many of them there are recurring images of eyes and recurring statements about seeing— the lone tear on the face of a wounded girl in Gaza in “When Things Occur” (2017), the testimony of a resident who watches the war from the inside of her apartment, the unseeing eye of a fallen statue in “Palace of the Slave” (2017); the tear on the statue of the Virgin Mary in “Via Dolorosa” (2021).
|“Palace of the Slave” by Oraib Toukan (2017)
|“Via Dolorosa” by Oraib Toukan (2021)
|“When Things Occur” by Oraib Toukan (2017)
I asked her to comment on how this theme of seeing/not seeing might apply to images of Gaza. She answered with this eloquent statement:
Oraib Toukan: “On July 26 2014, UK’s Channel 4 presenter, Jon Snow, returned from the 2014 war on Gaza and broadcast a poignant message on seeing things that are forever hard to ‘unsee.’ Looking directly at the camera, he says, ‘I’m back and in the comfort of this studio. It is hard to imagine I was ever away. I don’t need to imagine though, because what I saw is etched in my mind.’ He cuts to these very images, and now we, the spectators, see some of what he saw: ‘I can't get those images out of my mind,’ he says, and adds, ‘I don't think you can either.’
In this way, Snow not only acknowledged that bearing witness can happen from one meter away to thousands of kilometers away from the subject of suffering, but that tele-distance can only ever be about knowing that mediation is always at play, and yet feeling nevertheless. This intersection of encounters, where subjectivities meet, collude or collide toward what Judith Butler might call lives we can project with others, is critical to building alternative futures. In a way this is not unlike a moment in my film Offing (2021), where the Gaza-based artist Salman Nawati spoke about the illusion of freedom one feels on the shores of Gaza gazing at the horizon over the Mediterranean Sea. There the sky and the earth appear to touch each other, even when they do not, in fact, meet. In a similar light, in When Things Occur (2016) I analyze the behavior, migration, and political economy of the very picture of violence. The film was never meant to be a representation of Gaza, as place. On the contrary, I learned after making it, that a subject like ‘Gaza,’ intrinsically larger than any one rendition could ever stand for, disappears from view with every cruel image.
As Gaza-based photographer Rehaf Al Batniji made me realize— Gaza is an ‘unrenderable’ image. To render in montage is to process all the layers that go into creating that image and collapse them into one image. And yet Gaza is made of layers and layers of contradictory images of total life and total destruction, unnecessary rounds of grief and unnecessary rounds of applause , unfathomable despair and unfathomable hope. The problem is that some images do not retain a sense of imagining any other possibilities of being and relating, because they shut down the faculty of imagination and freeze the people they capture in time and space in a way they might never want to see themselves again. Such images can end up doing more to discipline onlookers than to mobilize them.
I began to ask new questions following that film about the impossibility of representation itself, about accidents and coincidences in lines of sight. I therefore embarked on studying other sensory organs than the eyes from which we “see.” From where in the body do we fathom an image? How does it even enter our awareness? In the Arabic language consciousness waʻe (وعي ) implies a self-awareness of sorts—they are in fact the same word. So is the guttural-world of the subconscious in Arabic (العَقْل الباطِن )—as if it’s an intestinal brain. The poet and writer Iman Mersal, thinks through the word kashf (كشف ) in Arabic—to unveil knowledge, to reveal it. Wendy Shaw, who works on postcolonial art historiographies of Islamic art, thinks through the sensory organ of the heart, and so on.
With this said, the eye appearing in my works perhaps began at least 15 years ago. Things took a turn, while looking through 16mm films during my PhD, and noticing every other pair of eyes that ever-laid eyes on the late Palestinian photographer and cinematographer Hani Jawharieh, who was in fact looking to capture them—the Palestinian subject. There I see gazes exchanged with him very much like moments in Chris Marker’s classic, Sans Soleil. So, I am definitely curious about the way images enter our consciousness, which may or may not begin on the very delicate surface of our eyes.”
Following these remarks by Oraib Toukan, how do we see/unsee Gaza? How do we understand Gaza, not as a problem that exists “out there,” but as a situation that affects all of us? For as surely as the techniques of control and surveillance are developed and deployed in Gaza, they will come home to roost for the rest of us, in due time.
2. For further reading: Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: a History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2020); Antony Loewenstein, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World (New York: Verso, 2023).