Mideast Photos: Compassion/Geopolitics

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the U.S. news media suppressed many images of dead and wounded Iraqis so as not undermine the feel-good patriotism, and a similar bias has held true for Palestinian victims of Israeli attacks. But that favoritism seems finally to be breaking down, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Some images move us, or at least should move us, to sudden insight into the consequences of our actions. Images of innocent victims of violence, particularly children, should have the capacity to penetrate the most hardened defenses and touch our hearts. However, the truth is that this does not always occur.

Skewed information environments, operating over time, may condition us to react with compassion only to images depicting the suffering of our own community. When many of us see the anguish we have caused an “enemy,” we feel not compassion or regret but annoyance. The reaction is: “Why are you showing me that? Don’t you know it is their (the other’s) own behavior that made us hurt them? It is their own fault.”

That we react this way to the horrors we are capable of causing is a sure sign that those same actions have dehumanized us.

The World Press Photo of 2012, depicting a funeral procession in Palestine. (Photo by Paul Hansen)

–On Feb. 15, The World Press Photo of the Year 2012 (seen here) was made public. The winning image (selected from 103,481 photos submitted by 5,666 photographers from 124 countries) was taken by Swedish photojournalist Paul Hansen, working for the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

The photo depicts a funeral procession in the narrow streets of Gaza. Two men, visibly expressing the emotions of anguish and anger, are leading the procession. They are carrying the bodies of two-year-old Sahaib Hijazi and her four-year old brother Muhammad. Both children are wrapped in white shrouds. Both were killed when their house was hit by an Israeli missile strike last Nov. 20.

In making the announcement of the winning image, Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography for The Associated Press, said, “A picture should engage the head, the heart and the stomach. This picture for us on the jury reached us on these three levels.”

Winning the prize with such a photo brought mixed emotions to Hansen, “I was very happy on one level, of course. And, I was also very sad. It was a very sad situation.”

–On Nov. 15, five days before Hansen’s photo was taken, another photograph showed up on the front page of the Washington Post. This image showed Jihad Masharawi, a Palestinian journalist resident in Gaza, in deep anguish as he holds the body of his dead 11-month-old son killed when an Israeli bomb landed on their home.

Mary Ann Golon, the Post’s director of Photography, explained, “When we looked at the selection that night of Middle East photos from the wire services, this photo got everyone in the gut. It went straight to the heart, this sobbing man who just lost his baby son.” It should also  have spoken to the head, but for some of the Post’s readers, that was not the case.

The fact that this image found its way onto the front page of the Washington Post meant that it was noticed by many more Americans than the Hansen photo. As a consequence  Zionist readers and organizations wrote to the paper’s ombudsman and the editors, “protesting the photo as biased.”

What they meant was that the Post should have somehow made it clear that the Palestinians had “made the Israelis do this” by periodically launching their small rockets into southern Israel. In other words, they wanted to know why the paper had not “balanced the photo of the grieving [Palestinian] father with one of Israelis who had lost a loved one from Gaza rocket fire.”

The answer was that, as of that date, there were no such victims in this round of fighting: “No Israeli had been killed by Gaza rocket fire since Oct. 29, 2011, more than a year earlier.”

The Post readers who complained were obviously ignorant of this fact. It is probably the case that the Washington Post itself had done nothing to enlighten them about the asymmetric nature of Israeli-Palestinian violence. However, even if the protesting readers were aware of this factor, it might have made little difference.

The grieving man was a Palestinian and, in the eyes of the staunch supporters of Israel, that made him responsible for his own grief. His enemy status delegitimized his emotions and thereby undercut the legitimacy of the photograph.

–As soon as the Washington Post image appeared, the Israeli military started posting images of wounded Israelis, particularly children. One emotionally moving photo of a wounded baby also ended up on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s official Twitter account. Thus began a sort of contest of emotionally moving pictures. Which ones would be seen and move the largest audience?

By virtue of their superior firepower and readiness to use it, the Israelis could not win this contest. They simply were out there killing and maiming more people than the Palestinians ever could. Thus it would be Palestinian suffering that was bound to provide the most newsworthy pictures.

This asymmetry was compounded by an apparent need, on the part of some Israelis, to advertise their willingness to be brutal. And so, Israeli images that were at once threatening and disturbing were posted on the Internet.

–For instance, on Feb. 15, an image was posted on Instagram, an image sharing website, by an Israeli soldier, Mir Ostrovski, who apparently belongs to a “sniper unit.” It shows the head and back of a Palestinian boy in the cross-hairs of a rifle. One assumes it is Ostrovski’s rifle.

Photograph taken by Israeli sniper Mir Ostrovski of the head of a Palestinian boy in the cross-hairs of a rifle scope.

The photo was commented upon by the organization Breaking Silence, which represents Israeli veterans critical of their government’s policies toward the Palestinians. “This is what the occupation looks like,” the group wrote, “[Such] pictures are testaments to the abuse of power rooted in the military control of another people.”

We can be pretty sure that was not Ostrovski’s take on the situation. The head in the crosshairs, despite its youth, belonged to an enemy.

The old cliche that tells us a picture is worth a thousand words says nothing about what those words might be. As it turns out, they are not determined by the image alone. They are also determined by the state of mind of the viewer and that mind is, in turn, embedded in an information environment.

In respect to Israel and Palestine, the West’s informational environment was once dominated by the Zionist narrative. That is no longer the case. The Palestinian narrative is now also present. That the first two images pasted above are in the news at all is a sign of this change.

As a result, the Zionist readers of the Washington Post cry foul and speak of “bias.” It would be better if they stopped complaining and tried to look at those images with an “unbiased” mind.

Perhaps it would help them do so if they considered the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and their application to the Palestinian frame of mind.

 If you prick us, do we not bleed?…if you poison

us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not

revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will

resemble you in that….The villainy you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I

will better the instruction.

The Israelis and their supporters should look long and hard at those images that depict the consequences of their own actions. They should think long and hard on the fact that they may pay for that action in kind. For it is primarily they, the stronger party, who must overcome the barriers to compassion and regret.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

4 comments for “Mideast Photos: Compassion/Geopolitics

  1. Austin
    February 28, 2013 at 09:49

    I agree that for the most part there hasnt been many casualties in Israel due to the rockets being fired.

    I do have one question for you: What should Israel do when they have hundreds of rockets being fired into civilian areas?

    Yes, not many casualties. There has been injuries. Damage to property. It’s been called a minor miracle at times that more people havent been killed.

    Urban warfare is always going to result in some casualties. It is sad. I am saddened with every life being destroyed by all of this hatred. However if Canada or Mexico was firing that many rockets at the United States we would of already invaded and completely destroyed their government.

  2. Terry Washington
    February 25, 2013 at 19:01

    Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart runs an Irish saying( as we found on both sides of the conflict in NI), so simply posting a photo of a grieving individual may not change attitudes on the other side!

  3. Hillary
    February 25, 2013 at 14:44

    The PNAC plan is/was monstrous but was accepted by US APAIC Politicians.
    What it needed was a “Pearl Harbor Event” and believe it or not the mother of all coincidences happened.
    Shahak , former President of the Israeli League for Human Rights , from his book “Open Secrets”..
    A Zionist PNAC media is now preparing the American people to accept an attack on Iran to destroy it as it did with Iraq ,Libya ,Syria etc etc.on Israel’s behalf.
    Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, parts of Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all part of Eretz Israel.

  4. incontinent reader
    February 25, 2013 at 13:37

    The following was posted today in Mondoweiss:

    BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — An autopsy has revealed that Arafat Jaradat died of extreme torture in Israeli custody and did not have a cardiac arrest, the PA Minister of Detainee Affairs said Sunday.

    At a news conference in Ramallah, Issa Qaraqe said an autopsy conducted in Israel in the presence of Palestinian officials revealed that 30-year-old Jaradat had six broken bones in his neck, spine, arms and legs.

    “The information we have received so far is shocking and painful. The evidence corroborates our suspicion that Mr. Jaradat died as a result of torture, especially since the autopsy clearly proved that the victim’s heart was healthy, which disproves the initial alleged account presented by occupation authorities that he died of a heart attack,” Qaraqe said……

    The minister said Jaradat had sustained injuries and severe bruising in the upper right back area and severe bruises of sharp circular shape in the right chest area….. evidence of severe torture and on the muscle of the upper left shoulder, parallel to the spine in the lower neck area, and evidence of severe torture under the skin and inside the muscle of the right side of the chest. His second and third ribs in the right side of the chest were broken, Qaraqe said, and he also had injuries in the middle of the muscle in the right hand…Palestinian Prisoners Society president Qaddura Fares added that the autopsy revealed seven injuries to the inside of Jaradat’s lower lip, bruises on his face and blood on his nose…… no signs of bruising or stroke, the minister added.


    “Jaradat died due to torture and not a stroke or heart attack,” he said, adding that those responsible must be sued either through Interpol or the International Criminal Court.

    Jaradat’s lawyer Kameel Sabbagh said he was tortured by Israeli interrogators. ……”When I entered the courtroom I saw Jaradat sitting on a wooden chair in front of the judge. His back was hunched and he looked sick and fragile,” Sabbagh said in a statement Sunday.

    “When I sat next to him he told me that he had serious pains in his back and other parts of his body because he was being beaten up and hanged for many long hours while he was being investigated..When Jaradat heard that the judge postponed his hearing he seemed extremely afraid…..”

    (http://mondoweiss.net/2013/02/autopsy-revealed-torture.html )

    The article is accompanied by a picture of the grieving father.

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