The Israeli-Palestinian politics of a bloodied child’s photo

November 16, 2012

Left, a journalist for BBC Arabic holds his son's body. Center, an emergency worker carries an Israeli infant from the site of a rocket strike. Right, Egypt's prime minister and a Hamas official bend over a young boy's body. (AP, Reuters, Reuters)

Wars are often defined by their images, and the renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas has already produced three such photographs in as many days. In the first, displayed on the front page of Thursday's Washington Post, BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi carries the body of his 11-month-old son, killed when a munition landed on his Gaza home. An almost parallel image shows an emergency worker carrying an Israeli infant, bloody but alive, from the scene of a rocket attack that had killed three adults. The third, from Friday, captures Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, in his visit to a Gazan hospital, resting his hand on the head of a boy killed in an airstrike.

Each tells a similar story: a child's body, struck by a heartless enemy, held by those who must go on. It's a narrative that speaks to the pain of a grieving people, to the anger at those responsible, and to a determination for the world to bear witness. But the conversations around these photos, and around the stories that they tell, are themselves a microcosm of the distrust and feelings of victimhood that have long plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The old arguments of the Middle East are so entrenched that the photos, for all their emotional power, were almost immediately pressed into the service of one side or another.

The photo of Misharawi wailing as he carried his son was attached to tweets accusing the Israel Defense Forces of "infanticide" or worse, feeding into dark stereotypes about Israelis' intentions. Other critics marshaled Misharawi's photo as evidence of senselessly irresponsible airstrikes.

Supporters of Israel's airstrikes countered by suggesting that Misharawi's home was bombed by an errant Hamas strike. And they insisted that the photo of the wounded Israeli infant was more relevant, and proof that Hamas's rockets are ultimately to blame for the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official Twitter feed posted the photo with the message, "I saw today a picture of a bleeding Israeli baby. #Hamas deliberately targets our children." It's hard to find fault with the not-subtle argument in support of Israel's campaign against the Gaza-based group, which does fire many rockets at civilian neighborhoods, but such pointed use of the harrowing photo to make that case can be jarring.

When Kandil and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived at a Gaza hospital just as an ambulance pulled up with the body of a local boy, and a photographer captured the two reaching compassionately for the body, Web discussion quickly turned to two questions: Was it posed? Was it populist showmanship? Though anyone who has spent time covering Egyptian politicians might doubt their ability to elaborately stage a photo op with this degree of precision.

The mere fact that we're asking these questions shows the degree to which images of human suffering in Israel-Palestinian violence are treated as necessarily, even primarily, political; as pieces of evidence to bring before the court of global public opinion. The photos are evaluated on their political strengths and weaknesses: Is the Egyptian prime minister leaning unnaturally into the frame? Do we know for sure that the 11-month-old son of a journalist was killed by an Israeli munition? Was Netanyahu's tweet too strong?

Implicit in these debates, still raging on social media, is the assumption that the photos and the tragedies they represent are inherently political. You might find yourself wondering who politicized them first -- who is more to blame -- but that question, though natural, is in many ways an extension of the same bickering. The accusations of misusing photos to tar the other side, of faking injuries to generate outside sympathy are all part of a wider, shared assumption that the world would feel differently if only everyone knew how badly "we" suffered, and how much "they" are faking it.

In this thinking, each new image is an opportunity to finally show the world the truth, as well as a danger that the "other side" will continue to distort. That mutual emphasis on blame, as well as the deep mistrust behind it, are of course just one small part of the larger and more complicated Israel-Palestine conflict. And that conflict, it seems, even extends to the conversations around photos of children killed in its long and bloody course.

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Olga Khazan · November 16, 2012