Skirmishes in the Israel-Palestine battle over photos of dead children

November 20, 2012

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, second from right, and Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, second from left, with the body of a Palestinian boy during a visit to the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Whose munitions killed him has become a source of controversy. (Reuters)

The latest controversy on Israel-Palestine blogs and social media is over a widely reported photo of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil leaning over the body of a Palestinian boy who was killed in fighting Friday.

The Gazan child, Mohammed Sadallah, arrived at the Gaza City hospital just as Kandil was visiting. Palestinian advocates had championed the photo as a symbol of the Israeli military's supposed brutality in bombing civilian areas as part of its now-days-long offensive. Critics charged that the photo appeared staged, suggesting that Egyptian and Palestinian politicians were shamelessly exploiting the boy's death. Two days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tweeted a photo of an Israeli infant wounded by a Hamas rocket strike.

Now, it turns out that the Gazan boy may have been killed by an errant Hamas strike. A Gaza-based NGO, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, reportedly told the U.K. Telegraph that Sadallah's death may have been the result of a Hamas rocket that mistakenly landed within Gaza. Hamas' rockets are unguided and thus more susceptible to flying off of their intended course.

The question of why this report seems so significant to Israel-Palestine partisans gets to some of the conflict's most fundamental divides. The political subtext assigned to these photos ties in to the old arguments about who is more to blame for the fighting, who is the protector of civilians versus who is a threat to them, and who has a greater claim to victimhood. Those arguments, from the perspective of the people having them, matter for more than just being right or wrong.

With the international community so closely involved in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is a perception that these debates could shift how the world approaches that conflict, and thus its resolution. Partisans of either side will tell you that they are the victims of the other's barbarity, that they are vigorously seeking peace as the other pulls them back into war. Naturally, they can't both be right, so each can see the other side's advocacy as unfair, even dishonest.

Every photo or report of the tragic consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict becomes another opportunity — perhaps, from advocates' view, an obligation — to relitigate the old disagreements, as if the entire world were on the cusp of unilaterally ruling on behalf of Israel or Palestine, and the particular circumstances behind a photo of one dead child could sway them. The political value assigned to these childrens' suffering becomes greater than the human value.

Advocates on both sides have alternatively treated this photo as evidence in their causes: first by pro-Palestinians as proof of Israeli irresponsibility in using military force in a heavily civilian area, and now by pro-Israelis to suggest that blame for civilian deaths lies a bit more with Hamas and less with Israelis than previously thought. Still, it is difficult to escape the fact that young Mohammed Sadallah was in the middle of a war zone when he died. Hamas and Israeli munitions alike are landing on civilian areas; which one happened to kill this particular civilian seems in some ways a question of random chance.

It's difficult to see how knowing whose rocket or missile killed Sadallah would resolve the larger questions for which that debate is a proxy: responsibility for continuing the long-term conflict, for sparking this latest round of fighting, and for the Israeli and Palestinian civilians who suffer as a result. But these are notoriously thorny debates. As with so many protracted geopolitical conflicts, neither side comes out looking as angelic or demonic as partisans might wish. In many ways, something as isolated as a single photo of a wounded or killed child offers a purer, cleaner, lower-risk way to talk about issues too messy to engage with directly. They're a great way to win arguments, but not necessarily to end them.

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Anup Kaphle | November 20, 2012