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‘Only Sand and Bedouins’

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paratroopers-western-wall-1967David Rubinger died on 1 March at the age of 92. His photograph of three Israeli paratroopers gazing at the Western Wall, taken minutes after Israeli forces seized Jerusalem’s Old City during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, was widely revered as a symbol of Zionism’s triumphant destiny. Rubinger, however, was not particularly fond of the picture: ‘Part of the face is cut off on the right side,’ he said, ‘in the middle the nose protrudes, and on the left there’s only half a face … photographically speaking, this isn’t a good photo.’

The soldiers’ faces were not the only things cut out of the shot. Behind Rubinger were the buildings of the Mughrabi Quarter of the Old City, home to about 650 Palestinians. Three days after the picture was taken, the Israeli army evicted the residents and demolished their houses and mosques. An open plaza now welcomes worshippers and visitors to the Western Wall, with no trace of the area’s former life. ‘There are those who write the pages of history,’ President Rivlin said after Rubinger’s death, ‘and there are those who create them with their lens.’

Israeli visual history has always required the erasure of Palestinians. The National Library recently released forty aerial photos, taken by Zoltan Kluger in 1937, of what it described as ‘pre-state Israel’ rather than Mandate Palestine. The images, which include views of the Nahalal moshav and Tel Aviv, boulster the Zionist myth of the land as an untapped oasis waiting for Jewish labour and habitation.


The myth is still thriving eighty years later, on both sides of the Green Line. Kluger’s photo of the fertile banks of the River Jordan could easily be used today to advertise the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements and industries in the occupied Jordan Valley, which have displaced thousands of Palestinians. In the Negev, the Palestinian village of Umm al-Hiran is slated to be destroyed and a Jewish town built on its ruins. A video made by the incoming Jewish residents, who currently live in a temporary encampment in a nearby forest, shows two men searching the desert for signs of life but find ‘only sand and Bedouins’ – Bedouins who are Israeli citizens.

The military occupation heralded by Rubinger’s photograph is now a permanent part of the Israeli state. Local maps and signs in Jerusalem either omit or redraw the Green Line; there’s little to tell pedestrians entering the Old City that they are crossing into occupied territory. The Trump administration has confirmed David Friedman, a supporter of the West Bank settlements, as its ambassador to Israel, and is touting a plan to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A law passed by the Knesset last month officially recognises dozens of settlement outposts built on private Palestinian property. A law passed last week denies entry visas to foreigners who call for any form of boycott against Israel or its settlements.

But images are not only a tool for the coloniser; they are a means of resistance for the colonised, too. In Walid Khalidi’s Before Their Diaspora, 474 photographs reconstruct the lost world of pre-1948 Palestine to debunk the myth of the region as ‘a land without a people’.

Activestills’ photographers document scenes of Palestinian protesters kicking away American-made tear gas canisters and tearing down pieces of Israel’s separation wall. The residents of threatened Palestinian villages share live videos of house demolitions and military brutality on social media. Despite or because of Israel’s best efforts, Palestinians are still fighting back, lens for lens. Their struggle, Khalidi writes, ‘has little chance of fading into distant memory’ while the ‘wounds of yesterday fester alongside those of today’.

Comments on “‘Only Sand and Bedouins’”

  1. Fred Skolnik says:

    As I once wrote, I have no argument with an Arab or Palestinian who supports the Arab or Palestinian cause. As far as I know, the so-called Moroccan Quarter in front of the Wall was a slum that the Jordanians themselves planned to demolish and the residents did in fact receive some compensation. But if your writer chooses to mention this, he should also be mentioning the fact that in addition to violating the Armistice Agreement by denying Israelis access to the Wall, the Jordanians demolished all the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter and desecrated all the Jewish cemeteries, using the headstones as building blocks.

    As for the rest, the existence of Nahalal and other settlements on land purchased by Jews in a country ruled by Ottoman Turks with a population of a few hundred thousand residents and which today accommodates over ten million people with plenty of room for more should not have provoked such hysteria in the Arab world. They made their choice and paid for it, but we have gone over that ground already.

    • judgefloyd says:

      ‘We have gone over that ground already’.
      You do little else. How nice that you’ve proved to yourself that Arab reactions to the theft of the Palestinians country is ‘hysteria’.

      • Fred Skolnik says:

        There was no “Palstinian” country and there never had been. There were Arabs living in what they had always thought of as Greater or Southern Syria until the British borrowed the name Palestine from the Romans – Arabs who considered themselves an integral and indistinguishable part of the Arab nation and a very large number of whom were migrants who had arrived from the mid-19th century on. (According to the 1931 census, over 20 different languages were in use by Muslims, and non-Jews in Mandatory Palestine listed as their birthplaces at least 24 different countries [Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Bosnia, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, India, Afghanistan, Balochistan, etc.] while the Arab population of Haifa rose from 6,000 in 1880 to 80,000 in 1919 as a result of workforce migration.) The surrounding Arab countries also did not claim the Land of Israel in their behalf. They claimed it in the name of Allah by right of conquest. Well, then, the Jews claimed it too, by right of historical and national attachment. When there is a land dispute between nations, there are only three ways to resolve it: by negotiations, by mediation, or by war. The Arabs chose war. Wars have consequences. One of them is occupation. That is why Israel is occupying the West Bank.

        • judgefloyd says:

          Pigeon-holing Mr Skolnik’s internal monologue for a bit, it’s a very moving piece this. That whole erasure thing doesn’t seem to be going very well for them.

          • Fred Skolnik says:

            You seem to be at a loss for words so you are just stringing them together hoping they’ll make sense in the end. They don’t.

            Please tell us how the Jews’ purchase of private land under Turkish and British rule was theft.

            • judgefloyd says:

              Since I haven’t said ‘the Jews purchase of private land under Turkish and British rule was theft’, why should I? Not making sense to you is no problem and leaves me in good company.

              • Fred Skolnik says:

                Because I wrote: “As for the rest, the existence of Nahalal and other settlements on land purchased by Jews in a country ruled by Ottoman Turks with a population of a few hundred thousand residents and which today accommodates over ten million people with plenty of room for more should not have provoked such hysteria in the Arab world.” Do you see it now: “land purchased” – “hysteria.” That is what you replied to.

                But if you agree that it wasn’t “theft,” that’s fine. Then why did the Arabs attack the State of Israel? And by the way, if you’re going to be sarcastic, you have to have a little wit to bring it off.

                • mototom says:

                  Dear Fred, there seems to be strong parallels between the colonisation of what we now call the USA and Israel. For you, what are the important differences?

                  • Fred Skolnik says:

                    The difference is that the Jews are the indigenous people, namely the Indians in your parallel, and the Arabs are the conquerors. The Jews come from Judea. The Arabs come from Arabia.

  2. If we are going to go over old ground, it’s worth watching a different Jew’s view of the long Israel/Palestine story:

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