Looking at Gaza

Activestills Collective documents the assault on Palestinian life

Palestinians attend the funeral of the Abu Hatab family in Gaza on May 15, 2021. The two women and eight children were killed in a building in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp that collapsed following an Israeli airstrike. The family was celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Witnesses said that no warning had been given to the occupants before the strike. Photo: Mahmoud Zaanoun.

IN 2005, a group of photographers took a stand alongside the people of the small Palestinian town of Bil’in, and documented their fight to stop the Israeli government’s construction of the infamous separation wall in the occupied West Bank. Inspired by the possibility of co-resisting the occupation, the group went on to form Activestills, a collective of Palestinian, Israeli, and international photographers whose work has become vital in picturing the struggle against Israel’s colonial policies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Activestills’s photographs are not meant to create spectacular journalistic images of victimhood or heroism, but to visualize precarity as an outcome of political and military strategies, and at the same time to point to the way oppressed communities challenge on a daily basis their continuous dispossession and subjection.

During the collective’s fifteen years of work, they have photographed four major Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip and its deadly effects on its residents: Cast Lead (2008–9), Pillars of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014) and the current operation. After thirteen years of Israeli blockade and several wars, Gaza’s infrastructure is debilitated. The strip’s two million residents lack access to clean water, experience regular electricity cuts, and suffer severe shortages in essential medical equipment. Unemployment rates, particularly among young people, are among the highest in the world.

A Palestinian family standing inside their home, which was shelled during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009. The house became habitable once again only ten months after the operation. Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, August 2010. Photo: Anne Paq.

One of the most comprehensive projects on Gaza is by Activestills photographer Anne Paq. Titled “Obliterated Families,” it was created in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and clearly shows the devastation caused by Israel’s repeated military offensives. The project focuses on ten families out of 142 that were destroyed during the bombardment as a direct outcome of a consistent policy of attacking residential buildings in densely populated urban areas from the air, causing them to collapse on entire families. By emphasizing the names of the victims of the deadly attacks and on the survivors, the project exposes how the universal basic rights to life and protection from violence are withheld from the residents of Gaza. In this way, it challenges the accepted norm implemented throughout all of Israel’s military operations in Gaza as to “whose lives are regarded as lives worth saving and defending, and whose are not.”

A photo of Abdallah Abdel Hadi Al Majdalawi, 13, placed on the ruins of his home in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip, March 19, 2015. Abdallah was killed alongside his brother Abdelrazek, 19, and his cousins Rawan, 9, and Mahmoud, 8, by an Israeli attack on August 3, 2014. Photo: Anne Paq.

An “ungrievable life,” writes Judith Butler, “is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.” For the Israeli government and army, the unjust death of Palestinian civilians is nothing other than “collateral damage.” Yet in Activestills’s photographs—including this portfolio of images made between 2010 and 2021 and edited by Keren Manor—Palestinians appear not as disposable victims, but as individuals whose deaths are mourned and whose loss is painfully felt by their families, and by those who dare to look at and acknowledge the overwhelming destruction caused by Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Editor’s note: This gallery contains graphic images.

Palestinians take refuge in a UNRWA school in Gaza while Israel airstrikes continue to destroy residential buildings in the Gaza Strip, May 14, 2021. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun.

A road after an Israeli strike, Gaza Strip, May 12, 2021. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun.

Bodies of Palestinian civilians being pulled out from the rubble of a residential building in Gaza after being shelled by the Israeli military. May 16, 2021. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun.

Bodies are stored in a cooler used for vegetables and flowers near Kuwaiti Hospital after it ran out of space to store corpses following Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza Strip. August 3, 2014. Photo: Anne Paq.

Ala Balata, 18, stands in front of pictures of members of his family who were killed by an Israeli attack, Jabaliah refugee camp, Gaza Strip, September 14, 2014. Photo: Anne Paq.

A Palestinian family sits in their destroyed home in a quarter in At-Tuffah district of Gaza, which was heavily attacked during the last Israeli offensive. September 21, 2014. During the seven-week Israeli military offensive, 2,131 Palestinians were killed, including 501 children, and an estimated 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 108,000 people homeless. Photo: Anne Paq.

To learn more about the collective’s work (archived here), see the book Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine / Israel (Pluto Press, 2016).