As Above, So Below

Shiraz Grinbaum on apocalyptic spectacle in Israel-Palestine

The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system (left) intercepts rockets (right) fired by the Hamas movement toward southern Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip as seen in the sky above the Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021. Photo: Anas Baba/AFP via Getty Images.

THIS VIRAL PHOTOGRAPH by AFP’s Anas Baba—published on May 14, about four days after the start of the Israeli military’s “Operation Guardian of Walls” in Gaza—has already been crowned by the local and international media as the definitive image of this latest wave of suffering, which continues despite the “cease-fire” announced on Friday. As Israeli TV news broadcasters went on about the search for a “victory photo” to mark the end of the fighting, Baba’s photograph, shot from inside the prison of Gaza, offered a depiction of spectacular deadlock.

Each of the parties (there are of course more than two) appropriated the image for its own needs. Many Israelis used it to celebrate a decade since the deployment of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has reduced the risk of casualties. Israeli right-wingers added their own illustrations, enforcing the widespread claim that Hamas is using civilians as hostages in its battle against Israel. International and Palestinian journalists and bloggers on social media annotated it with the number of Palestinian civilian casualties from Israeli fire inside Gaza, calling for an end to the siege on the territory. Baba’s photo was swiftly declared by the Twitter commentariat as Pulitzer-worthy. Remarks like “This is the most beautiful war image I have ever seen” were typed quickly, especially in Hebrew- and English-speaking media. From what I could tell, Arabic-speaking reporters were more concerned with tallying the sixty-five dead Palestinian children. A couple of days later, the photo became a macabre joke celebrating binary thinking as it began circulating as an endless string of memes in Hebrew-speaking groups on social media, later described by Haaretz as “no victory image, but one that is worth a thousand memes.”

For a brief moment, however, the apocalyptic spectacle eclipsed the grittier on-the-ground reportage and the horrific lynching attempts that were taking place inside Palestinian-Jewish cities on live television, amplified by “civil war” rhetoric used as camouflage for Israel’s ongoing colonial policies. For a moment, “everyone” stopped (metaphorically, of course) to marvel at two forces of “nature” before their collision, at this state of suspended potential. For a moment, rocket fallout statistics and casualty reports were set aside in the face of these drawings in light that seemed to burst from the ground and appear in the sky like the forces of Armageddon.

Unlike the many images circulated that freeze the very second of rocket interception, this photograph holds a space for the imagination.

These days, it seems easier to look at the sky than at what is happening on the ground. The heavenward gaze—that is, the religious gaze—seeks answers in a different spacetime from the here and now. While the dominant discourse of “them” and “us” presumes a definitive outcome, Baba’s photograph reveals its hidden wish: to look at the sky and see with one’s own eyes on which side lies absolute Truth. Is it on the side of Hamas’s fiery swords or on the side of the spiraling arrows deployed in the service of the “world’s most moral army”?

Is this another iteration of documentary photography in the service of the apocalyptic discourse? Susan Sontag wrote after 9/11: “The spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood.” As we already know, it is easier to consume a sublime, technological abstraction of military engagement than to consume more images of faces torn apart.

Since its invention, the camera has documented military achievements as well as the toll they exact, paid in the destruction of lives and property. Both types of documentation play an important role in mediating the war narrative. Among the many captions offered for Baba’s picture, and other photographs of the Iron Dome interceptions, the more prevalent in Hebrew-speaking media went something like: “The war of the Light against the Dark […] between the forces of destruction and the forces of defense.” It is needless to ask who is on the side of “light” and who is on the side of “darkness.” The very question cooperates with the apocalyptic logic of ethnostatecraft in which only the last standing will receive God at the gates of the Holy Land.

Following the uses of the image over the course of a few days, I found myself drawn to the void at the center of Baba’s photograph. This interval marks the time until the moment of collision between the two technologies of war, but also a possibility that there will be no collision at all. Perhaps the reason why this photograph went viral is actually located in this lacuna, in the absence that could mark the potential of a bridge. Unlike the many images circulated that freeze the very second of rocket interception, this photograph holds a space for the imagination and in this way challenges our expectations of iconic images, from which we demand legibility and closure. It thus resists the complete subordination of the documentary photograph to an apocalyptic discourse, offering instead the possibility to imagine a future other than that of colonization and armed conflict—a future not yet in reach.

At the end of Hama’abada (The Lab), Yotam Feldman’s 2013 film on the Israeli arms industry, war philosopher Shimon Naveh describes, in a twist reminiscent of the trajectory of the Iron Dome, how for him the “other” is a window to self-improvement, a space for the ad-hoc application of new battle skills. This military instrumentalism, which views the “enemy” as a motor for perfection, guarantees that the apocalypse will not be a one-time event, but a continuous one. As the activists still left on the Left so often argue, the search for a “victory” image is a fiction fueled by politicians with much to lose.

This is probably the first time in the rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas that the picture burning in the media’s memory is one of “no victory.” Instead, we are left with a gaping hole in the sky. Will we continue to stare into this abyss until the end of days?

Shiraz Grinbaum is a photographer and editor with the Activestills collective.