The pair of images above, Gaza “before and after,” has circulated in Israel as an image of victory over Hamas. If it were perceived by its perpetrators as evidence of a crime, it would have been censored so that it could not be used as proof of the spaciocide waged upon Gaza. Rather, it has been disseminated with pride, announcing that Palestinians can no longer walk along Al-Rashid Street in Gaza City, and more broadly cannot return to the Northern part of Gaza, which became a territory free of Palestinians.
“Ceasefire now,” “lift the siege,” and “stop the killing” are emergency calls to put an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment and destruction in Gaza. They are voiced by millions of people all over the world, in the streets and on social media. And yet, they are being rejected by liberal governments of the West as well as by institutional leaders from academia to the medical organizations. These groups turn these bare minimum demands—stop the killing—into controversial statements. Indeed, in an effort to convince the world that the violence waged upon Gaza is not genocidal, governments and institutions in the West have enacted an ideological campaign of terror, weaponizing accusations of anti-Semitism against those who reject these claims and the conflation of Jews and Israelis.
There is no such thing as an image of genocide; but images in plural, made over time, can be used to refute the terms of the conversation that deny the racialization of a group and its transformation into the object of genocidal violence. My point of departure is that genocide can be recognized when a certain group is turned into a “problem” to which violent “solutions” are offered in the form of expulsion, concentration, forced vulnerability, incarceration, murder, destruction, and extermination. A genocidal regime is one that produces, cultivates, trades, uses, and legitimizes these forms of violence while at the same time socializing its citizens to see them as necessary for their protection and well-being. Over the last few weeks, we have been watching Palestinians in Gaza undergo a genocide.
Meanwhile, the Israeli propaganda machine has launched its latest campaign to silence those who refuse to accept its narratives, which run counter to what they see, hear, remember, and think when they follow non-Western media. The Israeli government has used photographs and videos taken on October 7 to manufacture consent for genocidal violence against Gaza and Palestinians more broadly. A forty-seven-minute compilation of images and videos has been privately screened to sympathetic journalists, statesmen, and lobbyists in forty countries both to garner global support for genocidal violence against Palestinians and to reinforce the global intimidation and punishment campaign against whoever opposes or “misunderstands” this putative war against terror, which is mostly a war directed against Arabs and Muslims.
But images do not have an innate truth; they live in community with or against those who are involved in them. Painful as images from October 7 are, the violence inscribed in them can no longer be prevented, but it can be attended to. The eruption of violence against those who live on the other side of the wall is inseparable from the genocidal condition that must be reconstructed in connection to what is left outside the frame of every image taken between the sea and the river. The fact that images of violence targeting Israelis are being weaponized as decisive proof for the legitimacy of Israel’s response is itself a testament to this genocide targeting Palestinians.
This staging of a battle of images, through which Israel seeks to deny, obfuscate, and extend its violence, is not new. It has been a tool of this regime from its start in 1948, when the use of genocidal violence to destroy Palestine was justified through images in which the “triumphant solution” of creating a state for the Jews “won” in the eyes of Euro-American imperial powers. The destruction of Palestine and the attempt to bury it under the state of Israel—thereby undermining recovery, redress, and return for Palestinians—imposed a genocidal condition in the space between the river and the sea. This condition is innate to settler colonial regimes. It is sustained by the colonizers, who seek to perpetuate it at any price to ensure that what they did to Palestinians and what was expropriated from them goes unquestioned. The colonizers and the colonized are positions people occupy, regardless of their individual approaches to this condition of violence. The difference in their positions, as well as in their exposure to violence and the duration of this exposure, is not foreign to the realm of images.
The “after” image above differs from many images taken during the last few weeks in Gaza. Other images, most captured on phones by Palestinians as a means of bearing witness and alerting the world to the violence being waged, center persecuted Palestinians, their homes, and institutions. In this image, by contrast, the genocidal condition itself is foregrounded, and yet it is worth underscoring. This is an image of a place from which inhabitants have been removed—either killed, maimed, wounded, and deported—for no reason other than that they are Palestinians.
As of this writing, the soil in Gaza has been violated with more than 25,000 tons of explosives—equivalent to two nuclear bombs—that were dropped from the air and shells that were fired by thousands of soldiers who didn’t refuse orders to destroy entire worlds in Gaza. The soldiers who drove tanks in an imperial procession decimated worlds whose inhabitants were forced to leave if they were not already killed. They are fighting a demonized Hamas, which they compare to the Nazis to justify their actions, while denying that they themselves are enacting genocide against Palestinians. But of course, this before-and-after should not mislead us, since Israeli genocidal violence is also inscribed in the “before” image.
Prior to 1948, Gaza was not an isolated, narrow strip, and its inhabitants enjoyed free movement in the entire region of greater Palestine. With the isolation of Gaza from other part of Palestine in 1948, however, even the open sea was transformed into a border surveilled by the Israeli navy, which restricts the ways inhabitants can access it. Before the current genocidal campaign, more than half of the refugee population of Gaza lived in eight overcrowded refugee camps in Gaza, and the strip’s density allows only two main roads to connect North and South. Destroying Gaza now, Israel’s military forces have erased seventy-five years of memories inscribed in the region—wounds and scars of multiple genocidal “solutions” imposed on its inhabitants. The destruction of this geophysical archive of the Nakba, and the second mass expulsion of those who effectively became its archivists—Palestinians who are familiar with every bit and piece of it—are consistent with genocidal violence, seeking to erase the evidence of its crimes.
The Israelis who destroyed this world made themselves masters of this crying land with the exclusive right to photograph it. The aim was to ensure no Palestinians would be left to take their own photographs or photographs of their perpetrators. Yet despite Israel’s imperial aim to monopolize the meaning of its actions and eliminate human plurality from the photographic field, we still recognize the crimes these photos evince; we know that, until a few days ago, a world used to be here, before its inhabitants were deemed superfluous for being Palestinian. Though we see the way the tanks trampled the face of the earth, we also see the soil refusing to surrender and forget. We hear the tears, the groans, and the moans.
Despite the erection of different separation walls in the land between the sea and the river—including eighteen years of military rule, borders preventing return, an archipelago of enclaves surrounded by checkpoints, fences, and cement walls—the systematic racist violence and differential rule imposed there by the Israeli regime impacts and organizes the life of all its inhabitants. Only inculcated lies and a militarized state can create the illusion that the group responsible for creating and maintaining this racial regime can be protected from the consequences of its oppressive actions. The level of exposure to violence is obviously different for the racialized groups therein; nonetheless, whatever is done to impact the life of Palestinians also impacts and endangers Israelis. Hamas’s painful attack on October 7 did not transform this condition but rather revealed it.
What followed was an intensified campaign to essentialize the violence of its perpetrators as proof of who Hamas is and, by identification, who all Palestinians are. Thereby, Israelis’ grief was weaponized to continue to deny their positions and actions as colonizers and operators of genocidal technologies. Acknowledging this call is not a justification of the attack or a minimization of the harm, nor is it proof of a lack of empathy for the attack’s victims, as Israelis tend to interpret it. It is rather a refusal to forget that this attack, and the genocide that followed, could have been prevented if this genocidal and suicidal regime ceased to exist. Acknowledging the crimes against Palestinians prior to October 7 and opposing the genocide against them is the required minimum if one aims to imagine a shared future free of genocide in this place. And reconstructing the longer imperial history of this place is necessary for imagining the abolition of its regime and for restoring Palestine to a place rich in human diversity. One must remember that history didn’t start on October 7.
In the wake of World War II, as part of Euro-American imperial powers’ efforts to secure their influence in the Middle East, the imperial technology of partition was employed, and Euro-Zionists were entrusted with Palestine.
The promise of Zionist statehood in Palestine was at the same time another “solution” to Europe’s century-old “Jewish question,” which, at the end of the war when Europe’s racializing apparatuses were not dismantled, had to be “solved” again. Unsure of how to manage the many Jews left uprooted in camps in Europe after the Holocaust—who were still undesired in Europe and unwelcome in the United States—Euro-American imperial powers empowered Zionist leaders aiming for a sovereign state in Palestine and recognized them as the sole representatives of Jews. Their interests coalesced as the West didn’t want to lose this precious colony, situated in the heart of the Jewish Muslim world. As part of their campaign to withhold the right to indigenous sovereignty, Euro-American powers thus turned their own enemies—Palestinians—into the Jews’ enemies. Before then, no historical enmity existed between Jews and Palestinians, and more generally between Jews and Arabs and Muslims; for centuries, being Palestinian and Jew and being Jew and Arab were not mutually exclusive. Jews had lived together with Muslims in the wider region since before the emergence of Islam and were part of the Arab world.
Toward the end of World War II, the United Nations was created as a major instrument to facilitate the imposition of a “new world order.” It sought to legitimate partition and population transfer, giving these the imprimatur of international law and recognition. Barely two years after its creation, the UN announced the partition plan for Palestine in November 1947. With the help of colonial committees such as the Anglo-American Committee, the partitioning of Palestine was crafted and proposed as a “solution” against the will of the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine and the broader region (already divided and under French and British colonial rule), where many non-Zionists Jews lived. This UN resolution gave the greenlight to some Zionists armed groups to use an array of genocidal technologies for its implementation.
The outcome was the destruction of Palestine and Palestinians as a people, and along with them, their ancestral lands, practices, and heritage. The majority of Muslim and Arabs inhabitants of Palestine were expelled from the new nation state built in its place and have not been allowed to return, even to this day and those who live between the sea and the river are constantly forcibly displaced. Undesired in this racializing state, they were transferred to different disconnected sites. This first genocidal campaign against Palestinians was silenced through the UN’s recognition of the formation of the state of Israel as narrative of Western-Zionist triumph and as a national “solution” for the Jewish people. Through this logic, Muslims and Arabs were transformed into potential threats to this touted Jewish sovereignty. Since then, millions of children—myself included—were born Israelis, born as pawns for the orchestrated denial of Palestine’s destruction and as aids to the global campaign to recognize Israeli-Jews as the legitimate inhabitants of Palestine.
The outcome of this convergence of interests between the Zionist and Euro-American imperial powers was the destruction of Palestine and its replacement with the state of Israel. Both transpired alongside a narrative of historical enmity which figured the events as part of a conflict of “two sides,” a conflict between two identity groups: “Palestinians,” who were denied recognition as the survivors of a genocidal campaign, and “Israelis,” who were yet to be invented in 1948, out of Zionists, Palestinian Jews, survivors of genocide. If there were at that moment “two sides,” they were the colonizers and the colonized. At the center of the invented colonial identity donned by Israelis is the denial of the genocidal violence that enabled them to replace Palestinians and take over their lands and property. Thus, lying at the heart of Israeli identity is the interiorized notion that the Palestinians are the Jews’ enemies and not those whom Zionists dispossessed. Since the creation of Israel, those imperial states that support Zionist interests in Israel have invested in keeping Israelis the enemies of Palestinians and in blurring the differences between Israelis and Jews writ large.
From the end of November 1947, one place after another was destroyed and turned to rubble to prevent Palestinians who were expelled from returning to their homes. So too, this systemic destruction was sought out to facilitate the fabrication of an Israeli memory from which Palestine could fade away and emerge as the name of a threatening enemy. Alongside the expulsion of the 60,000 Palestinians from Haifa alone, Zionists started to destroy the heart of the city, approximately 220 buildings. What is captured in the photograph above are not signs of war but of a colonial policy—turning Haifa into a Jewish city so that the barely 30,00 Palestinians who were not expelled would no longer recognize themselves in their city, nor would they feel at home in it.
Beyond what we could read from it about Haifa, the photograph is also a generic image of the genocidal condition that, since installed in 1948, has turned towns, cities, and villages where Palestinians live into rubble, concomitantly destroying Palestinians’ livelihood, heritage, rights, histories, dreams and memories. Inscribed by the racial regime erected in this place, this condition provides constant proof that Palestinian life can be taken away at any moment; it also proves that attempts to rebuild Palestinian spaces are always shortcut by genocidal precarity. This condition inscribed here reveals itself in endless images taken throughout the years, in which it is always Palestinians who are being targeted. Under UN leadership, the world clock was set on May 15, 1948, to mark the birth of Israel, while Palestinians’ accounts of the genocide they endured were silenced, distorted, and replaced with other narratives. Institutions of culture and education flourished to promote this newly invented colonizing subject, the Israeli, whose identity is premised on the obliteration of the memory of its own birth.
In several public interviews and in an op-ed in the New York Times, historian Omer Bartov warns that Israel’s ongoing attack on Gaza has the potential to become a genocide. He calls to condemn the onslaught “before it occurs, rather than belatedly condemn it after.” Bartov quotes a few published statements of several Israeli military officials and members of the government in which, as he writes, the intent of genocide is explicit. And yet, what is happening on the ground in Gaza, Bartov assesses, is not a genocide: “there is no proof that genocide is currently taking place in Gaza, although it is very likely that war crimes, and even crimes against humanity, are happening.”
When Bartov discusses the actual violence, he somehow puts aside these genocidal intents and rather chooses to believe the rhetoric that the Israeli military employs—in coordination with their lawyers and other specialists in international law—to describe their actions. He repeats their narrative as proof that their actions do not reflect their voiced and written intents:
Israeli military commanders insist that they are trying to limit civilian casualties, and they attribute the large numbers of dead and wounded Palestinians to Hamas tactics of using civilians as human shields and placing their command centers under humanitarian structures like hospitals. . . . And so, while we cannot say that the military is explicitly targeting Palestinian civilians, functionally and rhetorically we may be watching an ethnic cleansing operation that could quickly devolve into genocide.
What leads Bartov to assert that what he sees doesn’t fit the UN’s 1948 definition of genocide—“the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”—is his trust in the way the perpetrators of this genocidal violence justify their actions and shamelessly attribute their consequences to Hamas.
If Bartov were writing an article about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which is what he recognizes is presently happening, I would not argue with him, since ethnic cleansing is a proper term to use here, among and alongside others. However, given the history of the instrumentalization and exceptionalization of the genocide perpetrated against Jews, using one’s authority as historian of genocide and the limited language of the 1948 UN document to judge that this is not a genocide—and doing so based on evidence provided by the perpetrators—participates in the fetishization of the term “genocide” and its reservation for exceptional cases in which the West is not the direct perpetrator—as in, the Rwandan or Bosnian genocides.
Instead of repeating the language of Israeli expressions of genocidal intent, I want to point to these expressions’ endurance and prevalence throughout Israeli history and society. As someone who was born and raised in the Zionist colony in Palestine, I heard such expressions repeated regularly, in oral and written modes, in public and private venues, by statespersons and lay persons. People older than me heard them expressed since 1948; they were socialized to see Palestinians enduring extreme violence again and again, always alongside justifications that obfuscate its genocidal nature—its aim to eliminate them as a group with its own history, desires, grievances, and dreams. The endurance and permanence of these open expressions require us to reconfigure the temporal premises of the term genocide. The temporal dimensions ascribed to the legal definition of genocide enable genocides perpetrated by Western colonial regimes to be dismissed, denied, and legitimized. Such genocides do not constitute a discrete event but unfold over time and share their duration with the lifespan of the regime that commits them.
Instead of assuming that “we still have time” to warn of genocide, we have to reverse and say that we are running out of time; the genocide has already brought to extinction so many aspects of Palestinian life, so we must keep screaming that it’s genocide and act to stop it!
Settler colonial genocides have a blurred nature since they are often committed by liberal so-called “democratic” regimes that are sustained by a body of citizens—a single group among other groups governed—who believe that despite the fact that their government wields violent racial technologies against its colonized subjects, the regime’s foundations are democratic and fair. This is what happened in North and South America, in Algeria, and in Palestine, as colonial actors installed and maintained their regimes using different genocidal technologies. These technologies operate also through epistemological mechanisms which keep elements, which together could testify to a genocide, apart. It is the decades-long consistent use of genocidal violence against Palestine and Palestinians as a group that we have to assess, not each disparate event of which the genocide consists. The genocidal condition is the cumulative outcome of a genocidal regime built against Palestinians with the aim of their elimination.
The current totalitarian regime of speech orchestrated by Israel, which turns truth into “terrorist content” and looks for or reproduces it into a criminal form of “consumption,” didn’t emerge yesterday. Global imperial mechanisms were already in place to silence, distort, censure, intimidate, and punish those who countered the true meaning of the regime that was imposed in Palestine. It was under this regime that Palestinians were made disposable and deported to concentration camps called refugee camps, where life was impacted by humanitarian crisis and slow death, and simultaneously Israeli citizenship was shaped to prevent their return and redress, thus beckoning the militarization of all aspects of Israeli life. The way historians and other intellectuals globally betrayed Palestinians by complying with the triumphal narrative of this regime’s emergence in 1948 is still to be studied.
Genocide is not at the forefront of images, though it can be traced within them. If we wish to see beyond the bodies of the victims captured in discrete photos, we notice a template and the imprint that the systematic use of genocidal technologies left upon the colonized. All these images reveal a single aim: Israel’s aim to eliminate Palestinians from the land between the sea and the river and to eliminate Palestinians’ ways of life, their imprint upon the land’s soil, their autonomy, dignity, livelihood, and worldliness.
The excessive abundance of photographs of Palestinians testifies to this aim. Photographing Palestinians in such abundance didn’t start immediately in 1948. Few are the photos from the expulsion of Palestinians to Gaza and the from creation of the “Gaza strip” as a “solution” to separate and contain the 200,000 Palestinians expelled by Zionists from other parts of Palestine. As I visually reconstructed in From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of State Formation (2011), the expellees were forced into this narrow strip of land where, up until then, only approximately 75,000 Palestinians lived. Soon after the area was closed behind barbed wires, the first humanitarian crisis erupted.
This was the expected outcome of the combined use of the genocidal technologies of expulsion, concentration, and killing. Very few photos interrupted the first two decades of the state’s existence. Most were taken in refugee camps in surrounding countries; in them Palestinians figure as worldless refugees, bereft of the world in which they lived in fullness in Palestine. During this period, the Zionist interest in state-building converged with Europe’s needs to absolve itself from the genocide it committed during World War II and to present itself rather as the liberator of the Jews. Under these conditions, Zionists, in concert with European imperialists, shaped the existence of Israel into a fait accompli. In 1967, despite the conquest of Gaza and West Bank and parts of Syria by Israel, the inhabitants of the refugee camps constructed therein resisted for several years. In response, Israel used genocidal technologies to destroy and internally displace Palestinians, implementing different “solutions” to eliminate them as a group and indenture their labor.
Gradually, Gaza, like the West Bank, became the biggest militarized open photography studio in the world; there, Palestinians could be turned at any moment into subjects of what are commonly known as “human rights photographs.” Waging consistent military assaults (with names like “Pillar of Defense,” “Returning Echo,” and “Cast Lead”) every few months, or sometimes more frequently, Israeli forces targeted Gazans with genocidal violence. During the First Intifada, Gaza became a true photographic mine and a spectacular laboratory for testing both new arms on Palestinians as well as the West’s tolerance for the exercise of these technologies in plain sight. Out of this mine, hundreds of thousands of photos of Palestinians were extracted, published, discussed, circulated, purchased, sold, auctioned, and held in press archives, museum collections, NGOs archives, and so on. Despite many noticeable differences between the myriad photographs, in almost all of them Palestinians are captured as disposable life, so that their killing is not a disruption but rather a validation of their disposability. When Israelis are also captured in the frame, they mostly appear as soldiers “on duty,” agents of the state, its law and order.
Such photos are commonly captioned through the lens of human rights, which focuses on the predicament of the victims rather than on the regime and technologies used to produce these conditions. Such captioning, which visually signals a call for humanitarian aid as opposed to denunciation of a regime that violates humanitarian law, normalizes the disposability of Palestinian life. In 2005, following Israel’s declaration that it would withdraw from Gaza, another “solution” was imposed upon it: its transformation into the biggest concentration camp on earth.
This was achieved through the use of a carceral technology that isolates Gaza from other parts of Palestine and from the world, creating a general condition of slow death for Gazans, which, as we have witnessed in the wake of October 7, can be accelerated at any moment. Contrary to the statements of the agents of this carceral regime that they no longer rule Gaza, the Israeli state continues to dispense attacks from the sea, the air, and the land while keeping Palestinians isolated from the world. Marketed for so long as precarious subjects in images of human rights violations, Palestinians are now exterminated in front of the worlds’ eyes without being recognized as victims of colonial genocidal violence.
Plans to further destroy Gaza were not drafted on October 7. They had been in preparation for years, and they were implemented on small and large scales from 1948 onward. The violence waged in last few weeks is different in scale and concentration of horror than ever before. So too is the resistance of millions of people around the world who are refusing to accept the imperial narrative that Israel and the United States use to justify this violence. But the violence waged over the past few weeks cannot be understood separately from the systematic use of genocidal technologies against Palestinians over the last seventy-five years. Those who prepared those plans waited for the occasion to implement them. As many generals and politicians in settler colonial regime have said along the years, the Israeli military just needed the occasion or event that would justify their intervention; once they received it, they would then bring it to fruition.
In her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote that “genocide is an actual possibility of the future,” and, hence, “no people on earth . . . can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence.” Imperial governments do not represent humanity but the logic of their racializing regimes. This endows them with imperial rights to support each other when they use genocidal violence. The millions in the streets all over the world, blocking roads, protesting in front of the offices and factories of arms manufacturers, blocking shipments of arms, and marching in unprecedented numbers in support of Palestinians know that the order of humanity is being attacked yet again. They affirm that we should not fail to recognize the genocide that is happening right now. If this wave of genocidal violence will also pass unrecognized, and if the genocidal regime which is perpetrating it goes unquestioned, then not only Palestinians but more people will be unsafe.
Arendt’s discussion of crimes against humanity is instructive. Those crimes, Arendt writes, are written in the bodies of their victims, but they are also committed against the community in the name of which they are perpetrated—against the community’s law, and more broadly against an order of humanity defined by its diversity. Palestine was destroyed because Zionists didn’t want Palestinians living among them; the regime the Zionists erected was meant to be the materialization of this genocidal intent. The enforcement of a racial law, an affront to human diversity, has been the raison d’être of this regime since 1948. It lies at its basis, and it is this law that should be abolished between the river and the sea for all inhabitants therein to be free. It must be abolished for the sake of Palestinians, so that they can regain their rights to return to live in Palestine and rebuild their world; and, so too, it must be abolished for the sake of Israeli Jews, so that they can liberate themselves from Zionism, free themselves from the position of perpetrators—the only one they can inhabit under this genocidal regime—and reclaim the diverse Jewish histories of which they were deprived when they were forced to embody a fabricated Israeli identity defined by its enmity to Palestinians. Israelis can choose to act as citizens of their genocidal regime and endorse the transformation of the tragic day of October 7 into its justification, or as some have done, they can reclaim their place as members of a shared humanity and reject the genocidal foundation of their regime.
The images of genocide over the last few weeks could have even inspired different outcomes—forcing Israelis to recognize that they are settlers and to overcome the false belief that wielding genocidal violence could keep them completely safe from the resistance of the colonized, or sparking a popular movement calling for a general strike against the colonial regime, one that refuses to support and execute its genocidal violence and serve in its army whose genocidal intents are clear. The flow of images in which nonstop genocidal violence is exercised against Palestinians—mainly in Gaza, but also in the West Bank—could have been prevented at any moment, had the use of such technologies not been normalized, justified, and legalized as a means for targeting Palestinians.
What makes this current genocidal violence revelatory is that it echoes and reiterates the inaugural moment when this genocidal regime was established. In 1948, it was 750,000 Palestinians—the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants—who were expelled in a period of over a year. Now, in barely a few weeks’ time, at the speed of a death factory, more than 1.5 million Palestinians—who were already living in a concentration camp, ghetto, or prison—have been displaced, and between 1 and 2 percent of the population of Gaza has been wounded or exterminated.
In an uncanny and painful way, the black-and-white still images taken in Palestine during the Nakba of 1948 are coming alive, in the form of moving images and in color. The images coming out of Gaza—at least when Israel hasn’t shut down the electricity and Internet—can only falsely be called images, since they capture the people who are calling to stop the genocide in rectangular immaterial forms. These are not discrete images of what had happened but visual megaphones calling us to recognize the decades long genocide and to stop it now. Recognizing the genocide also means rejecting any further genocidal solutions for Gaza and Palestine once this killing stops.