Monday, 18 February 2013

Watching Over Palestine

Ariella Azoulay’s appropriated photograph of the Palestinian town of Kufr Bir’im, loaned to her by second generation refugeee Nahida Zahra

"This photograph of Kufr Bir'im was taken about one month after the state of Israel was established. But this wasn't the first aerial photograph Jews had taken of Arab villages. A Jewish 'air service' had been operating in Palestine's skies since 1947 and contributed to the systematic generation of intelligence on the Arabs. It could do so because the British Mandate did not demand a monopoly of the skies. The lives of the people who've just finished harvesting their grain and bringing it to the threshing floor aren't visible in this bird's-eye view. Instead we see the environment of people's lives in military terms - access roads, emplacements, escape routes, firing positions, etc. [...]" 1

In Ariella Azoulay's appropriated photograph of the Palestinian town of Kufr Bir'im, loaned to her by Nahida Zahra, a second-generation refugee, she provides the above caption as a counter to the official Israeli version of events. The landscape appears pock-marked with open, circular spaces to the right of the city centre, where stacks of white cubes are interconnected and seemingly built one upon another. A line snakes around the perimeter, demarcating the space between Kufr Bir'im and the surrounding hills, intermittent trees, fields differentiated only by the subtle shades of grey in this black-and-white photograph. In the image, the inhabitants of the village are invisible, and intended to remain that way. One need not - should not - think of the people occupying these spaces. Everyday human life is abstracted into a series of blocks, passageways, and potential targets.

This isn't accidental. The detachment of the soldier from his victims is paramount in encouraging them to take action as well as to deal with its consequences. As Dave Grossman has noted, in his book On Killing, the closer the proximity of the soldier to conflict, the stronger the effect on his (un) willingness to pull the trigger. In his analysis of distance of target against general capability to kill, the bomber, along with the artillery crew, represents the maximum range,

"defined as a range where the killer is unable to perceive his individual victims without using some form of mechanical assistance - binoculars, radar, periscope, or remote TV camera." 2

Grossman states:

"Bombing deaths are buffered by the all-important factor of distance. They represent an impersonal act of war in which specific deaths are unintended and almost accidental. ('Collateral damage' is the military euphemism for such killing of civilians while bombing military targets.) Execution of innocent civilians (...) is on the other hand a highly personal act of psychotic irrationality that openly refutes the humanity of the victims. So what is the difference? Ultimately, the difference is distance." 3

This detachment through distance is more recently visible in the increasing prevalence of drone missions where pilots are physically absent from the cockpit, moving and manipulating their vehicles from remote locations (such as C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia or Creech Air Force Base in Nevada). Similarly, the diminishment of a temporal delay between the locating of a target and subsequent attack might also be seen as an attempt to bypass individual deliberation, as

"[drones] provide an near-instantaneous responsiveness - dramatically shrinking what U.S. military targeting experts call the 'find-fix-finish' loop - that most other platforms lack." 4

Time to think, to consider one's actions, is diminished.

While Azoulay is careful to specify the exact circumstances of this image - the evacuation of Kufr Bir'im's inhabitants and deliberate erasure of its architecture - the aerial military photograph is loaded with insinuations, and expectations, of overhead assault. The surveillance plane is a precursor to the bomber, relaying the preliminary information required to assess and determine possible targets while, at the same time, capturing only the formal, surface qualities of the cityscape. The photograph implies an objectification and dehumanisation of the inhabitants below, akin to the linguistic terminology that Grossman rightly identifies, where 'signature strikes' refer to attacks on individuals or groups who meet certain, unspecified definitions of enemy combatants and 'bug splat', rather than 'collateral damage', stands for unintended civilian casualties. These euphemisms act as a corollary to aerial bombardment, a mode of distancing and abstracting the reality below.

Azoulay's text cuts through the strategic interpretation of the photograph, ensuring that the full consequences and moral implications of Israeli actions are embedded within the image. Her caption continues:

"The Arab Israeli citizens who were expelled from the village still live nearby today. Had the rights stemming from Israeli citizenship not been applied differentially to different sectors of the population, they would long ago have obtained redress and compensation.

This contextualisation doesn't necessarily offer that, but it does close in on whom exactly lives within the image.

Chris Clarke (critic and curator, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork)


1.         Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950, (London: Pluto Press, 2011), p. 249
2.         Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), p. 107
3.         ibid. p. 106
4.         Micah Zenko, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013), p. 6.


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