Israeli press complicit in dehumanization of Palestinian victims

By Sarit Topaz | Translation: Dena Shunra

Muatasam and Ali were shot to death by the IDF at the start of Ramadan. The Israeli press glossed over the story. In writing about them here, the author attempts to restores a bit of humanity to the faceless Palestinians killed by the army

This post was written at the request of a close friend, who asked me to publicize the deaths of Muatasam Adwan and Ali Khalifa, killed during a nighttime raid by the IDF in the Qalandia Refugee Camp, on the first day of the Ramadan fast.

Everyone has been occupied with the wave of protest sweeping Israel, with people arguing over the definition of social justice; the question of whether the struggle is or is not political; the delicacy of phrasing; demands and the solutions; whether the nation is truly coming together or whether the unity is just a patchwork; what is that “nation” and who does it include. In the meanwhile, quietly and inexorably, the occupation keeps up its routine.

Unofficial curfews and nightly raids on West Bank villages are commonplace. Army forces enter without informing the residents over a loudspeaker, and residents outside their homes endanger their lives. Damage precedes warning. During the first week of Ramadan, the occupier was behaving as usual, raiding refugee camps and villages at night, using pyrotechnics. Deafening sounds of stun grenades, flares brightening the night sky, the smell of tear gas that gets on the nerves, burns in the mouth, blinds the eyes and makes breathing heavier. Dizzied sensations and fears that mark the entry of those who shouldn’t be there in the first place. It is not for nothing that these raids are carried out at night, while people should be in their beds, forgetting reality for a few hours. That’s when the military circus arrives, instilling fear, in order to “detained wanted persons.”

Just one example of many – a nighttime raid in the village of Nebi Saleh, in the middle of this past July:


The Qalandia Refugee Camp and the villages of Ni’lin and Beit Umar received a particularly warm holiday greeting. Two people were killed on the first day of the holy month: Muatasam Adwan and Ali Khalifa. News sites in Israel dedicated less than 400 words to the reports on their deaths. The item was filed under “Military And Security” news. Both on the Ynet and NRG news portals, the casualties remained anonymous: no name, no face, no life story. The former mentioned “Palestinian youths,” the latter only “Palestinians.” The two were thus stripped of their subjectivities, of their life stories, of their agonized families. When we strip someone of his subjectivity, we feel no moral responsibility for him. That’s how the boundaries of our apathy are drawn in one stroke: no need to mourn for them, they are not “our kind,” they are “Palestinian.”

NRG reported as follows: “The IDF Spokesman stated that the clashes broke out during ‘a routine mission to detain wanted persons.’ Widespread violations of order commenced after the arrests, and five of the soldiers were lightly wounded from stone throwing.” The routine of invasion under the codename of “detaining wanted persons” gives emphasis to the description that follows, of the actions of the Palestinians. Our action was “routine” – they responded with “widespread rioting.” A military invasion is normalized under the routine “order,” while the response of the occupied persons to the nighttime invasion of their residence is a violation of that order. This creates a symmetry between the event and the consequence suffered by “them” (the Palestinians engaged in widespread violations of public order, which is why two of their people were killed) and between the injustice of the consequences of the event to “our side.” (We were acting routinely, and five of our people were wounded – how terribly unfair!)

Ynet reported that in response to “the incident,” the military “would investigate the use of crowd-dispersing technology. It was later stated that the troops did indeed open live fire. The military is investigating the incident, which occurred on the first day of Ramadan, considered a sensitive time.”

Let us pause here for a moment, and examine the semantics of this response. First of all, it was the army that decided when it would undertake an “arrest mission” – this is not something that is dictated by fate, so why is it presented as such? Second, I have always found it amusing when an organization that commits a crime investigates itself. Third, portraying the first day of Ramadan as a sensitive time gives the readers the sense that we have become the greatest of pluralists. Suddenly, the IDF respects the Muslim Palestinians on their holiday. Netanyahu’s Ramadan well-wishes were infuriating enough [Hebrew]:


On the Walla news portal the report initially seems more balanced. The casualties have names and ages, and the names of another wounded person and of two detainees are provided. The piece reads: “In the course of the operation, which lasted several hours, IDF soldiers beat several residents and damaged their property in their homes.” But note several additional details that appear here, which did not make it to the other reports I read. Here, it says that the Palestinians had thrown rocks that had wounded five soldiers, which is why shooting commenced. Additionally, it states that “alertness levels were high due to the possibility that extremist elements would use the incident to commit violence on the first day of the Ramadan holiday.” Again, the military operation is portrayed as moderate and the death is portrayed as a negligible incident, which is surely to be used by extremist elements to inflame the area. The after-dark invasion on the first day of the holiday is not portrayed as the source of inflamed tension – but rather, as normal and routine.

Finally, the following screen shot is of the only site that I reviewed that includes a photo in its report. The photograph does not document a military invasion or even the occupier. It portrays several Palestinian youths, masked, throwing rocks from behind a Palestinian ambulance. This photo speaks to the collective fears of Jews in Israel, precludes even a shred of identification with the Palestinians. The telephoto angle prevents their becoming a humanization. Rather, they are marked as Palestinians by their clothes, their hidden faces, the Arabic writing on the ambulance:

Israeli press complicit in dehumanization of Palestinian victims


Back to Qalandia. Think of the kind of empathy that would have arisen if the reports had told, as Muatasam’s friend did, that he – only 22 at his death – was studying journalism at the university, and had been preparing for an exam that night? The intentional noise made by the Israeli military circus effects brought people out of their houses, because they heard gunshots. Scattered cries that he heard through his window brought him outside. But let us make no mistake: his death was not divinely ordained. His death was caused by people, people who held weapons, and shot. Yes, they shot him in the head. Ali Khalifa, 26 years old when he died, saw that Muatasam had been hurt and ran to help him. That was how he, too, was shot and killed. The arbitrariness of the unannounced military incursion sparks panic, exposes all residents to danger. As Ariel Handel writes, “That’s how the act of a crime, judgment, decision, warning, and execution are purified into a single moment. The fine comes at the same time as the ticket; the gunshot comes along with the verdict… the fact of the power’s presence is not only the requisite condition (…) for the blow, but also the cause (…) of it. People die ‘because they are there.””

Discussions on the deaths of these two men, if they are even held on our side, will ask whether the soldiers obeyed procedure when opening fire, whether they erred by not using crowd control methods rather than live fire to disperse the stone-throwers. The discussion will be technical, dry, and removed. No one will ask what the army was doing there in the first place, how the occupied are supposed to conduct themselves when the occupier invades, or generally – what value is there to human life.


This is a picture of Muatasam Adwan:

Israeli press complicit in dehumanization of Palestinian victims

His picture makes my heart skip a beat. He is younger than my little brother; he will not have the chance to grow up, to finish his studies and build his future. What do you think, when you see his picture? Ariela Azulai writes that when the Israeli public looks at pictures of Palestinians, it mostly submits to the only permissible interpretation, which identifies their as representations of evil. I hope that the readers of this post, who see the photograph of Muatasam, do not submit to the unipolar representation they may have been taught. I hope this photo evokes the memory of a past that has disappeared and of beloved people who have died. I hope that a moral response and a sense of sorrow are evoked. This is his funeral (the link is to a Facebook video.)

Muatasam’s photo, which I posted above, documents a moment in his life. But when I asked a friend to send me a photo of Ali, he chose to forward a picture that documents his death. The photograph was taken at the morgue, with him lying on a slab, eyes closed, clotted blood on his body and on the sheets draped over it. His upper torso is bare. This is the documentation of the dead face of a young man, a reminder of a body that will be buried and will not return. I won’t attach the picture, but rather a link to it, so that my readers can choose whether or not to contend with this difficult picture.

My friend, who asked that I write this post, and I both hope that these words will succeed in returning to the Qalandia casualties their humanity in the eyes of Israelis – or at least, to keep this event from disappearing within the cycle of news. The laconic news stories summarizing the lives of these two men seem to be an injustice. Let us not forget that these stories are not unusual, and that they are not decreed by fate. Their deaths are caused by other humans, within the framework of a particular, intentional policy which exposes Palestinians to injuries that are not in any way accidental.

My friend from Qalandia asked me to sign this post with some words of farewell to Muatasam. He asked me to write that he loves him very much, and that he will not be forgotten. The same is true for Ali. May their memory be blessed.

Sarit Topaz is a graduate student in Gender Studies at Tel Aviv University

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Haoketz