In the war of words over the war between Israel and Hamas, one question is asked time and again: why does Hamas put the civilians of Gaza in harm’s way? Hamas at least stands accused by some of encouraging Palestinians to act as human shields against the rockets from Israel and storing weaponry in civilian buildings. This week the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees reported the discovery of Hamas rockets in a vacant school, in between two buildings housing 3,000 displaced Palestinians. Certainly when Palestinians are killed, Hamas’s leaders swiftly organise photo opportunities for foreign observers, giving rise to a situation where, in one journalist’s words, ‘wounded and dead women and children [are paraded] in front of the cameras’. The Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu caused a storm when he referred to these unfortunate souls as ‘telegenically dead’ Palestinians, publicly displayed by Hamas to ‘garner international sympathy’.
Various explanations have been offered for Hamas’s alleged endangering of Palestinian life. It does it because it is cynical, wicked, so determined to depict Israel as the monster of the Middle East that it’s actually pleased when Gazans get killed, commentators claim. But there is something else, too, another side to this sordid story, another aspect to these allegations about Hamas’s complicity in, or lack of care about, the rising death toll in Gaza. And that is the question of what urge, what audience, Hamas is allegedly trying to satisfy with its imagery of dead Palestinians. The answer is us, individuals in the West who cannot get enough of horror stories of Palestinian victimhood, campaigners and journalists over here who now barter in gory images of killed Palestinians and who promote and share such images both to demonstrate their own emotional intelligence and to put pressure on international institutions to rein in Israel and recognise Palestinian statehood.
That is, it’s all well and good to criticise Hamas for its supply of images of ‘telegenically dead’ Palestinians, but we also need to interrogate the demand side to this relationship, the thirst that exists here in the West for graphic proof of Palestinian victimhood, and the way in which this demand might, perversely, be contributing to the bloodshed in Gaza. Is it possible that modern-day Palestinian solidarity campaigns, which now almost exclusively use images of victimised Palestinians as leverage against Israel in international forums, are implicitly inviting the Palestinian leadership itself to provide more such images, and possibly more dead?
Hamas’s suspected endangerment of civilian areas of Gaza is not taking place in a vacuum. It’s occurring at a time when imagery and reports of Palestinian suffering have extraordinary clout, becoming a kind of currency in international media and campaigning circles. The Western appetite for pictures of and information about Palestinian suffering is vast. Media outlets and pro-Palestinian campaigners count and even name every Gazan killed in rocket attacks. The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has become one of the busiest on Twitter, being used hundreds of thousands of times to share graphic images of dead Palestinians. Some newspapers have broken their own taste guidelines in order to publish photographs of dead children. When an Israeli rocket hit a beach and horrifically killed four children, images of the kids’ dead bodies were widely shared, one of the surviving boys was interviewed on primetime news shows, and anti-Israel memes were created calling on outsiders to do something to stop Israeli militarism.
The message that all this morally pornographic promotion of images and reports of Palestinian death sends to Hamas is this: victimhood works. The feverish Western marshalling of emotive imagery of Palestinian corpses to the political end of seeking sanctions against Israel or greater international protection for the Palestinian territories surely has the effect of encouraging Hamas to try to provide more of the same, more ‘telegenically dead’ Palestinians. There is a logic to Hamas’s alleged encouragement of great risk among the Gazan civilian population and certainly to its ‘parading’ of dead bodies before the press: it’s a response to the grotesque Western fashion for looking at, sharing and using as political tools images of dead Palestinians. Hamas is best seen as a kind of drug pusher to those in the West who have developed a very ugly habit of exploiting images of brutalised Palestinians both for their own needs (to advertise their emotional awareness) and for political purposes (to exert pressure on our leaders to condemn Israel).