Oh Palestine, let us mother you!

Why so many Westerners get an emotional kick from looking at pictures of injured Palestinian kids.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This essay was first published on spiked during the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006.

What is your abiding memory of the Israel-Lebanon war? Perhaps it is the photographs of dead children from Qana, those grisly shots of Lebanese aid workers carrying the grey, dusty carcasses of toddlers from buildings flattened by Israeli missiles, which reportedly played a ‘big part in turning portions of world public opinion against Israel’.

Or maybe it was the shot of 12-year-old Abbas Sha’ito wailing next to his injured mother, shouting, according to the captions, ‘Don’t leave me mother!’ Or you might remember the photograph of smiling Israeli children writing messages on shells destined for Lebanon, which showed, according to one commentator, that ‘these children are raised with hatred instead of milk’. Or perhaps the image of children’s shoes outside Downing Street, the UK prime minister’s residence, comes to mind: anti-war protesters left scores of pairs of tiny shoes there in order to bring home to Tony Blair the extent of Lebanese suffering.

Western media coverage of the month-long conflict was saturated with what one commentator has referred to as ‘dead-child porn’: images of lost, distressed, injured or dead children. On the front pages of the papers, in TV news reports and on blogs and webzines, there was shot after shot of toddlers and teenagers with bloodied faces and broken limbs. No doubt some in the media will argue that this focus on the most vulnerable victims bravely showed the reality and brutality of war. It is certainly true that many Lebanese children were killed or injured. According to one aid worker, this is because there tend to be large families in southern Lebanon: ‘You are not talking about nuclear families; you are talking about families huddling together with four, five or six children. Inevitably, a high percentage of children are killed.’

But these images were not about revealing any true ‘reality’ of the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Instead, the focus on damaged or endangered children, to the increasing exclusion of images of adults or stories of adult action, revealed much about the West’s patronising and paternalistic attitude to the Middle East.

Increasingly, the Middle East is viewed through the eyes of a child. In culture, media and politics, images and stories of Lebanese, Palestinian and increasingly Israeli children, too, are dominant. There are films, both documentaries and fictional features, that tell the story of the Middle East from ‘the children’s view’, which provide, according to one gushing report, a ‘deeply humanistic insight into the complexities of the Middle East conflict that political analysis or frontline news coverage often lacks’. Journalists and photographers on the ground constantly seek out children to snap. Even the West’s political interventions in the Middle East are increasingly conducted in the name of children. UN officials and NGOs chastise Israel for failing to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its treatment of young Palestinians, as if Israel is an errant father and the Palestinians its wide-eyed charges.

This infantilisation of Israel, Palestine and now Lebanon shows the true relationship between the West and the Middle East today. It suggests that what really motivates Western media and political interest in the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Lebanon conflicts is less political solidarity, or anything to do with liberty or justice, but more a vicarious politics of pity. Images and stories of distressed children allow Western commentators and viewers to feel simultaneously upset and superior; it gives them both an emotional kick and makes them feel like responsible adults who wish to care for these damaged children far, far away.

Moreover, this new infantilisation of the Middle East by Western media and officials is profoundly anti-democratic. It writes the adults of the Middle East out of the picture – literally in the case of child-focused photography, media coverage and filmmaking. This new approach circumvents adult society, ignoring and silencing those people in the Middle East who might really change things for the better. In their ‘advocacy’ on behalf of the kids of Israel and Palestine, reporters, aid workers and officials disempower and disenfranchise the adult actors in the region.

Manipulating children, ignoring adults

Reporters and photographers will contend that focusing on injured or dead children exposes the horrible reality of warfare. In fact, reality is often distorted in the endless hunt for photo opportunities involving highly distressed young people. There was a storm of controversy when it was revealed that a Reuters photographer used Photoshop digitally to enhance a picture of an Israeli air raid on Beirut: he used the ‘clone’ option to copy and paste columns of smoke to make it appear as if the bombing was more widespread than it actually was. However, you don’t need dodgy digital enhancing in order for a photo to be misleading, even manipulative. Many of the pictures of children in Lebanon were perfectly real, but they were also manipulated.

Consider the image of 12-year-old Abbas Sha’ito and his mother, which appeared on the front page of the UK Guardian and in numerous other newspapers. It’s a horrendous photo, showing Abbas crying next to his badly injured mum. They are the only two people in the shot, creating a powerful sense of a lost and confused child at the mercy of faraway Israeli bombers. However, there were many other adults around, helping Abbas and his mother. Abbas’ family and friends – 17 of them in total – were travelling in a minivan when it was hit by an Israeli missile. Two members of his family and a family friend were reportedly killed and some others were injured. However, other adults survived and straight away sought help for Abbas, his mother and the others. A medic who arrived on the scene played a key role in keeping Abbas calm and helping his mother to survive. One report says the medic told Abbas: ‘Don’t cry, she will be okay. Just keep talking to her.’ Yet none of this adult action is seen in the photo, which instead has become an iconic image, in the words of one commentator, of Israel’s ‘war on children’.

This subtle manipulation of imagery is also clear in a striking photograph from Gaza published in a recent issue of the New Statesman. It showed a single very young Palestinian child – around two or three years of age – standing in the rubble of what presumably used to be his home. Barefooted, and surrounded by collapsed walls, old blankets and battered boxes, he is clearly very distressed. It gives the impression of an abandoned child (his parents are nowhere to be seen, it seems), lost in a world of war and bloodshed.

However, look a little more closely at the image and you can see a different story. In the background there is a group of Palestinian men, talking and gesturing with their arms; it looks as though they are deciding what kind of action to take, perhaps working out who will temporarily house those families whose homes have been destroyed. Look more closely at the child in the foreground – the central focus of the photo – and you notice that there are the shadows of four photographers cast over him, all of them out of shot, their cameras readied, as they click away at this distressed child like paparazzi around some starlet at a Hollywood film premiere. This photo reveals something far more telling than the fact that war harms children: it shows that many of today’s photojournalists based in the Middle East go straight for the shot of a weeping child in preference of any other image. It also shows that adult debate and action and decision-making about what to do next – which surely was the real story in this scene – can be sidelined, turned into little more than a distant backdrop to the money shot of a weeping toddler.

This exclusion of adults – especially male adults – from photographs taken in wars, famines and natural disasters has been occurring for the past 20 years. In her very interesting book What is a Child? Popular Images of Childhood, first published in 1992, the film and photography expert Patricia Holland argued that men are sidelined in order that the photo will elicit pure pity, rather than critical consideration, in the viewer:

‘Men are rarely visible in the iconography of disaster. It is they who signify culture, and whose presence tends to locate a picture in its geographical context. They are most likely to be fully clothed or to be engaged in some task. As the strongest group they are least likely to conform to the expected image of the victim and the most likely to be involved in attempts at reconstruction or resistance, confusing the clarity of the story, complicating a reaction of pity alone. Thus the community to which the suffering child belongs is visually bypassed, and the extent to which it is caring for its own children is rarely explored.’

Both of the photographs mentioned above, of Abbas Sha’ito in Lebanon and the crying toddler in Gaza, conform to this trend for adult-free, pity-inducing photography. In both pictures, the men – family members and medics in Abbas’ case, the group of men talking in the background in the Gaza picture – are ‘bypassed’ as the photographers zoom in only on the victimised children. To include the adults, those ‘engaged in some task’ and who are debating ‘reconstruction or resistance’, would be to pollute the central theme of such imagery: that the Middle East is a terrible mess, full of abandoned and damaged children, and viewers must feel their pain or Do Something to help. The inclusion of adults would, in Holland’s words, ‘confuse the clarity of the story’. It is striking that the only adult included in the photograph of Abbas Sha’ito was his injured mother. As Holland noted, women are sometimes included in photography from foreign disaster zones – especially from areas hit by famine – but usually as a way of ratcheting up pity for the child: ‘A frequent image is that of mother and child together, the weakness of the mother serving only to intensify the plight of the child.’

Holland argued that such photos can be pleasurable as well as distressing for viewers: ‘As the children in the image reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs. Paradoxically, while we are moved by the image of the sorrowful child, we also welcome it, for it can arouse pleasurable emotions of tenderness, which in themselves confirm adult power.’ This captures something of the essence of the current media coverage of the Middle East, where endless stories and pictures of children being harmed both indulge Western commentators’ and viewers’ sense of pity (for Palestinians and Lebanese) and outrage (against Israel, which apparently has declared ‘war on children’). Moreover, this kind of coverage contributes to an idea that the Middle East is itself a childish entity, in need of parenting and care from the West. Holland said that in earlier war and famine media coverage, the Third World is shown to have a ‘childish relation to the exercise of power’: ‘The non-white nations are regularly presented as if in themselves they lack potency, and it is among the children of the developing countries that we find most frequently pictures of childhood suffering. Children are seen as archetypal victims; childhood is seen as weakness itself.’

The focus on children in the Middle East reveals the extent to which Palestine and Lebanon themselves have been infantilised. Damaged children are now seen as being the archetypal Palestinian or Lebanese individuals: victimised, powerless, and in need of our pity and patronage. What starts out as media coverage intended to reveal the ‘reality’ of Palestinian or Lebanese suffering ends up depicting them as pathetic peoples who require the West to parent them.

It should be noted that some conservative commentators have claimed that cynical Lebanese officials, and also Hezbollah supporters, purposefully left children’s bodies in the open so they could be photographed. If this is true, then it can be seen as a logical response to the Western media’s thirst for imagery of injured or dead children. It was Western elements that made damaged kids into the currency of the recent conflict, so we should not be surprised that some adults on the ground may have bartered in that currency. They have sensed that parading your dead children for the cameras is a means of winning Western attention and possibly even intervention on your side; that demonstrating ‘weakness itself’, as Holland described child-imagery, might win you some international sympathy.

Infantilising the issues

The new child’s-eye view of the Middle East also has the effect of reducing the debate about the future of the region to the level of a childish spat. Some argue that interviewing and photographing children captures the essence of the Middle Eastern conflict in a way that news reportage or analysis fails to. ‘The kids’, apparently, speak more truthfully and profoundly about their lives and experiences, because they are unpolluted by adult politics and outlooks. In fact, as anyone who has ever met a child will know, children can be extremely prejudiced and blinkered in their views. In fact, it seems that one reason why some reporters and filmmakers are drawn to the children of the Middle East is because they express the region’s various prejudices in a sometimes shocking and unguarded way, thus sustaining the idea that this is a deeply bred and largely intractable conflict.

The infantilisation of Israel-Palestine often means that issues are never thrashed out in a meaningful way. Consider the film Promises, first released in 2001 and shown recently, during the Israel-Lebanon war, on both More4 in Britain and PBS in America. The film, according to one reviewer, takes a ‘fresh look at the Middle East crisis through the eyes of its biggest victims – the children of both sides’. Shot between 1995 and 2000, it follows the lives of seven children aged between 9 and 12, including one in a Palestinian refugee camp, another in a nationalist Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and others on both sides of the divide in the city of Jerusalem. Numerous reviewers have congratulated the filmmakers for elevating emotion over politics. One said the film provides a ‘humanistic perspective that transcends politics’. The Israeli author David Grossman went so far as to argue that ‘the next Middle East peace summit [should] start with a screening of Promises‘.

In fact, Promises, and a spate of similar films, demonstrate the limitations to the child’s-eye view. It features secular Israeli twins Yarko and Daniel, who live in Jerusalem. In one scene they are shown interrogating their grandfather about whether he believes in God. He tries to answer, but it proves difficult; he says he once was certain that God existed, but he became less sure following his experiences during the Holocaust. That is no good for the giggling twins who tug on his arm and say, ‘Come on, yes or no – do you believe in God?’ The old man’s answer is clearly too nuanced for Yarko and Daniel, who, like most children, see everything in black-and-white, yes-or-no terms. An opportunity to hear what an elderly Israeli has to say about the meaning of the Holocaust for him and for the state of Israel is missed; instead two kids are given leeway to poke and harangue him as he looks awkwardly towards the camera. This happens continually in Promises, where children blab while the adults sit silently in the background.

Promises also shows that, in filmmakers’ and commentators’ hands, the children of the Middle East can be symbols of prejudice as much as symbols of pity. We are introduced to Moishe, a young Israeli boy living in the Beit El Settlement in the West Bank. He seems to spend most of his time riding his bike around and slagging off the Arabs who live around the settlement. Riding past a shooting range for Israeli soldiers, he laughs and says that if one of their bullets goes astray it will be no bad thing because it might ‘kill an Arab’. On the other side of the divide, we meet a Palestinian boy who talks about driving the Jews out of Palestine. Part of the attraction of focusing on children, it seems, is that they express things in a sometimes disturbing fashion – in short, they provide good copy. Where interviewing adults in the Middle East would require knowing your stuff about the region and being prepared to have a challenging and rational debate, interviewing children largely means following them around and waiting for them to say something silly or prejudicial.

As Patricia Holland noted, the flipside to coverage that features damaged children in order to provoke pity is coverage that features cocky or out-of-control children and which often induces adult anger – with both the child and the society he was brought up in. She argued: ‘[T]he imagery of childhood is never without its ambiguities. The danger to children is balanced by an all-pervasive sense of a danger from them. Children, in all their enforced irrationality, pose a threat to adults, both in their own tendency to violence and lack of control and in their ability to provoke adults to violence and loss of control.’

This ambiguity is clear in the child-centred coverage of the Middle East, where we are invited both to pity victimised children and also to fret over the future of the Middle East when these apparently traumatised children grow to be adults. So alongside photos of crying or confused kids, there is a constant stream of doom-and-gloom stories about what these kids will become in the future. Some commentators provide an ‘apocalyptic vision’ of Palestinian children as ‘the next generation of suicide bombers’. Others talk about ‘the damaged future generation’. For some, such is the extent of psychological trauma among Palestinian children in particular that they will unlikely be able to function fully as citizens in the future. Today’s obsessive focus on the children of the Middle East expresses both the West’s victim culture and its sense of societies being out of control. Children, who can be both objects of pity but also messy and unpredictable, provide the perfect focus for these dual concerns.

The extent to which Israel and Palestine themselves are now personified as children is clear from the documentary film Judah and Mohammad, released this year and shown recently on Channel 4 in Britain. It follows two teenage boys, one Israeli and one Arab, who live only miles from each other, but worlds apart. The film communicates a very clear message about Israel and Palestine through the boys’ stories. Judah, the handsome Israeli kid, is cocky, arrogant, unscholarly and longs to be an Israeli army pilot. Mohammad, the Palestinian, is quiet, caring and emotional – at one point his father has to tell him to stop crying because ‘you’re a man now’. Here we have an image of Israel as a big bully, a loud and out-of-control child, and Palestine as the studious and quiet child who sits at the back of the class. This also became the case during the Israel-Lebanon war, when images of Israeli girls writing messages on shells came to symbolise Bad Children, apparently ‘raised on hatred’, while pictures of injured Lebanese youth were held up as symbols of Good Children being victimised. (Some reporters have claimed, however, that photographers coaxed the Israeli girls to write on the shells because they thought it would make for a dramatic photo – more media exploitation of children.)

The West as parent

The parental approach to the Middle East disempowers the adults who live there. They are written out of the picture. The Lebanese medics who assist injured children do not feature in photographs; the Palestinian men deciding how to resolve a crisis are little more than a curious, blurry image in the distance. And in actual political interventions in the Middle East, too, adults are increasingly ignored. UN officials, NGOs and other charities based in Palestine and Lebanon are more and more focusing on directly taking responsibility for ‘the biggest victims’ – children – and circumventing adult society in the process. This has led to even more direct forms of intervention in the Middle East, where Western do-gooders actually become surrogate parents to the children of the region, who are presumed to have been neglected or failed by Palestinian or Lebanese society.

So the Defence for Children International (DfCI) puts pressure on Israel to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It describes itself as a group ‘dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza…and to facilitating the creation of an environment in which all participants are aware of and respect children’s rights’. DfCI produces reports on the number of Palestinian children killed or injured by Israeli forces, and the number kept in Israeli jails. The UK Save the Children Fund and other charities and NGOs also campaign for Israel to honour the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its treatment of Palestinian youth.

One British charity supports a ‘mobile therapy centre’ in the West Bank, which moves from village to village ‘offering psychological tests and support, play and speech therapy, physiotherapy and drug therapy’ to traumatised children. The Canadian Council for International Cooperation sponsors ‘play-therapy projects’ in the West Bank and Gaza. The American Center for Mind-Body Medicine supports trauma counsellors in Gaza, who treat children with ‘emotional and behavioural disorders, anxiety, depression and PTSD’. Its aim, it says, is to ‘bring our scientifically validated model of self-care to Palestinians in an attempt to help them relieve some of their suffering and alleviate their trauma’. Who needs self-determination for adults when you have ‘self-care’ for children? All of this chimes well with the attitudes of the World Health Organisation to Palestinians’ problems. A WHO spokesperson has said that Palestinian children ‘might not be able to ever forget [their traumas]. Any minor trigger can set off the whole mental experience again. They relive their previous traumatic experience as though of the original magnitude.’ The solution, says WHO, is for more health campaigns that seek to improve Palestinian children’s self-esteem and their ability to self-manage their emotions.

Radical anti-war and Palestine solidarity campaigners also focus on the plight of Palestinian, and more recently Lebanese, children. They write about the ‘war on children’ and how it will give rise to more suicide bombers. Banners on two recent demonstrations in London against Israel’s war in Lebanon showed pictures of injured or dead Lebanese kids, alongside messages saying, ‘Yo Blair, do something’. Anti-war activists laid children’s shoes outside Downing Street to try to wake Blair to the extent of the suffering in the Middle East. Even among radical activists, the demand is not so much for Palestinian liberty as for Western advocacy on behalf of Palestinian children. The demand is for the West to rein Israel in, in order to protect weak and vulnerable children. Here, activists end up calling both for more Western intervention in the Middle East – the last thing it needs, surely – while playing down the agency of the adults in the region, their ability to overcome their difficulties.

There has been a striking shift, it seems. Where once Western campaigners in the Middle East might have demanded that Israel recognise Palestinians’ national rights, today they call on it to respect Palestinian children’s rights. Where once activists offered solidarity to adult actors in the Middle East, today they offer pity and sympathy to the children of the region. Where once they might have exposed the West’s role in causing division and conflict, now they effectively call on Western institutions and organisations to become a surrogate parent to the Middle East in order to ‘save the children’. This has the effect of strengthening Western influence in the Middle East while weakening the say of the adults who live there. As Patricia Holland noted of earlier famine coverage, there is a logical flow from focusing on victimised children to demanding that the West, the parent figure, take on more responsibility for other states’ affairs:

‘In the act of looking at presentations [of victimised children], viewers recognise themselves as both adult and Western, as individuals with the ability to change a child’s life for the better…. The appeal is to the competence of Western civilisation, seen not as the controlling father, imposing the harsh disciplines of international finance, but as the nurturing mother, the Mother Countries.’

We should stop mothering the Middle East. In doing so Western observers disenfranchise the adults who live there – and it is those adults who are best placed to resolve both their own problems and the problems of their society, and to care for and lead their children. The people of the Middle East do not need surrogate parents for their kids. They need more freedom to determine their families’ and their societies’ affairs, and less patronising meddling by Western officials and commentators looking for a doe-eyed child they can coo over.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. This essay was published on spiked during the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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