bilin - AP - Sept 19 2010
Bil'in, August 27, 2010. Mistaken identity. Photo by AP
Text size

This is a photograph that does nothing to help the Palestinian national struggle. This is a photograph that does not represent the nature of the nonviolent struggle in Bil'in against the separation fence and the appropriation of the village's lands. This is a photograph that does not show the IDF troops who are standing nearby, or the passive demonstrators. This is a photograph that does not explain the meaning of the mask on the face of the youth waving his slingshot.

But this is an excellent photograph.

The young man was photographed by Majdi Mohammed of the Associated Press on August 27 in Bil'in. He is wearing a mask with the face of a man named Abdullah Abu Rahma, the head of the Bil'in Popular Committee against the Wall and the Settlements, an educator and political leader who advocates nonviolent protest. Three days before the photo was taken, Abu Rahma was convicted in Israeli military court of incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations. He was acquitted of rock-throwing and weapons possession charges.

The young man wears the face of a man who opposes what the young man is doing.

This is a photograph with a contrast between movement and non-movement. Between the arm that is being waved - so that you can practically hear the whooshing sound as it slices through the air - and the frozen expression of the mask, with its eyeholes. A contrast between the lean body caught just at the moment of action and the immobility of the cluster of people on the left side of the photograph. One of them gazes far off in the opposite direction, and the faces of the other four are covered with kaffiyehs and gas masks. They are trying to hide their identities and take cover. The youth slinging the rock, by way of contrast, is seeking to create an identity, and attacking.

The use of masks is just as defining a human trait as DNA. IDF soldiers are no exception in this sense, nor are the mistaravim (soldiers disguised as Arabs ) in Bil'in. The IDF has admitted in court in the past that mistaravim sometimes joined the rock-throwers. They say they did so in order not to blow their cover. No exposure could be greater. For who can distinguish the pretend Palestinian rock-throwers from all the actual Palestinians who wish to make their voices heard - and say who is really interested in throwing rocks. Disguises are always deceiving, dependent on context. If rock-throwing is absolutely reprehensible, then joining in is just as reprehensible.

Abu Rahma does not hide behind anyone. He speaks for himself. He is not masked or disguised. He is not "a wanted man" or a fugitive. Character witnesses testified in court that he is an advocate for nonviolent struggle. The court even rejected outright the claim that spent IDF bullets left in the field and used as part of a protest installation were actually "weapons." But he was convicted nevertheless. The European Union condemned the conviction. The sentence has not yet been handed down.

On the day the photograph was taken, a Friday, this Bil'in youth came out to demonstrate. With his face covered by a mask, the convicted man's identity substitutes for his own. But since the youth's interpretation of the mask is faulty, he is endangering life: the life of the man whose face he has put on, and his own life. Because turning Abu Rahma into a symbol of activity of this kind could get him imprisoned for life. Rock-throwing could get the young man shot. So this photograph, which has movement and non-movement, also depicts a journey to the place where, in Natan Alterman's words, "the living soul running for the gate will arrive there dead."