Sounds of Occupation Shape Political Art by Wounded Palestinian

Whispers, screams and gunshots – heard but not necessarily seen – are integral parts of the documentary-artistic works created by Rehab Nazzal, who was shot in the leg by IDF soldiers in December.

Palestinian artist Rehab Nazzal, who was injured in December, 2016, by Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Israel Defense Forces soldier who wounded Rehab Nazzal in Bethlehem on Friday, December 11, 2015, by shooting her in the shin, didn’t know who she is. He didn’t know her name; that she was born in Qabatiyah, near Jenin; that she is 55, and also a Canadian citizen; that she teaches art at a college in Bethlehem; that one of her exhibitions angered the Israeli ambassador in Canada; or that she’s writing an interdisciplinary doctoral thesis that’s impossible to summarize in a sentence, but focuses among other things on contemporary weaponry, including drones, and their targeting of human senses.

As part of her research, Nazzal has been watching the weekly demonstrations on Al-Khalil Street in Bethlehem, which is blocked by the forboding separation wall and guard tower, since early October. She films dispersal of the demonstrations, accompanies the wounded to the hospital, meets the families of arrested participants, and speaks with residents of the houses hit by tear gas and by the foul-smelling liquid sprayed by a military vehicle known as the “Skunk.”

As always, Nazzal was holding a camera that Friday. She walked in the opposite direction from the demonstrators, who were fleeing southward because the Skunk was approaching, threatening to disperse in all directions its stinking liquid, which Israel developed as a nonlethal weapon. The repulsive odor clings to the body for days, and no amount of washing will remove it from clothing. But for the sake of her research, Nazzal decided to walk north, get as close as possible to the Skunk vehicle and to film it in action.

She didn’t hear the shot; she was focused on the vehicle. But suddenly she felt pain, like a burning cigarette on her leg. Blood drenched her pants and shoes.

The burning sensation and the sound of the shot divert us briefly from describing the wound, if only to honor Nazzal’s dictum that no event should be torn from its context.

Because the artist lived abroad for many years, her memories of Israel’s conquest in 1967 are still fresh. One such memory is of a visit to the Jenin prison, where her then-13-year-old brother was jailed after being caught cutting the phone lines to an IDF command post in Qabatiyah.

“My brother began crying that he wanted to go home with us,” she recalled in an interview with Haaretz last month. “And he showed us they had tortured him: The interrogators touched his toes with a burning cigarette.”

She remembers the burn marks. She was a young girl in 1967, and she remembers soldiers breaking into houses in Qabatiyah, and shining flashlights in residents' eyes in the middle of the night. “You'd try to see something, and see the rifles and the boots.”

She recalls the soldiers emptying out bags of food. Rice and legumes could be sorted out afterward, but her mother’s nightmare was that they'd mix the salt and sugar.

Nazzal says the soldiers beat her father in front of her and her siblings. In the 1930s, she said, he joined the fighters of Sheikh Azz A-Din al-Qassam (who fought British and Jewish colonization). "Imagine what it was to see him humiliated before you. He returned from arrests and didn’t say a word about torture,” she said.

She remembers that the soldiers used loudspeakers to order all men and boys who had guns or knives to bring them to the local school, and then broke into the houses to search for arms.

She remembers long periods of curfew. Once, she peeked outside through a crack and saw detainees with cuffs on their legs destroying a wall. Was that a single memory, of prisoners recruited to demolish a house, or two different memories that merged? She doesn’t know.

Nazzal had an uncle who taught English and recalls the humiliation he suffered: The soldiers, who didn’t know Arabic, put him on the front of a jeep that patrolled the city. They gave him orders in English and he had to translate them.

Power of sound

Nazzal has always loved to paint and sketch, but for the last 10 years, she has concentrated more on other senses – mainly, hearing. She discovered the power of the sound as a medium of political art in 2006, when for the first time she brought her three children from Canada to meet her family in Qabatiyah. She had been living overseas since 1980, first in Jordan and Syria, then Canada.

“The flight from Toronto to Amman took 12 hours,” she said. “Then it took another 12 hours to get to Qabatiyah: checkpoints, waiting, searches. We arrived and fell on our beds and slept a lot.

“Suddenly, I was woken by a stun grenade. I swear I thought it was an earthquake. I took my mother’s hand, and she told me not to worry. That it was normal. She was already used to it.

“Then the shots began, and the dark house filled with whispers in English and Arabic. I immediately grabbed my camera. My mother yelled, ‘They’ll kill you!’ But what I recorded was just the sounds and the few lights that could be seen.

“From 30 hours of video I took four minutes of audio recording [the viewer hears the sound but only sees a black screen] for the work 'A Night at Home.' It surprised me how people related to it because those sounds connected to sounds of violence in other places, like South America and Bulgaria, at other times.”

A frontal display of an image is liable to upset people, to flood the viewer with stereotypes, she discovered. “If they hear the sound of a woman crying, they identify with her. If they see the crying woman wearing a head scarf, prejudice will erase the sympathy.”

But Nazzal didn’t hear the shot that hit her on December 11. A nearby Palestinian ambulance rushed to her, and as the paramedics gave her first aid, soldiers from the jeep threw tear-gas grenades at them. “We were all choking from the gas,” she said. She later lost consciousness from the pain.

“It’s a war crime, to fire tear gas at people who are rescuing the wounded,” she added.

The bullet entered and exited her body, and luckily broke no bones. She gradually overcame the infection, the pain and the limping.

“I’m just one of 600 people wounded by gunfire since October,” she said in mid-January (today, the number is at least 2,000). “That day alone, another 16 people were wounded in Bethlehem.”

When she was shot, her camera was jerked away from its focus on the Skunk and the empty street. Later, she discovered it had filmed a Border Police jeep and two snipers lying behind a pillar at the entrance to the hotel opposite which she had been standing. The asphalt around the jeep was dotted with stones.

Haaretz asked the Israel Defense Forces whether there are orders to shoot photographers. The IDF Spokesperson’s Office replied that there was a violent demonstration near Rachel’s Tomb that day, during which two IDF officers were wounded, and “the forces responded with crowd-dispersal methods.” It added that several Palestinians were wounded, and that the military prosecution is planning to look into the incident.

Nazzal had another brother, who was studying in Amman when the war broke in 1967; Israel never let him return. She doesn’t remember him, and never saw him before Israeli security officials assassinated him in Greece in 1986.

She showed the funeral in a video called “Mourning” at her exhibition in Ottawa in 2014. Another video showed the faces of other Palestinians killed during attacks on Israelis or assassination operations. She declined to comment on reports that connected her brother to attacks that killed civilians, including children, like that at the Ma’alot school in 1974.

“If there’s anyone who can talk about losing children, it’s us,” Nazzal countered. “Some 800,000 people expelled in 1948 lost their homeland. I worked in Jordan helping bereaved families. I was shocked by the number of our dead: 50,000.

“If anyone can talk about humiliation, torture, it’s us,” she continued. “Go to Hebron, watch the soldiers checking schoolchildren’s hands for signs [that they held stones]. Go see the trees Israel uproots every day. It’s impossible to tear one event or one person from the entire context of this tortured land.”