I caught them staring. At least a dozen people on this Tel Aviv bus were eyeing my tripod suspiciously. As bombs fell upon Gaza at the height of Israel’s 2014 offensive, these passengers seemed alarmed by me and my camera equipment. Just two seats down, a soldier with an M16 rifle hanging casually from his chest went seemingly unnoticed. As I walked off the bus, I was struck by how Israel’s visual culture warps the perception of what is dangerous and what is ordinary. It is within this visual landscape that Palestinians in Gaza emerge as a threat while the destruction of the Strip by the Israeli state appears mundane.
Mainstream Israeli media produce this perception by circulating images of Gaza’s built environment that primarily represent destruction, rubble, underground tunnels, and the cement wall surrounding the entire Strip. Palestinian scholar Helga Tawil-Souri warns about the consequences of this mode of representation. She writes, “Gaza comes to stand – problematically, ahistorically, in the most racist and simplest of ways – for everything threatening, backwards, non-progressive.”1Helga Tawil-Souri, “Gaza as Larger than Life,” in Gaza as Metaphor, ed. Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 20. In the near absence of other representations, images of destruction naturalize the Gaza Strip as a site of violence and degrade what the Israeli and Western publics perceive as “normal” in the Strip. The semiotic warfare Israel wages against Palestinians is meant to portray their death and suffering as a deserved consequence of their purported backwardness and absolve Israel and its allies from responsibility for having produced that death and suffering in the first place.
Tawil-Souri argues that despite the discursive and physical distance, Gaza’s shadow looms large over Israel because of Israel’s ongoing colonial violence against Palestinians in the Strip. In this article, I explore how Gaza’s shadow emerges in Israel’s visual culture or, in other words, how Gaza is constructed in the Israeli eye. Being unable to enter Gaza, I do not examine its architecture but rather, I analyze Israel’s urban imaginary of the Strip, mediated by representations that are almost never authored by Gazans themselves. I focus on how Gaza is invoked in the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem, in the built environment of Sderot, an Israeli city half a mile away from the Gaza border, in the Rockets into Roses sculpture museum, and in artistic and activist attempts to confront residents of Tel Aviv with their complicity in Gaza’s devastation.
Prior to 1948, Gaza City was one of the major urban centers of Palestine. The Gaza Strip, as we know the area now, is not a naturally occurring Strip but a result of various colonial processes. Zionist settler colonialism, which culminated in the creation of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, has been the most violent and destructive force, devastating Gaza. What Israel refers to as the War of Independence of 1948, Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” During the Nakba, pre-state Jewish militias and later the army of the nascent Israeli state expelled over 750,000 Palestinians from their land and pushed about a third of them into Gaza. Nearly a quarter million Palestinian refugees joined the eighty thousand people who lived in the area before 1948, transforming the Gaza Strip into the biggest refugee camp on earth.2Ibid.
Leveraging its significant resources, Israel has promoted its interpretation of history while actively suppressing accounts of Palestinians. The Zionist3Zionism is an ideology and political project of Jewish nationalism that birthed Israel. narrative portrays the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as the victory of a liberatory movement for Jewish national self-determination. Within this interpretation of history, Jews, after centuries of persecution around the world, finally gained sovereignty over their ancestral homeland only to be immediately invaded by the neighboring Arab armies, which Israel’s military miraculously defeated. Citing a Biblical story, Israel represents the events of 1948 as the battle between David and Goliath, Jewish peace-loving native, and aggressive Arab invader.4Jeff Halper, Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 19. Zionist framing of the conquest of Palestine as Jewish “self-defense” became the focal point of Israel’s official historical narrative.
Echoing Ella Shohat, Palestinian legal scholar Noura Erakat points out that European Jews established Israel as a Jewish nation-state in Palestine to escape European persecution. She writes that rather than challenging the discriminatory and racist ethos that excluded Jews from meaningful integration within Europe, the Zionist state “internalized and reproduced that exclusionary ethos in an effort to finally become European and gain acceptance within Europe.”5Noura Erakat, “Whiteness as Property in Israel: Revival, Rehabilitation, and Removal,” Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice 31 (Spring 2015): 70. Israel’s violence against Palestinians did not end with the creation of the state, but instead it is built into its very fabric.
In 1967, the Israeli army captured the Gaza Strip and began its military occupation. In the early 1970s, the Israeli government encouraged Jewish settlers to move to the occupied Gaza Strip, where they established twenty-one settlements. In 2005, Israel unilaterally “disengaged” from Gaza and forcefully, with the support of its own military, evicted the settlers. Gush Katif, a bloc of seventeen Jewish settlements in Gaza, occupies a prominent place in Israel’s national narrative. In the course of Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza, some 8,500 settlers were evicted from Gush Katif, and their homes were demolished by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).6Nicola Perugini, “Settler Colonial Inversions: Israel’s ‘Disengagement’ and the Gush Katif’ Museum of Expulsion’ in Jerusalem,” Settler Colonial Studies 9, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 41–58.
In 2008, the Gush Katif Museum was founded in Jerusalem in order to, in the museum’s own words, commemorate “settlers’ deportation from the Strip that they called home for over 30 years.”7“About,” The Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem (blog), accessed March 17, 2023, https://gushkatifmuseum.com/en/1814_about/. Israel cites the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians amidst escalating violence as the reason for leaving Gaza, yet historians and political scientists have argued that the withdrawal from the Strip was a tactical step that would give Israel more control over the West Bank.8Ilan Pappe, Ten Myths About Israel (London; New York: Verso, 2017), 129. The museum understands the disengagement as a grave injustice inflicted on the Jewish settlers by the Israeli government and the army; yet, reflecting Israel’s official account of history, it places the rhetorical blame on Palestinians.
Inverting the Palestinian decolonial demand to return to their land, the Gush Katif Museum advocates for settlers’ right of return to Gaza. This privately-run museum blatantly appropriates Palestinian histories, narratives, and symbols to advance its colonial mission. Keys, a symbol of Palestinian ani-colonial resistance, are also on display in the Gush Katif Museum. Many Palestinian families who were displaced in the Nakba kept the keys to their homes, expecting to return. While denying the injustice done to Palestinians, the Gush Katif Museum displays settlers’ keys to indicate their desire and hope to return to Gaza.
The museum mourns not just the loss of Gush Katif, the area that housed the settlement bloc, but the entire Gaza Strip. The Gush Katif relies on the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to frame Jewish settlements in Gaza and the rest of Palestine as a fulfillment of a divine promise. Illustrating a connection between the sacred Jewish text and the Strip, the museum displays a timeline representing the history of Gaza that begins in 1600 BCE with a Biblical story of Isaac and a quote from Genesis. To suggest that the Jewish rule over the Strip is divinely preordained, the timeline highlights that Jewish King Solomon ruled over Gaza. Another prominent display is a map of Gaza showing all of the Jewish settlements in the Strip before 2005, yet the map features no Palestinian cities or villages. By naming only Jewish settlements, the map erases Palestinians who concurrently lived on the land that settlers occupied.
The museum also exhibits a sculpture by Israeli artist Zohar Nahmias called The Orange Nail. The sculpture is made of 750 nails inserted into a styrofoam board. From above, the nails make up the shape of Palestine, with nails in the area symbolizing the Gaza Strip missing their heads. The wall text explains that “this part of the country is still in our hearts and still a part of Israel. And we’re Hoping [sic] it will come back one day.” The idea that Gaza will one day be populated by Jewish settlers is not totalizing in Israel, yet it reflects the Zionist approach to the Jewish Bible as the document authorizing Jewish settlements in Palestine. In light of that, it is quite fitting that the museum is located in Jerusalem – the city that relies on the Jewish Bible to justify its existence as a capital of the settler state.
As a general rule, the Gush Katif Museum omits even mentioning Palestine and Palestinians, except for a few prominent references. A video about the history of Gush Katif calls Palestinians “Gaza Arabs” who have “destroyed and desecrated” settlers’ synagogues after the evacuation. The museum mourns the ruins of the synagogue without ever mentioning the continuous ruination of Palestinian homes, public spaces, and infrastructure by the IDF. The nostalgic imperial narrative about Jewish settlements in Gaza weaponizes the ruins of those settlements to accuse Palestinians of unprovoked violence. The museum’s interpretation of any act of Palestinian resistance as an act of terror is central to Israel’s cultural production of Gaza.
In Israel’s dominant national narrative, Gaza is imagined to only mean Hamas and violence – a meaning that justifies the siege and the continuous ruination of the Strip by the Israeli military. Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), better known as Hamas, has been declared a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Israel portrays Hamas, the governing body in the Gaza Strip, as an irrational actor who, for no logical reason, driven exclusively by hate and antisemitism, is attacking Israeli civilians and the state itself. But Israel’s narrative goes beyond condemning Hamas: it uses Hamas as a metonym for Gaza to curtail any other meaning of that geography. By equating Gaza with Hamas and by extension with terror, Israel renders all Palestinians in Gaza inherently not innocent for merely existing in the Strip. Israel’s politicians and military leaders have long perpetuated this notion.
Further, Israel blames Hamas not only for Palestinian resistance that ostensibly threatens Israelis but also for the devastation of the Strip. Israel insists that since pulling out of Gaza in 2005, it is not responsible for the plight of Palestinians there, but rather Hamas – the party in power – is. This representation strengthens the idea that Hamas’s policies and actions are responsible for the destruction and suffering in the Strip. Conveniently for the IDF, this perception is used to justify the ongoing surveillance, targeted attacks, and large-scale incursions into Gaza in 2008, 2011, and 2014 as defensive or preventative acts.
To present any attack on Gaza as an act of self-defense, Israel discursively produces all Israelis, including the armed soldiers, as victims and all Gazans as threats. This faulty binary is particularly visible in Sderot, an Israeli city bordering the Strip. In Sderot, Gaza is not just a shadow: Gaza can be heard and even seen from Parash Hill, the so-called Sderot Cinema. During military attacks on Gaza, Israelis gather on the hill to watch and cheer the strikes. These and many other Sderot residents came to understand themselves as victims, not the perpetrators of the deadly violence. Israel’s embrace of a victimization narrative, reflected in the built environment, reinforces this subjectivity while constructing Palestinians in Gaza as senseless terrorists.
Sderot is a self-proclaimed “bomb-shelter capital of the world.” All buildings and bus stops double as bomb shelters, and most open spaces have stand-alone shelters to protect Israelis from rockets fired at Sderot from Gaza. In 2019, a pro-Israel advocacy group known as Artists4Israel invited international artists to Sderot to “beautify a community ravaged by war” and cover bomb shelters with murals and graffiti. Now, Sderot is peppered with colorful shelters. The whimsy of shelter design is jarring. One shelter looks like a strawberry; another is an orange. A bus stop is sky blue with puffy clouds. A concrete pink castle and a hollowed-out yellow snake in a playground are reinforced and can serve as a shelter. Made to look inviting and unthreatening, shelters become normalized in Sderot’s built environment.
Prior to visiting Sderot, I read online about the Qassam Museum and an exhibit that displays just one object repeated hundreds of times – the Qassam rocket. While looking for the “museum,” I almost missed the actual Qassam exhibit. It is an unassuming rack with what looks like two hundred rusty metal rockets that were fired into Israel from Gaza. The exhibit is adjacent to the outer wall of a local police station and is separated from the public by a metal fence. Though fenced off, the rockets are displayed to be visible, to serve as a reminder of the supposed constant danger Israelis are facing. The display, however, fails to convey its message of a constant deadly threat. This inconspicuous rack with homemade artillery is the opposite of spectacular. There is something trivial in seeing hundreds of these rockets together – proof of how incapable Qassam is of disrupting Israeli business as usual. Yet, the display is effective in promoting Israel’s agenda of erasing all possible meanings and imaginings of Gaza except that of Hamas and terror.
Rockets into Roses is also advertised online as a sculpture museum, which I decided to visit. After a two-hour bus journey from Be’er Sheva, I arrived at Yated, which is a small community near Gaza’s border, surrounded by military bases and farmlands (you can smell animal farms and see the cactus farm sign from the road). There I found Rockets into Roses. It is a warehouse where artist Yaron Bob works on metal.
Bob was surprised by my unannounced visit but welcomed me in and told me about his art practice. I spent about an hour looking at his work and listening to him speak. Several years ago, a rocket from Gaza struck a building he was in – an event that left him emotionally traumatized, he shared. To work through the trauma, he began making metal sculptures out of Qassam and other rockets launched from Gaza. Bob has an arrangement with the IDF, who transfer recovered rockets that fall inside Israel to him. Other than metal roses, Bob also makes mezuzot, metal cases containing Biblical verses that are hung on doorposts in Jewish homes, and menorahs, seven-branched candlesticks. One of the walls of his warehouse is covered with photos documenting various military and political leaders of Israel, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, holding or receiving his art.
Rockets were piled up in the yard in front of the warehouse. Bob gave me a tour pointing out different kinds of rockets. He explained that Qassam, the most common missile launched from Gaza, is made from scrap metal, like signpost poles. I asked him why he thought Hamas fired the rockets. It appeared I interrupted the well-rehearsed spiel, which did not include a political analysis of the situation in Gaza. “They want to kill us,” he quickly responded. Like many Israelis and Israel supporters, Bob was convinced of Gazans’ purported genocidal obsession with eliminating Jews and the Jewish nation-state. He did not conceive of Hamas or any Palestinian acting in their interests to advance their freedom. Bob internalized Israel’s interpretation of the missiles launched from Gaza as the ends and not the means of Palestinian resistance. The perception is the result of Israel’s consistent project of dehumanization of Palestinians that manifests discursively, symbolically, and materially.
Specter of Violence
The idea that Gaza presents an imminent threat is not totalizing in Israel. In Tel Aviv, for example, many tourists and Jewish Israelis go about their day not thinking about Gaza at all. Tel Aviv, the site of the proclamation of Israel’s independence in 1948, has an international reputation for being a beacon of progress and liberal modernity. Acclaimed as “The White City,”9Noga Kadman, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015), 6. “nonstop city,”10Maoz Azaryahu, Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City (Syracuse University Press, 2020), 127. “best gay city,”11LGBT travel website Gaycities.com, which named Tel Aviv the best gay city of 2011. vegan heaven12“Tel Aviv Vegan Heaven,” Visit Israel (blog), June 24, 2019, https://israel.travel/tel-aviv-vegan-heaven/. and capital of the “start-up nation,”13Sarah Amandolare, “In the Heart of Israel’s ‘Start-up Nation,’ an Exclusive Scene Opens Up,” The New York Times, February 14, 2020, sec. Travel, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/travel/14TelAviv-israel-technology.html. Tel Aviv cultivates the idea that occupation, colonization, and military violence happen far away and have nothing to do with the lives of its residents and visitors. Ella Shohat writes that “Tel Aviv is exhibited as a postmodern metropolis with presumably no relevance to the history of Palestine.”14Ella Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings of Ella Shohat (Pluto Press, 2017). No matter the physical and discursive distance between the two sites, Gaza still casts its shadow over Tel Aviv, which is part and parcel of the apparatus responsible for the ongoing colonization of Palestine.
Artists, activists, and human rights organizations have attempted to intervene and make Israel’s atrocities against Palestine and Palestinians visible in Tel Aviv. In 2009, the artist collective You Are Not Here (YANH) created a walking tour titled Welcome to Gaza. The tour allowed visitors to explore Gaza City by walking in Tel Aviv and holding up the double-sided map of both cities to the light. The cartographic palimpsest served as an invitation to consider the interwoven urban experience of two places that otherwise appear emotionally and politically detached from one another. The map contained twenty Gaza City landmarks corresponding to locations in Tel Aviv marked by a You Are Not Here sign. Each sign invited visitors to call the tourist hotline number and enter a unique site-specific code to listen to an audio recording by the Gaza resident and blogger Laila El Haddad. In each recording, Haddad offered vivid, personal impressions of Gaza, eliciting its sounds, smells, and sights to offer the virtual visitors a connection to the place and its people.15Mya Guarnieri, “Visit the Heart of Gaza without Going There,” The National, October 10, 2009, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/visit-the-heart-of-gaza-without-going-there-1.505848. Now, over a decade later, the hotline is disconnected, You Are Not Here signs are gone, and even the webpage for the tour is inaccessible, signaling an even bigger cultural rift between Tel Aviv and Gaza.
Throughout the years, multiple groups have used Tel Aviv’s public spaces to display pictures of Palestinians, including children, killed by Israeli soldiers. Most recently, the documentary photography collective Activestills and the anti-Zionist organization Jews for Return organized these actions to transport the often invisible violent reality of Gaza into Israeli civic life. A spokesperson for Jews for Return stated, “We are bringing the posters of the faces of the children killed by Israeli soldiers to the streets of Tel Aviv to show Israelis the crimes committed in their name in Gaza.” These exhibitions attempt to transgress the ideological borders that separate life in Gaza from that in Tel Aviv, yet these actions always end the same way: passers-by deface, damage, and destroy the images in mere hours.
Israeli artist David Reeb illustrated Tel-Aviv’s entanglement with Gaza in his 1988 piece “Tel Aviv-Gaza.”16In January 2022, Reeb’s work was removed from an Israeli art museum in 2022 for being “anti-Israel.” In a statement, the artist explained, “I suppose it’s easier for some people to call it racist or antisemitic than to assume responsibility for the dispossession and oppression that we live with.” In six diptychs, Reeb juxtaposed drawings of Tel Aviv with that of Gaza. Reeb based the colorful, lush, and serene scenes of Tel Aviv on direct observation of the views from his balcony, while the chaotic, black-and-white sketches of Gaza are his renderings of photographs of the Strip published in Israeli newspapers. The contrast between the two places that Reeb illustrated became only more poignant with time. Tel Aviv has become more lively, while Gaza has been further destroyed. These are not unrelated processes – Tel Aviv flourishes precisely because Israel devastates Gaza and suppresses its inhabitants.
The places and phenomena I highlighted here simultaneously shape and are shaped by Israel’s urban imaginary of the Gaza Strip, yet the list is not exhaustive. Gaza’s shadow is cast all over occupied Palestine: it is not an illusion or a fantasy but rather a reflection of Israel’s colonial violence against Palestinians. Looking away or ignoring Gaza will not lift its shadow; only Palestinian liberation will.
Yulia Gilich is a media artist, theorist, and community organizer. They received their PhD in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. Their work is interdisciplinary and sits at the nexus of media studies, cultural geography, and critical race theory.
|Helga Tawil-Souri, “Gaza as Larger than Life,” in Gaza as Metaphor, ed. Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 20.
|Zionism is an ideology and political project of Jewish nationalism that birthed Israel.
|Jeff Halper, Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 19.
|Noura Erakat, “Whiteness as Property in Israel: Revival, Rehabilitation, and Removal,” Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice 31 (Spring 2015): 70.
|Nicola Perugini, “Settler Colonial Inversions: Israel’s ‘Disengagement’ and the Gush Katif’ Museum of Expulsion’ in Jerusalem,” Settler Colonial Studies 9, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 41–58.
|“About,” The Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem (blog), accessed March 17, 2023, https://gushkatifmuseum.com/en/1814_about/.
|Ilan Pappe, Ten Myths About Israel (London; New York: Verso, 2017), 129.
|Noga Kadman, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015), 6.
|Maoz Azaryahu, Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City (Syracuse University Press, 2020), 127.
|LGBT travel website Gaycities.com, which named Tel Aviv the best gay city of 2011.
|“Tel Aviv Vegan Heaven,” Visit Israel (blog), June 24, 2019, https://israel.travel/tel-aviv-vegan-heaven/.
|Sarah Amandolare, “In the Heart of Israel’s ‘Start-up Nation,’ an Exclusive Scene Opens Up,” The New York Times, February 14, 2020, sec. Travel, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/travel/14TelAviv-israel-technology.html.
|Ella Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings of Ella Shohat (Pluto Press, 2017).
|Mya Guarnieri, “Visit the Heart of Gaza without Going There,” The National, October 10, 2009, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/visit-the-heart-of-gaza-without-going-there-1.505848.
|In January 2022, Reeb’s work was removed from an Israeli art museum in 2022 for being “anti-Israel.” In a statement, the artist explained, “I suppose it’s easier for some people to call it racist or antisemitic than to assume responsibility for the dispossession and oppression that we live with.”