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Containing the Narrative: Portrait of a Killing in the West Bank

[The closed Container checkpoint with Sadeq Ziad Gharbiyeh’s body visible on the ground, on 10 November 2015. Image by author.] [The closed Container checkpoint with Sadeq Ziad Gharbiyeh’s body visible on the ground, on 10 November 2015. Image by author.]

Each day after work I ride back to Bethlehem in a rickety public taxi van known in Palestine as a sirvis. On Tuesday, 10 November around 3:00 pm we reached “The Container,” an Israeli checkpoint that stands between the town of Abu Dis and the valley of Wadi Nar to find large steel gates blocking our way. Normally the checkpoint is open for vehicles to pass through, many of which soldiers will force to pull over for a security check. Often the young Palestinian men commuting home from university and work will be subject to questioning and their IDs will be taken and scanned. When I pass by each afternoon there is usually a line of men sitting at gunpoint on the metal bench. On this particular day as the sirvis stopped at the traffic circle north of the checkpoint about thirty feet away behind a concrete barricade I could make out the unmistakable features of a male body lying on the ground, apparently shot dead by the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint.

As more vehicles began to arrive at the closed checkpoint a crowd formed and began to film and photograph the body on the ground and the soldiers pacing around it. Those of us who remained in vehicles documented the scene as well. Suddenly, three soldiers ran out of the closed gate, firing live rounds into the air among the parked vehicles. They threw four tear gas canisters near the quiet bystanders, seeking to stop us from documenting. Using the threat of force and the blinding fumes to cloud everyone’s vision, they tried to prevent the story of the killing from being portrayed by anyone other than the military. It would not be the only attempt to control the narrative of sixteen-year old Sadeq Ziad Gharbiyeh’s killing.

According to an article published by the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, Israeli sources alleged that Sadeq had tried to stab a soldier at the checkpoint. However, during an interview with journalist Mussab Said, the driver of Sadeq’s sirvis declared that the boy had dropped his phone on the ground and was trying to pick it up when a soldier shot him. A video from Bethlehem News Network shows Sadeq being chased by a police dog before he is shot. It is unclear from the video whether he was running at one of the soldiers, perhaps carrying a knife as they alleged, or running out of desperation away from the dog. The multiple narratives of his killing call out for further evidence. 

[The body of Sadeq Ziad Gharbiyeh on the ground at the Container checkpoint. Photograph distributed by United Hatzolah.]

The forum in which evidence is examined plays a crucial role in how it is seen. The past few weeks in Palestine have recycled multiple competing narratives that control and manipulate evidence for different purposes. There seem to be three main perspectives that have crystallized surrounding the alleged stabbing attacks that have occurred and they are audible in both the local and international media. If we apply the first of these narratives to the photograph above, we might see an innocent young man murdered in cold blood. In his hand a knife was placed postmortem by an illegitimate occupying military that framed him in order to legitimize their criminal behavior. A second narrative, for those who believe the knife wasn’t placed postmortem but that it belonged to Sadeq, is that he tried to carry out a stabbing attack as an act of resistance against a ruthless government occupation. The third is the Israeli military and liberal Zionist perspective, which reverberates from the Western Wall to the dome in Washington; that Sadeq is a terrorist and that Israel and its soldiers have a right to defend themselves against acts of terrorism, regardless of the difficulties of life under occupation. In all of these arguments the middle ground is missing, the crucial position from which we can see for ourselves what the biased forum cannot show us.

The image was posted on Twitter by United Hatzolah, an Israeli volunteer emergency response team. The soldiers did not allow Palestinians and other observers into the checkpoint after Sadeq was shot, nor would Palestinians ever be able to freely document the events that take place inside any checkpoint due to the severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. While onlookers who arrived at the scene were able to photograph him from afar until the military started to throw tear gas, from our vantage point we were not able to see Sadeq’s right hand which is pictured here holding the knife. Although United Hatzolah is not part of the military their image is nothing but an echo of the military’s authoritative narrative because they were allowed into the checkpoint when others were not. By virtue of being captured in a closed military area and produced in secrecy, the truth of the image is suspect. By looking closely at the photograph, it becomes clear that it acts as doubled edged evidence that discredits the military’s story by trying too hard to support it.

The photograph seems to incriminate the victim by showing him with a knife in his hand but in actuality it raises questions about the legitimacy of killing Sadeq and implicates itself for not being able to provide justifications and answers. If we suppose that the knife is in fact Sadeq’s, would he have posed any imminent threat to the soldiers by holding the knife between his index and middle finger, a position particularly contrary to the exertion of force? As forensic observers of the image, we might also question why the photograph shows a body that does not obey primary rules of physics; namely that Sadeq would have dropped the knife as postmortem primary flaccidity set in as he fell, disproving the validity of the knife’s placement in his hand. Was the knife placed in his hand postmortem and prepared for the photograph in order to justify the soldier’s shooting of Sadeq and to legitimize a narrative of self-defense?  

Despite the questions the photograph brings to the surface no answers can be found. Looking for answers is actually a distraction from the real crime: the repeated extrajudicial killings of Palestinians that has become incessant in the last few weeks. Although there are multiple narratives of Sadeq’s killing, the military’s use of force in an attempt to take control of the framing of the narrative reminds us that evidence produced in secrecy is fickle, untrustworthy, and manipulative. Therefore, the photograph cannot show us truth. If in the end of our forensic observation we are left with a piece of evidence that cannot prove anything to us, we might also recognize that it can not justify or support the killing of a sixteen-year old boy. 

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