Behind the lens: An artist under military occupation

(Credit: Rehab Nazzal)

Earlier this year, Rehab Nazzal published the book Driving in Palestine, compiling photographs, hand-drawn maps and critical essays in Arabic and English by Palestinian and Canadian scholars and artists from the research multimedia project of the same name. It explores the restriction of movement in the West Bank in photographs taken from 2010 to 2020 and captured from moving vehicles. 

Nazzal is a Palestinian-born multidisciplinary visual artist born in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and currently based in Toronto. She works with photos, video and sound to explore what she calls “the effects of settler-colonial violence on the bodies and minds of colonized peoples, on the land and on other non-human life.” Her work has been exhibited across Canada and internationally, including at the Polygon and Mónica Reyes galleries in Vancouver and Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI). 

At the beginning of October, Nazzal travelled to Bethlehem to present Driving in Palestine at a conference at Dar al-Kalima University, where she was unable to leave for more than a week after Israel blocked off the West Bank following the eruption of violence on Oct. 7. When officials from the Canadian government were finally able to evacuate some Canadians to Jordan, Nazzal chose to stay behind to document the ongoing events and support her community.

I reached out to Nazzal in Bethlehem to ask her about documentaries, political art and her experiences in the West Bank.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve explained at your exhibitions that you switched your visual arts focus from painting to documentary. Why did you make that switch, and what role does documentation play in the arts?

The switch in my practice from painting to documentary media happened around 2006, after my first visit to my home country, which I was deprived from returning to by Israel’s occupation authority for over two decades. That visit was a turning point in my life. I was shocked by the destruction of my ancestral land and the suffering my people were enduring. The occupation forces controlled every aspect of life; Jewish-only colonies and roads built on stolen Palestinian land were mushrooming on the hilltops across the West Bank.… All of that made me question my role as an artist.

I turned to documentary. My first photography-sound installation was a result of that visit, titled Walking Under Occupation, in 2008…. I documented and shared my experience countering the misrepresentation of the Palestinians and their struggle for freedom and justice, which was pervasive in Canada. Documentary is a less subjective and more credible medium. It creates knowledge that is based on embodied experiences; it can raise awareness, move people to action, and give voice to the suppressed and marginalized. 

A framed broken mirror on a wall with Rehab Nazzal's reflection in it. She is holding up a camera to her face and is taking a photo.
(Credit: Rehab Nazzal)

Documentary plays a vital role in times of injustice. It was not a coincidence that states that wage colonial imperial wars imposed embedded photojournalism after the Vietnam War, realizing the effects of images of victims that emerged from the battlefield and images of dead soldiers on the public. 

The documentary images emerging from Gaza, by citizens and surviving photojournalists alike, are of great significance.… These images help bring those responsible for the ongoing genocide to account.

Your work has been considered controversial by some because of your unapologetically political messaging. You’ve written about the attempts at censorship you’ve faced in the past, but you don’t seem deterred by it. Why is politics so deeply embedded in your practice?

Labelling this artwork or that artist as “controversial” intends to maintain white supremacist representation that keeps “the other” silent, suppressed and misrepresented.… Just look at Wanda Nanibush’s experience with the Art Gallery of Ontario… When it comes to Palestinian art and artists in Canada, decolonization collapses.

In 2014, my multimedia installation Invisible at Karsh-Masson Gallery [in Ottawa] was attacked by Israel’s ambassador to Canada, the Zionist lobby, and conservative Canadian politicians.… My work in that exhibition was accused of “glorifying” and “memorializing” terrorism, when in fact the whole work exposes Israeli terrorism against the Palestinians and Western complicity, including the extrajudicial assassination of Palestinian artists, leaders and activists by Israeli secret services on European soil, including my brother, who was assassinated in 1986 in Athens at age 38.

I often wonder if I weren’t of Palestinian origin or if my work didn’t deal with Israeli oppression, would I be threatened, attacked and subjected to media misrepresentation and censorship, and would I be denied employment?… Placing any state above international law leads to its transformation into fascism, and that is what we are witnessing at this moment in time.

I believe that politics is prevalent in every aspect of our lives, whether in Turtle Island or in Palestine. Indigenous Peoples are subjected to oppression, racism, land seizing and destruction [of their land], dispossession, confinement and control, and attempts to strip them of the right to resist their colonizers.… My identity, memory, right to movement and freedom of expression are but some concepts that I address in my work.

As a field researcher and a witness, I live with people and am a participant in their activities. I have a responsibility to create work that represents these people and challenges the status quo, reveals oppressive power relations and contributes to social change and achieving justice.

What has it been like for you these last two months?

Some communities [in the West Bank] were and are choked with metal gates and cement blocks, and people’s movement is entirely controlled by the occupation forces. The presence of Israeli occupation forces increased at checkpoints … night raids intensified, and the number of detainees surged to unprecedented levels.

The bombing of Gaza was horrifying to watch in the news, and at times, we hear warplanes above our heads. At the beginning it was impossible to leave Bethlehem, even to see my family in Jenin, whom I haven’t seen since the summer of 2022. Some Canadian media contacted me with one concern: the Canadian government’s effort to evacuate Palestinian Canadians.… It is outrageous that Western states’ effort was directed at saving their citizens rather than pressuring Israel to stop the slaughter of civilians in Gaza and bring an end to the siege and occupation.

The Palestinians in the West Bank, subjected to unprecedented violence by armed Jewish settlers and Israel’s occupation forces, were absent from world news.… Palestine is my ancestral land; leaving during these difficult and horrific conditions was no longer an option. I decided to stay and document what is happening as much as I can while contributing to the community by teaching at Dar al-Kalima University and working on my research as a postdoc at Concordia University. Teaching in the West Bank is like teaching during the outbreak of COVID-19, all online due to the impassibility of students reaching their schools.

Are you still documenting what you’re witnessing while you’re there? If you could update Driving in Palestine based on your experiences now, what would change? 

Updating Driving in Palestine is becoming extremely risky; movement in the West Bank is almost impossible. Like most Palestinians, I can no longer drive a car. I rely on public transportation, where drivers have experience.… These drivers risk their lives, too, and encounter violence on the roads. I was able to see my family twice during the past two months. Imagine the distance between Bethlehem and Jenin, 128 kilometres, takes five or six hours, sometimes longer. You don’t know what to expect on the roads: armed settlers, occupation forces, or both. Flying to Canada from Jordan takes less time than moving between one city and another in the West Bank.

It feels like we are in small open-air prisons surveilled by drones and ground-level surveillance structures and tools including hundreds of watchtowers in addition to electronic surveillance. The West Bank is turned into several Gazas, each is confined and bounded by illegal Jewish-only settlements and occupation forces.

The images emerging from Gaza moves any human. I relate to the community there; I travelled to Gaza in 2021 volunteering in an art therapy program with children. I worked with over 50 children in community centres, at Rantisi children’s hospital, and at Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children. I travelled through Egypt as Israel prevents entering Gaza from the West Bank — it took me three days to reach Gaza instead of one hour. I witnessed how intergenerational trauma manifests in Palestinian homes in refugee camps but also how the community is a healer to the children who were born and grew up under total siege and amidst frequent Israeli military onslaught.

After four weeks with the children, I left with the sound of Gaza in my ear — the drones’ noise that hovers over the population 24 hours [a day] since 2007 was torturous, irritating and piercing to the body. After that visit, I decided to examine how deaf children perceive the sound of bombing and the noise of drones. 

All this to say that Gaza and the Palestinians there are not numbers to me. My heart and mind are constantly with them, concerning their survival.… When I hear about thousands still under the rubble, I think of these children.… The destruction of Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children [in Palestine square] was heart-wrenching to me. That exceptional and beautiful place that cares for the deaf children is ransacked and tanks are stationed in its front yard.

This isn’t the first time you’ve experienced violence while documenting the conditions in the West Bank — you were shot while photographing the Israeli Defense Forces in 2015. With reports coming out of Gaza that professor and poet Refaat Alareer was killed in an airstrike, are you worried about your safety?

The assassination of Dr. Refaat Alareer and Dr. Sofyan Taya, president of the Islamic University of Gaza, who was a visiting guest scholar at the University of Waterloo last year, the killing of artist Heba Zaqout and her family, and the murder of [an] unprecedented number of journalists, constitute a war against humanity. Israel must be held accountable for these atrocities.

At this time, every Palestinian is a target. In Gaza, the world is witnessing a genocide — starvation and displacement of 2.3 million Palestinians, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, (resulting in the killing of over 20,000 people including over 8,000 children), the destruction of  homes, buildings, hospitals, worship places, cultural institutions, and infrastructure, using the most destructive American weapons. 

In the West Bank, there are targeted bombings and the occupiers’ military law governs the territories means that one can be killed, arrested or tortured without charge or trial. It feels like we are hostages surrounded by armed forces and settlers who have no regard for laws or humanity.… Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship are under scrutiny; their freedom of expression is suppressed, and they face increasing racism and harassment. They can be arrested for any reason, such as a social media post or comment [such as in the arrest of singer Dalal Abu Amneh]…

I am facing what every Palestinian in colonized Palestine is facing, and I will continue to document what I witness despite the limited space I can move within. My life is not more valuable than the lives of all those who are being massacred and assassinated.

You studied at Western University, Toronto Metropolitan University, the University of Ottawa and Concordia and have worked with art galleries and organizations across Canada. Have any of them reached out or shown support for you, and how has that felt?

Other than individual messages of concern and solidarity, there is no institutional support. I am not surprised.…The list is long of concrete, visible and invisible anti-Palestinian racism that I and other Palestinian Canadian artists and academics face in almost every Canadian higher education institution and mainstream art institutions. However, I emphasize that we have enormous support from the Canadian public, including community organizations and activists across the country.