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Sight without Insight

Ruchama Marton, President of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, made the following remarks at the closing ceremony of a photo exhibit called "Act of State" (July 7 - July 12, 2007; curator: Ariela Azulai). It included 600 pictures taken by various photographers during the 40 years of Occupation.

I

WISH TO SPEAK of one picture, one among thousands that I've taken in the Occupied Territories during the last 19 years. There was no special reason for including it in the exhibit—it just happened to be one that the curators saw. But I think there is importance in the fact that there was no special reason. All the photos I've taken are part of an unwritten, unstructured history, a history that has not yet been investigated, that has not been subjected to scrutiny. The lone picture is just the "sight"—there is still no insight.

At the time the picture was taken, this girl, Naameh Abdallah, eleven years old, was a goatherd from Tamun, a village between Nablus and Jenin. She was wounded on February 4, 1989, and this is her story:

"I was alone in the field. At about four o'clock, a small white car stopped next to me. Two men with beards and yarmulkes were sitting inside. I tried to run, but they threw something at me. I turned around and then I was burned." Gush Emunim spokesperson Noam Arnon said, "That's just another story, it has no basis in reality." At the spokesperson's office was a man named Yehuda, who refused to give his family name. He said, "As far as I'm concerned, the girl can be used as a torch on Independence Day."

Then there are the stories of more than thirty children that were burned and wounded in the pastures of Tamun, Yamun and Tiasir. The children said, "We found something that looked like halva wrapped in foil. We picked it up and it burst into flames. We were burned on our hands and faces, and our clothes burned too." And there are other stories—of people throwing packages like that from cars, and of a helicopter that flew low and dropped something that burned. The children were hurt on their faces, their chests, their arms and legs, but not on their backs.

How did I learn what this mysterious weapon was? After all, Palestinian children are always making up stories, they all lie. I found out through the army. For many months they didn't answer my questions. Finally I reached Yossi Sarid, member of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Affairs and Security, a friend of senior security people. Sarid, as a personal gesture, hounded some of these people until after a few days he came back with a reply. This substance, which burns but doesn't explode, is from the decoy flares of the air force. When it ignites, it gives off an incredible heat to attract heat-seeking missiles and draw them away from their targets.

And then there is the photographer. Me. The photographer can't really explain to herself, or to you, why she took her camera. Why she took photos. But she can tell you how difficult, unpleasant and stressful it was to photograph there. That piercing feeling, which the Ancient Greeks called "aidos," a searing emotion like shame, which awakens in us when we see the misery of others.

From 1989 until 2007, the picture of Naameh Abdallah stayed in its envelope in a cardboard box with hundreds of others. It didn't stand a chance against the internal censor of the media, against Israeli Zionist denial, against their destructive self-righteousness, against their self-satisfaction. Act of State offered Naameh a small place, a visible place, on the public wall. Her story has been told in the public-political sphere, and thus she has become a part of the history that nobody wants to write or read. Yet here is that same unwanted history, written, seen, heard. And the young goatherd from Tamun has ceased to be an invisible point in the darkness. She has become a part of history that has finally been illuminated, has finally begun to unveil its story, which will one day be told.

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