October 18, 2015

Israel / Palestine: Visual Politics of the Knife


With the panic breaking out in Israel over knife attacks by Palestinians and the western media’s heavy coverage of the story, the picture above has been prominent featured by the NYT, The Guardian, and others, in the last forty-eight hours.

The question, though, is how representative is the photo?

According to the caption, these huge, terrifying Bowie knives with what look like brass knuckles attached were brandished in a demonstration in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on the 16th. Contrast this image, however, with the information from most news accounts that the attacks — largely carried out by young people with little premeditation, without a history of violence and without connection to any organized groups — have involved implements readily at hand, including kitchen knives or switch blades, and in other instances, a screwdriver and even a potato peeler.

Because the knife, as a symbol, has attained outsized significance in the current eruption of hostilities in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and specifically, troubled East Jerusalem, it makes perfect sense that Palestinian demonstrators would brandish a more formidable and visually imposing version for the symbolic benefit of domestic and western media, and as a larger indication of rage.

Lest you think there’s not much of difference, however, the bowie knife (1, 2) — as compared to a kitchen knife — is clearly a weapon, not a household implement. In choosing to use the photo from the demonstration to illustrate stories about the attacks, the media not only frames the rash of attacks as more bloodthirsty than they are desperate, but also more meditated, along the lines of hunting.

People in Israel, by the way, would readily recognize the difference, given that the Israeli Police Spokesman’s Unit has been releasing photos of practically every knife used in each incident, these images flooding domestic media.

For example:


This knife and the screwdriver were confiscated from a 17-year-old boy who officials said was planning to attack a random Israeli bus driver.


This kitchen knife was used by a 16-year-old from southeastern Jerusalem who was killed when he tried to stab a Border Police officer.


And, this knife was confiscated from a 17-year-old Palestinian girl at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Officials said she was planned to stab a security officer.

Certainly, the shot of the bowie knife at a demonstration (wielded by older, more militant males) makes for that much more impressive a news image. Highlighting that type of instrument, however, isn’t reflective of what’s going on — which is action by younger males and females, particularly from East Jerusalem, who in most cases, in response to their eroding status in Jerusalem and what’s become a battle over their sacred Temple Mount, are retaliating spontaneously by grabbing for whatever is in the kitchen drawer.

(photo 1: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images. cPalestinian protesters carry knives during a demonstration in the Jabalia refugee camp, in northern Gaza on October 16, 2015. Palestinians called for a ‘Friday of revolution’ against Israel, as Jews armed themselves with everything from guns to broomsticks, rattled by a wave of Palestinian attacks that have shaken the country.  photo 2 – 4: Israel Police Spokesperson’s Unit.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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