The Gaza Strip is a Palestinian territory consisting of one hundred and forty square miles. Some 1.8 million people live there, making it one of the most densely populated polities in the world. With a physical blockade running along its entire land border — which it shares with Israel and Egypt—there are only a few points of entry into the territory. Israel controls the majority of these crossings, thus regulating and at times severely restricting the movement of water, electricity, goods, medicine, and people in and out of the region.
Gaza has endured violence for decades, the most recent iteration of which is defined in part by conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas, the Islamist political organization and militant group that serves as the de facto governing body in Gaza. Hamas has been in administrative control of Gaza since 2007, after winning the Palestinian legislative election. Clashes between Hamas and Israel, along with the Israeli blockade, have left 80 percent of Gazans reliant on some form of humanitarian aid, according to the UN.
In My Gaza: A City in Photographs, Jehad al-Saftawi presents over one hundred images of Gaza, where he was raised. Each photo is accompanied by captions that, together, present the picture of a territory in conflict. Al-Saftawi escaped Gaza in 2016 for the United States, where he’s currently seeking asylum. Before his departure, though, he captured this arresting collection. From photos of evacuated residents gathering belongings during a ceasefire, to celebrations of the first Palestinian Arab Idol, al-Saftawi documents his life and the lives of those around him with startling intimacy.
RAJ TAWNEY: The political dynamics in Gaza are highly complex and contentious. How would you describe the current conflict in Gaza for those unfamiliar with the region?
JEHAD AL-SAFTAWI: Seventy-three percent of Gaza’s population are registered as refugees or the descendants of refugees with the UN. The families that make up the majority of Gaza’s population comprise just two generations, starting from the time their grandparents fled or were expelled from their towns during the Arab-Israeli conflict and came to Gaza. Under its ongoing occupation, Israel has denied Palestinians their civil rights and some basic human rights for over half a century. Over the years of the conflict and in the face of intransigence of both sides, extremist politics has emerged. On the Palestinian side, this resulted in the formation of armed factions in its current form in the Gaza Strip. These factions were founded in order to dismantle the state of Israel and get rid of “the usurper Zionist entity.” They found that they couldn’t do this, and now they are violently negotiating their way down the tree. They are demanding to be treated as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the international community.
RT: You’re speaking about Hamas, yes? Who is Hamas, exactly, and what do they control in Gaza?
JS: Even though Israel and Egypt decide what gets into Gaza and what doesn’t, Hamas still has full control over the lives of the Palestinians within Gaza. Throughout the years of their highly conservative and dogmatic rule, atrocities have been committed by them, and under their watch. I remember in 2006, when I was still fifteen years old, crying and pulling my mother back to prevent her from going with my uncle to vote for Hamas. I’ve always denounced them, even before they were in power, because of what they represented to me: anger, volatility, and indignance with anyone not subscribed to their moral code. These are members of my extended family and their friends. I remember them reproaching me often, for simply listening to songs or smoking hookah. They are part of the dogmatic population in Gaza, who think they know the right and only way forward for Palestine, turning the lives of the rest of the population into hell.
RT: Your father was a high-profile member of Hamas. Can you speak on that, and how it shaped your views on the group and larger conflict?
JS: My father is still taking part in the Hamas government, but his reputation in “the Islamic resistance” goes back to his activities in the first cells of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. After he broke out of prison and went abroad, he was still actively involved in the “resistance.” He operated for Islamic Jihad in Syria and Sudan (where I and my brothers were born). He went to train with Hezbollah in Lebanon and had a closed meeting with Imad Mughniyeh in Iran, where the two, along with others, discussed ways of activating the resistance and carrying out operations. Growing up in a family that dictates exactly how you should look and talk and behave shaped my views on such groups, and how they have escalated the conflict to the tragedies we see today.
RT: What does the international media get wrong about life in Gaza?
JS: To visitors, life in Gaza might look normal. An international photographer once asked me, “Where is the siege?” I think it still seems hard for international outlets to connect with the actual day-to-day problems Gazans face. Gazans’ concerns are primarily related to the struggle to pull themselves out of rampant poverty, the number of hours of electricity available to them, the delivery of municipal water, and how they can afford medical care.
RT: When did you start taking photos? Can you talk a bit about what the role of journalists is in Gaza, and how much freedom you typically have?
JS: I started taking photos back in 2008, a few months before the Israeli operation “Cast Lead.” After the operation, I used my phone’s camera to capture my first images of Gaza’s landscape and the mass destruction of property.
In Gaza, we have a different understanding of the role of journalism and its mission. The vast majority of local outlets, including the mainstream media, are not independent. They celebrate “martyrdom” and “the resistance,” and cover-up military activities in local neighborhoods. These outlets are just another way in which the political parties use violence to silence opponents.
Some of the international news organizations’ stringers in Gaza have political affiliations and some don’t. Either way, they actively fail to question power or investigate decisions by the powerful, in order to keep the journalists from getting in trouble.
In Gaza, you can’t ask honest questions — you are not allowed. For local independent journalists, all they can cover is the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza and what role the occupation has in creating those conditions. You will never find an article, for example, criticizing the firing of rockets or the mutilation of corpses by faction members. Or when Hamas militants celebrated with live ammunition for hours when Morsi was elected the Egyptian president, leaving one Gazan dead and around nineteen others injured.
RT: You’ve posted quite a bit of your work on social media. Does Hamas exercise control over what comes out of Gaza through these channels?
JS: Yes, they do. They have always warned about posting on social media about the areas where rockets are being fired from, or about certain security measures taking place. Even when I was live streaming during the Israeli operation in 2014, I often avoided broadcasting the specific locations where rockets were launched from. I think some of the work that I posted seemed normal for me to capture through my perspective living in Gaza at the time. In the years since, I’ve started to see these images differently.
RT: How do the people in your photographs react to seeing themselves in your work?
JS: This is what hurts me deep inside; I can’t exactly predict how all of them will react. I know that the vast majority of the people I’ve met want to get rid of the rulers in Gaza and determine the kind of life they want for themselves. The Gazans I’ve met and photographed are from all walks of life. Some may believe that the full liberation of Palestine is the right answer, and they may feel that I’m not using their story in the right manner. There are also some who will see my work really touching the wounds they have from living in Gaza today — the people who warmly welcomed me into their most private spaces. I’ve seen a very small slice of what they are enduring, but I was always able to return to my privilege. I stand silent and in reverence before their sacrifice, determination, and resilience over the years.
I think it’s time to stop the suffering, as we see our clear way out of all this pain and loss of innocence. The armed factions, who have been the political benefactor class for too long, have led the Gazan population to many bloody rounds of fighting in the name of liberating Palestine and dismantling Israel. In the process, we’ve lost thousands of civilians — innocents who didn’t have the option of tomorrow, the option to continue living with us today. And yet, those innocent deaths are used as liberation fuel, woven into the slogans of the political benefactors who continue to live with us today.
RT: What does an ideal Gaza look like to you?
JS: An ideal Gaza would be a place where my wife, Lara, and I can go out together to the local barber or hair salon. Where the two of us could sit peacefully in a cafe on a side street. Where we can go to the gym together or have a beer on the beach. I think Gaza would be better if we could examine ourselves and invest in our present and determine the best ways to serve future generations. Instead, many are following the ruling elites, who seem to be living in the stories of Gaza’s past, centuries long ago.
RT: Do you think you’ll ever return to Gaza in your lifetime?
JS: I hope I can visit Gaza, although I don’t think it will happen anytime soon, even if we do achieve the Palestine of our dreams. As long as I fear for my life from the brutality of the armed organizations, I will not go back to Gaza.
RT: You’ve been living in the United States since 2016 now. What do you find most interesting about Americans?
JS: I’m really fascinated by the culture. Americans want to venture out and transform the world into a better version of itself. Here there are ongoing, raging debates about post-capitalist societies and how we can do better. In Gaza, we are under occupation, and the consequences and implications are evident in all the details of daily life. We do not think or talk about the shape of the future state of Palestine. Gazans are busy securing a decent livelihood amidst the battlefield where they find themselves. Meanwhile, the ruling elite are busy digging tunnels, storing weapons, and systematically putting the residents of Gaza at risk with their military activities.
RT: What do you hope readers will absorb from My Gaza: A City in Photographs?
JS: I want readers to see what I understand to be the objective truth about our conflict. We, Palestinians, are still processing how our lives and neighborhoods have been turned to battlegrounds at the hands of our leaders and our parents’ generation. Nothing will obscure the truth from coming out, and one day justice and accountability will take its course.
Raj Tawney an American essayist, journalist and poet. He often writes about history and culture from his multiracial perspective. Recent contributions include The Hill, The Iowa Review and O, the Oprah Magazine. You can check out his work at rajtawney.com.
Jehad al-Saftawi is a documentary journalist, photographer, and videographer dedicated to social justice and human rights storytelling. His work has been featured in Reuters, AJ+, BuzzFeed, Mic, Al Jazeera, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He arrived in the US from Gaza in 2016 and is currently seeking asylum. He is internationally recognized for setting up one of the few livestreams documenting the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza.