Who Sees Gaza?

A genocide in images

October 7 marked
the beginning of a new economy of war imagery. At first there was a video of a bulldozer plowing through the border fence between Israel and Gaza—an astonishing image, captured in a familiar way. Then things turned horribly surreal. The events of that day were beamed to the world in real time via body-cam, dashcam, cell phone, drone. A Hamas fighter wearing a GoPro stalked the highway with his automatic rifle jutting up from the bottom of the frame, first-person-shooter style. A dashboard camera showed a car zooming forward as a bullet pierced its windshield and the car began to drift, veering left, until it crashed into the rear end of a parked Toyota; you knew exactly when the person behind the wheel could no longer drive, was probably dead. A drone floated with cinematic calm over the site of the Supernova music festival, where haphazardly parked and burned-out vehicles stood in for the 364 people killed, not pictured — nearly a third of the estimated 1,163 killed that day. A security camera at a kibbutz showed a man running down the sidewalk and suddenly dropping to the ground from being shot in the head. Dozens of images like this were immediately visible, including livestreamed videos of victims bleeding out on their own Facebook pages, posted by the men who first hijacked their accounts and then shot them on camera. In the weeks that followed they inspired a second order of images: hostage posters, government ads, infographic tiles, and AI-illustrated memes participating in the battle for the sympathy of the West.

Then came the bombardment, and the people of Gaza showed the world what the mainstream media could not: wounded civilians, leveled buildings, long lines of dead bodies wrapped in white sheets, bombed-out universities, bombed-out mosques, toddlers trembling in shock and covered in the gray, ashy dust of debris. Stray cats circling corpses, thousands of people taking shelter in hospitals and schools, or walking with all their belongings down “humanitarian corridors” to “safe zones,” which would later be bombed, too. On Instagram, journalists and doctors gave updates to the front-facing camera in English: They are still bombing, the sound of the drone overhead is constant, we cannot sleep, my neighbor’s house was destroyed, we don’t have power, we don’t have food, we don’t have anesthesia, the internet went down but now it’s back up, there’s nowhere to go, I am so traumatized, we are starving, this man is eating grass, there is no bread, please help us, don’t stop posting, please keep posting. A lawyer presenting South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice called it “the first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time in the desperate, so far vain hope that the world might do something.”

It’s a form of visual circumlocution commensurate to the Times’s headlines on Israel–Palestine, bludgeoned into passive voice by internal and external pressures.


The bombardment has not stopped, and so the images have not stopped. American writers have tried to make sense of the pictures coming out of Gaza by describing what it feels like to look at them. In the New York Times, Amanda Hess named the emotional whiplash of encountering pictures of dead children amid friends’ baby photos and ads targeted at moms. In the New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang surmised that the war’s lasting legacy would not be any geopolitical outcome but “the images of innocents we’ve seen, including children, killed in almost every imaginable way.” Also in the Times, Lydia Polgreen meditated on a particular image of six Palestinian children killed in an Israeli air strike. All three writers describe being overwhelmed by the volume and frequency of the images. “Social media bludgeons us with a flood of brutal images” (Polgreen); “We encounter them every time we pick up our phones, whether we are opening Twitter to look for reactions to a touchdown or scrolling through Instagram to see our friends’ children” (Kang); they “arrive stacked in my feed every day” (Hess). All three quote Susan Sontag.

This focus is to be expected. America’s foreign wars usually come to its citizens through images. The character of those images changes with the times: their composition, content, and mode of distribution are shaped by the technology available to the photographer, and with each shift in technology comes an attendant discourse about efficacy and ethics. Was it wrong to take this photo? Was it wrong to publish it? Who is allowed to take it? What does it mean to publish it here? What are we asking of people when we present them with images of human suffering? What do we expect war footage to do? If it cannot do it, if it doesn’t “work,” what is the point of looking? As the Palestinian American writer Sarah Aziza asks, “What does all this looking do?”

It can be difficult for those inundated by Gaza images on social media to remember that wide swaths of the US population have never seen them, and likely never will. On Instagram, view counts on videos from Gaza regularly number in the millions, but those views are mostly elective. People have either sought out the video or cued the app’s algorithm to serve it up by engaging with similar images. Especially graphic pictures and videos are shielded by a blurry scrim overlaid with a content warning — “This photo contains sensitive content which some people may find offensive or disturbing” or “This photo may contain graphic or violent content” — which can only be lifted by tapping “See Photo” or “See Video.” The mainstream media, by and large, does not show graphic images of Palestinian suffering, if they show images of Palestinian suffering at all. On January 7, 2024, Sarah Schulman wrote on X:

As a child in the 1960s, every month Life magazine would arrive in our household, and I would see photographs of murdered Vietnamese, burned civilians, screaming children, overwhelmed chaos, piles of bodies slaughtered by Americans .1 These images return to me daily, now, as I go to Al Jazeera and twitter and find screaming burning Palestinians, starving children in Gaza, parents caressing their children’s corpses, targeted journalists, and poets like Refaat Alareer, purposefully destroyed. And it does not escape me that when it comes to Palestine, these images are not in our contemporary versions of Life magazine. That American journalists were fired for merely signing letters of protest against these war crimes, not even for showing them. And that, as of this writing, over 100 Palestinian and Lebanese journalists were targeted and murdered by Israeli forces, often with their entire families.

The implication here is not that mainstream circulation of images from Gaza would translate into an immediate ceasefire and termination of aid to Israel; Schulman is well aware that images do not necessarily incite antiwar action, and that antiwar action does not trigger immediate change. (“The Terror of War,” Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked down the street after a napalm attack, turned the tide of American public sentiment against the Vietnam War, but did not end it.) What she is implying is that not showing them is guaranteed to keep the horror out of view, where it can be more easily ignored or denied. For all the reasons images of Gaza are not appearing in our contemporary versions of Life magazine — because they’re too graphic; because Israel is targeting and killing photojournalists; because Israel has denied foreign journalists access to Gaza, with the exception of a few IDF-guided tours; because a contemporary version of Life magazine doesn’t exist — the consequences are fatal for thousands of Palestinians. Social media may feel ubiquitous, but it is no substitute for the better-resourced newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters that are our prestige media institutions, which for all their restraints will still determine the historical record. The old debate over whether images of war should be published in mainstream media is not yet obsolete.

The contours of this debate can be read between the lines of Polgreen’s column for the Times. She begins by describing a photo: “Six small children lie in a row, their heads poking out from the white sheet that is casually lying across their little chests.” The children are Palestinian, and all, she suspects, are under 10. They are also all dead. “This photograph has not been published by a mainstream news organization, so far as I can tell,” Polgreen writes. She ends the next paragraph with this statement: “Given my experience in war zones, it is a rare thing for a violent image to stop me in my tracks. But I believe that this is an image that demands to be seen.”

What happens between and around these three sentences is interesting. “Because of its graphic nature,” Polgreen writes, out of voice, the Times has “decided not to publish [the photo] in full; this column is accompanied by a cropped version of the image.” She then seems to equivocate on her main point. Of course, she writes, the image can already be seen on social media. And the norm to rarely show graphic images of dead or wounded children is justified. The column’s title is not the sentence Polgreen writes (“this is an image that demands to be seen”) but the more abstract “This Photograph Demands an Answer.”

But an answer to what? It’s tempting, as editors, to read these contradictions as a scar on the text, an attempt to suture a rift between a writer’s intention and editorial policy. In the cropped version of the image, the viewer sees only four children, and only the lower halves of their faces, as the border cuts off at their noses; a white sheet takes up 80 percent of the frame. Online, the op-ed links out to the full picture on Getty Images, and the difference is small but significant. What you cannot see in the Times version, besides the two children at the margins who can’t be more than 4 or 5 years old, is that the skull of the little girl in the pink shirt has been crushed, cratering her forehead and distorting the shape of her face. (Or as Polgreen puts it, she “appears to be missing a chunk of skull.”) Until you see her face, the other children could be mistaken for sleeping. It is only this face that immediately conveys that all six of them are dead. Without her, it’s not the same picture.

Polgreen’s editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, explained her decision not to include the full image in a newsletter to Times readers, citing, among other things, the inability to contact the children’s parents for consent.2 But again, it is hard not to suspect another rationale at work, a cost-benefit calculation on behalf of Times management and ownership. Why assume responsibility for such vivid evidence of Israel’s crimes when readers can find the same image elsewhere? Surely you can still be the paper of record with half measures like external links and cropping, which let you show and not show at the same time? Why suffer the blowback from disturbed subscribers or the relentless harassment of Zionist propaganda groups like the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, or CAMERA, who exist solely to lobby for “corrections” to media coverage unflattering to Israel?3 It’s a form of visual circumlocution commensurate to the Times’s headlines on Israel–Palestine, bludgeoned into passive voice by internal and external pressures.

No matter where you find them, images of war and death appear beside advertisements. This has long been the case. Thirty- and sixty-second ad spots appeared on TV broadcasts of the Gulf War. Life magazine printed ads peddling bourgeois comforts beside images of the Vietnam War, a juxtaposition made famous by Martha Rosler’s collage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967–72). The cognitive dissonance produced by this juxtaposition is by now familiar, but it is intensified by social media’s inner mechanisms, which tailor the cognitive dissonance to you. When both the content and the advertisements are algorithmically determined to be maximally compelling, maximally personal, the pull between worlds is more pointed. Which reality do the privileged and distant wish to live in today, the one where a man throws a severed foot onto a pile of gathered remains, or the one that offers 20 percent off leggings? Odds will favor the leggings. Unfiltered images of Gaza are most prevalent on the most addictive apps — TikTok, Instagram, X — which people check compulsively in their downtime, and where fantasy beckons. Every ad, every image of business as usual, is a lure to return to the lifestyle universe the app has constellated around you. At the same time, every decision to “engage” with atrocity footage — every like, link, share, or follow — is an invitation to the algorithm to further disrupt the dream. To welcome such unvarnished horror into your oasis of mindless diversion, narcissism, and shopping is, for many, to get more than you bargained for. It only takes a sliver of exposure to feel the incessant character of the onslaught: nowhere is safe, it never stops. There will be death every time you pull out your phone until death itself gets shadowbanned.

After months of watching, one wonders whether a single image has the same power to shock as it did decades ago. Whether any one photo or video will ever stand in for the annihilation of Gaza the way “The Terror of War” did for Vietnam. Videos and photos from Gaza have a way of melting together in a stream of similar images — what Kang called the “numbing sameness” of cell phone videos, whose power instead is in their cumulative effect. It doesn’t help that many of these images also literally disappear: videos captured on Instagram Stories that become “unavailable” after twenty-four hours; pictures removed from Twitch or YouTube or X because they violate terms of service; images served up on your For You page from accounts you don’t follow that you’re unable to find again when you try to look for them, because what would you search, “Father clawing at rubble with bare hands to find children trapped underneath”? There are literally thousands of such fathers, and dozens of videos depicting them.

But these images are no less indelible for their transience, no less representative for their numerousness. They still have the power to haunt. People testify to the images they’ve seen online: “I just saw a child whose legs were shredded into ropes of gore, hanging from the rubble of a bombed building,” a woman posted on X the night of the Super Bowl, as Israel began to drop bombs on the “safe zone” of Rafah where 1.5 million displaced Palestinians were taking shelter. “Saw a child gathering strips of human flesh and organs off the sidewalk and depositing them into a plastic bag in Motaz [Azaiza]’s [Instagram] stories,” another woman posted on X. “What are we even arguing about?”

We are not used to this — not to the gruesomeness, the ceaselessness, the direct address.


We, too, find ourselves talking about the images we can’t forget. The pictures of premature infants at al-Shifa hospital wrapped in foil and blankets after their incubators lost power during the siege. The babies at al-Nasr hospital whose bodies were found decomposing on hospital beds after a forced evacuation. The emaciated figure and wide eyes of Yazan al-Kafarna, a Palestinian child with cerebral palsy who died of hunger and malnutrition in Rafah. And just as haunting, the pictures of life in Gaza before October 7 that capture just how much has been lost: stretches of highway running along the beach at sunset, beautiful buildings lit up at night, couples dancing, libraries, cafés, frescoes, kitchen interiors, people smiling in restaurants, flowers, trees. “The memories brought up on your smartphone return you for a moment to your past life, to its atmosphere of ease and the embrace of friends,” writes Sarah Aziza’s cousin Nabil S. in a letter from Gaza, published in Mizna, describing what it’s like to look at photos from before the bombardment. “It is as if this forgotten life now presses itself upon us against our will — for these pictures are all that remain of our family and loved ones. Only photos, for us to weep and lament over, for we locked the doors tightly when we left our homes. We left with the keys in our hands.”

We are not used to this — not to the gruesomeness, the ceaselessness, the direct address. Thirteen-year-old Nadin Abdullatif asks the camera in English, “Does no one care about the two million people here in Gaza? Does no one care about us? I don’t know. What is happening here? What has happened to the world? I’m suffering, and every other child is suffering. So please, notice us!” Speaking with a quivering voice over footage of people fleeing al-Shifa, Yara Eid begs, “Guys, please. Let’s stop this now. Like talk about it, share. I don’t know. Call — anyone. Try to do something. I never imagined this would happen, this is another Nakba.” Motaz Azaiza posts on X and Instagram, “You are all useless. Without shame watching us get killed one by one. Will wait my turn to be killed by Israel. And believe me you are gonna do nothing.” People in the comments say don’t give up, we need you, the world sees you, we are trying to speak up, but it’s true, we are useless, we’re ashamed of ourselves, God forgive us, we’ve failed you. This is what images on social media can do — activate an intense, genuine parasocial attachment, the same kind of attachment we feel toward strangers online who invite us to follow their motherhood journeys, their sobriety journeys, their cancer journeys. Nobody expected to follow someone’s genocide journey, their famine journey. Yet here we are.4

Motaz, Nadin, Wael al-Dahdouh, Hind Khoudary, Bisan Owda, Plestia Alaqad — we feel like we know these people, posting from Gaza or about Gaza if they managed to get out. It is, in large part, our familiarity with the photographers and videographers that places their output in a different category than the 20th-century war images on which our inherited discourse is based. Even if skillful, these are not works of art; they are distress signals. There is no hand-wringing about the politics of representation. The victims are representing themselves.

Even as Israeli officials state their genocidal intent on the record, Israeli civilians have accused Gazans of faking the genocide. We have seen “comedy” videos by twentysomethings featuring women in hijabs sobbing in front of a green screen. We have read conspiracy tweets about “Pallywood” that purport to show how images of atrocity have been faked — a severely injured man in a hospital bed who is healed the next day, corpses draped in sheets who miraculously rise from the dead — that continue to circulate long after they are debunked. (The first video, investigated by the AP, France 24, and other outlets, is composed of two different videos, stitched together, of two different men; the second is misappropriated behind-the-scenes footage of a short film made in Lebanon about life in Gaza.)

Early on in Israel’s incursion, journalists worried that generative AI and influence technology would proliferate on Elon Musk’s guardrail-free version of Twitter, creating a perfect storm of disinformation. One or two episodes seemed to confirm their fears: the deepfake of a Palestinian man leading five children through a bombed-out landscape; the Adobe Stock controversy, in which a number of small news outlets used AI-generated imagery from Adobe’s stock image service without identifying them as fakes. But on the whole, fake images have played a far, far smaller role than expected. There are simply too many real ones saturating the visual field. Doctored images and disinformation do circulate — the AP keeps a running list of debunked claims that favor both Zionist and anti-Zionist narratives — but when it comes to images of suffering from Gaza, the number of distorted or out-of-context images is negligible.5

Israel’s social media activity since October 7 has been a crash course in hasbara, Israel’s word for propaganda, or diplomacy, directed at foreign audiences. Literally defined as “explaining” in Hebrew (there is a different word for propaganda), hasbara describes a range of efforts to rationalize Israel’s actions to the world. As Noam Sheizaf wrote in +972 magazine in 2011, “Hasbara targets political elites, opinion makers, and the public simultaneously; it includes traditional advocacy efforts as well as more general appeals made through mass media, and it is carried out by government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, lobbying groups, private citizens, students, journalists, and bloggers. The Israeli government encourages all citizens to actively engage in Hasbara.”

A meaningful portion of Israel’s hasbara efforts since October 7 has involved the creation and dissemination of visual material, a chaotic profusion of badly executed videos and graphics that offer a disturbingly two-dimensional counter-presence to the images coming out of Gaza. Pedantic ads with middling to high production values. Bad AI meme art, the kind your most fringe aunt might post to Facebook, with uncanny-valley details, like an irrational profusion of arms at a made-up military rally, or faces in picture frames hanging on a bullet-ridden wall that melt into nonsense shapes. Racist TikToks of young Israelis mocking Palestinian women with their front teeth blacked out. Ads that use the hectoring calling-in voice of Instagram identity politics, or reference lowest-common-denominator millennial pop culture like Harry Potter. (An October 25 post on X by @Israel shows an image of Lord Voldemort clutching a cell phone with two hands and sobbing at the screen. HAMAS REDEFINES EVIL, it says. WATCH THE EVIDENCE: HAMAS-MASSACRE.COM. This is a government image.) All this material is stupid. Some of it is openly genocidal, like the video of four young Israeli girls recording a song called “The Friendship Song,” posted by the national public broadcaster Kan. Their cherubic voices sing,

Autumn night falls over the beach of Gaza

Planes are bombing, destruction, destruction

Look the IDF is crossing the line

to annihilate the swastika-bearers

In another year there will be nothing there

And we will safely return to our homes

Within a year we will annihilate everyone

And then we will return to plow our fields

One video, produced by the Israeli National Public Diplomacy Directorate (@NationalHasbara) and aired on Hulu, used AI to construct a faux tourist ad for Gaza, showing how friendly and beautiful it would be for Western tourists — beaches, restaurants! — if not for Hamas. Another Hulu ad produced by the Directorate, aired to American audiences over the holidays, showed Santa squinting over a letter from a little boy, featuring a drawing of stick-figure fighters brandishing weapons over stick-figure children and stick-figure corpses with Xs for eyes. “Dear Santa,” the letter reads as music swells. “I’m writing to you for the first time. On October 7, some bad people came into our house. They hurt my mommy and my little sister, took my daddy away, and are still holding him. I’m all alone. I wish you could help bring my daddy back home.” Santa removes his glasses and begins to sob into his white-gloved hand. The video was posted to the official @Israel TikTok account on Christmas Eve. “This is a letter no child should have to write to Santa,” the caption reads, absurdly — an insult to the people whose loved ones were murdered or taken hostage. There is no call to action here, just a reminder that hostages are still being held by Hamas. BRING THEM HOME, demands the ad, as if it wasn’t coming from the very entity — the only entity! — capable of negotiating the hostages’ return.

What environment has produced the hasbarists behind these images, the creativeclass ghouls who manufacture consent in millennial pink?


There is something uniquely disturbing about this type of cultural production, which feels like it should be satire but is not. It reveals a stunning disregard for life — a perverse, almost gleeful nihilism. One would like to think that pop culture could not so comfortably house calls for genocide, or that respect for human dignity would restrain a person from glibly expressing murderous intent through forms whose content is supposed to be touching, inspiring, or at the very least benign. Kids should not be singing about annihilation on YouTube. Characters from YA fantasy novels should not be deployed in campaigns for genocide. And yet they are, without so much as a shred of shame.

What environment has produced the hasbarists behind these images, the creative-class ghouls who manufacture consent in millennial pink? Do they really think this material is persuasive? As the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy argued in Haaretz in 2015, “Israeli Propaganda Isn’t Fooling Anyone — Except Israelis”:

The policy of denial and disconnection from reality is rising to a dangerous level, and the illness is getting worse. . . . Israel seems to think that what worked well in its society and succeeded in almost totally wiping out all consciousness and awareness, will work just as well in the rest of the world. That the brainwashing campaign that was such a dazzling success here will be just as effective abroad — it’s all just a matter of “hasbara,” the Israeli euphemism for propaganda — and of budgets, of course. . . . There are some things, said the late ambassador Yohanan Meroz, that are not “hasbarable.” One of them is Israel’s actions. No explainer or propagandist can explain the perpetuation of the occupation. It just won’t work.

The prevailing belief that everything is hasbarable accounts for the decline in hasbara’s quality after October 7, which even Israel seems to be aware of.6 Some of the visual hasbara posted to @Israel on X is corny but evil, like the picture of the Israeli soldier standing in front of a tank with a rainbow flag. Some of it beggars belief, like the photos of a copy of Mein Kampf ostensibly found in “a child’s room of a home in Gaza used by Hamas as a terrorism hub,” with pages highlighted and marked with Post-it notes and a full-color illustration of Hitler brooding on the cover. Some of it is sloppy, like the video clip, since deleted, that claimed to show “23,000 tons of tents and shelter equipment” provided to Gaza but actually depicted tents in Moldova provided to Ukrainian refugees in 2022; or the footage of IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari in the basement of al-Rantisi children’s hospital where he says hostages were held by Hamas. The lights are off; a flashlight behind the camera illuminates his figure in fatigues, helmet, vest; a rifle is slung around his neck. He walks to the wall, points to a piece of paper taped above a desk, and says: “In this room there is a list. This list, in Arabic, says, ‘We are in an operation. The operation against Israel. Started the seventh of October.’ This is a guardian list, where every terrorist writes his name, guarding the people that were here.” The camera zooms in on what is not a list but a calendar: the hostage keepers’ names are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But it doesn’t matter. The video is for an audience that cannot read Arabic and sees what it wants to see.

What does Israel want to see? Patriotism, hostage updates, reports of success from the front — not the genocide in Gaza. Since the ground invasion began on October 27, national broadcasters have ceded their journalistic duties in favor of boosting morale, ignoring the details of Palestinian casualties. Remarks from Hagari, the IDF spokesman, are received uncritically. The thousands of Palestinian children killed by the bombing and the siege go unmentioned. According to an anonymous reporter for a leading news channel, audiences do not want to see images of Gaza, and so, in “surrender to the public mood,” the channel does not show them. “I’m conscious of the role we have in maintaining national morale,” the reporter lamented to Haaretz. “I’m not saying that we need to show [things as] 50-50, but can’t at least 20 percent of the coverage be about [casualties in Gaza]? Ten percent? Even that’s not happening.”

What Israel wants to see instead is the victory image, a snapshot of military triumph that looms large in the country’s collective consciousness. After Israel’s success in the Six-Day War in 1967, hundreds of photo books and special edition newspapers known as victory albums were printed to commemorate the war, becoming instant best sellers that buoyed both national morale and the publishing industry. Israel had sent dozens of photographers and journalists to the fronts, and victory albums with names like The Epic of Victory, We Were as Dreamers, and Six Days became popular gifts for birthdays and bar mitzvahs. For a generation, victory albums were ubiquitous in Israeli households. The most iconic images were of the young paratroopers arriving at the Wailing Wall; Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the shofar surrounded by soldiers; Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, and Uzi Narkiss entering the Old City of Jerusalem; and Yossi Ben Hanan taking a dip with his AK-47 in the Suez Canal, a full-color version of which made the cover of Life. But there were also more ordinary images of nameless figures: surrendering Egyptians walking with their hands over their heads and IDF soldiers posing with images of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. (One shows a soldier putting a cigarette in Nasser’s mouth, a callback to the Egyptian president’s alleged comment that his army “would be marching into Tel Aviv before he could even finish smoking a cigarette,” as Daniel Bertrand Monk writes in an article about the pictorial history of the Six-Day War.) Dayan, a hero of many of the albums, warned of their intoxicating effect: “It is time we ceased living on the albums and memories of the great victory we had,” he said in 1968, lest it breed military overconfidence. But while the album atmosphere did dissipate, the ideal of the victory image did not.

Israel would attempt to create victory images in subsequent wars, for the most part without success.7 Since then, the Israeli appetite for the victory image has become a cliché, periodically resurfacing in media commentary. “Israel Should Know by Now: The Perfect Victory Image Doesn’t Exist” reads one op-ed headline in Haaretz. “Israel’s Real Image of Victory Is Moderation on Both Sides of the Green Line” reads another. “IDF isn’t seeking ‘victory pictures’; it’s seeking victory, however long that takes” reads another in the Times of Israel.

IDF soldiers are officially banned from using cell phones in combat zones and from posting photos of themselves in uniform. That hasn’t stopped them from doing either, or discouraged their attempts to capture — or fabricate — victory images themselves. When photos and videos of Israeli soldiers making mass arrests in Beit Lahia first circulated in early December, the Israeli media was quick to claim them as victory images, with Hagari again spinning the narrative at a press conference. “We’ve seen images of many captives, Hamas terrorists, that the IDF arrested during the ground maneuvering,” he said. Another government spokesperson told CNN that the men were all “suspected terrorists” — dozens of them, stripped to their underwear with their hands tied behind their backs, some blindfolded, forced to sit in the street or kneel in the dirt, or sit packed into the bed of a truck. But Palestinians online were quick to identify the detainees as civilians, among them family members, friends, and at least one journalist.

In a segment on Al Jazeera English, a reporter showed two video clips obtained from a similar scene. In the first clip, a Palestinian man stripped down to his sandals and boxer briefs holds a rifle above his head in a posture of surrender. Slowly, he walks across the rubble-strewn street, past a long line of likewise stripped men, and lays the gun down in front of an Israeli tank. The next clip is nearly identical, only the rifle is in the man’s opposite hand. The multiple videos suggest multiple takes — an attempt to stage a Hamas surrender. “Experts have questioned why Israeli soldiers would strip a captive and then order him to hand over his weapon,” the Al Jazeera reporter comments.

Unlike this attempt at classic stagecraft that soldiers leaked to the press, most of the visual material produced by IDF soldiers in Gaza is made for social media, for fun. Call it victory content — casual, quotidian, composed in a TikTok vernacular with one video creating a template that others imitate endlessly. There is the “comedic” real estate tour video, in which a soldier guides another through a destroyed and evacuated Palestinian home and makes comments about how the kitchen needs some work. The “door” video, in which the camera tightly frames a hand knocking on a door — then zooms out to show the door is the only part of the building standing. And then there is the bomb dedication video. “I dedicate this explosion to my daughter, princess Ella, for her birthday,” one soldier says to the camera. “Today, she turns 2. I miss you.” He counts down from ten in Hebrew and a bomb detonates in the distance. There’s a moment where the cell phone camera doesn’t know where to look; it pans just in time to catch a cloud of smoke rising from an edifice at the end of the block.

One soldier even made a wedding invitation video with a bomb. “Thursday, the twenty-ninth of February, there will be an explosion!” he says to the camera, standing inside what appears to be a partly demolished apartment. Someone off-screen counts down from ten while the soldier beside him with an iPhone mounted to his helmet holds a reel of cord. The soldier pulls a pin, something in his hands sparks, and outside there is a blast, blowing the curtain behind him aside. The men around him cheer, raise drinks in the air, put their arms around one another and jump, smile, wave, clap, sing: “Tonight, tonight, tonight, a big celebration! Tonight, tonight, tonight, a big celebration!” Hebrew text over the video says SAVE THE DATE 29.02.2024. It is horrifying to see a bourgeois ritual not merely taking place amid a genocidal campaign but contributing to it thoughtlessly, as if a bomb were a popped champagne cork. You can tell the soldiers filming thought they were being creative. A Pinterest trend from hell.

As of early March, most of the IDF victory content that circulates broadly in the West does not include Palestinians. Instead soldiers pose with their belongings. A soldier curled up in the Pack ’n Play of a child who may well now be dead, cuddling a Tweety Bird plush toy. A soldier holding up a graduation stole next to a demolished house. A soldier sitting on the floor with his rifle, looking up at looted underwear and camisoles pinned to the wall behind him — his dating profile picture. Five smiling soldiers leaning on the looted canes of the elderly and disabled. A soldier smiling as he dangles a thin silver chain from his fingers. “Noa, look, your boyfriend brought you a new necklace from Gaza,” says the man recording the video. “Made in Gaza.”

The smiles are the scariest part. They call to mind the grins of Charles Graner, Lynndie England, and Sabrina Harman posing with their thumbs up next to the tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The only thing scarier than the cheerful expressions of latent aggression are the plain demonstrations of malice: a soldier shooting at the interior wall of an apartment whose walls have been spray-painted with the words LET YOUR VILLAGE BURN. Soldiers lighting food aid on fire. Soldiers destroying a warehouse where aid was stored. A soldier standing beside the exterior wall of a house that is spray-painted with red graffiti: INSTEAD OF ERASING GRAFFITI, LET’S ERASE GAZA.

Decades after its creation as a discrete territory under Israeli rule, the Gaza Strip “became the biggest militarized open photography studio in the world,” wrote the theorist and filmmaker Ariella Aïsha Azoulay in the Boston Review last December — a place where “Palestinians could be turned at any moment into subjects of what are commonly known as ‘human rights photographs.’” During the First Intifada, she continues, “Gaza became a true photographic mine, from which hundreds of thousands of photos of Palestinians were extracted, published, discussed, circulated, purchased, sold, auctioned, and held in press archives, museum collections, NGO archives, and so on.” In these images, Palestinians were routinely framed as disposable “so that their killing [was] not a disruption but rather a validation of their disposability.”

The Palestinians documenting the current genocide have put an end to this era of the humanitarian photograph. Just as IDF soldiers’ self-incriminating victory content has displaced the victory image, civilian images from Gaza since October 7 have displaced the symbolic regime that takes the erasure of Palestine and its people for granted. It is not inevitable. It can and will be resisted.

One way to read the left strategy of anti-Zionist direct action in the United States is as a riposte to the hasbarists’ emphasis on the visual, employing tactics that translate well to the image. New York has seen protests at Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty, two of the most photogenic and frequently photographed New York City landmarks, and the interruption of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a New York institution and nationally broadcast event. Culture-jamming materials, like the mock newspaper the New York War Crimes and subway posters in the style of MoMA ads and MTA maps that make the viewer double take, show what actually good imitative design can accomplish. In Washington DC, the active-duty Air Force serviceman Aaron Bushnell’s decision to livestream his self-immolation in front of the Israeli embassy on Twitch guaranteed that images of his protest could not be suppressed.

“There is no such thing as an image of genocide,” Azoulay writes, “but images in plural, made over time, can be used to refute the terms of the conversation that deny the racialization of a group and its transformation into the object of genocidal violence.” This is precisely what civilian images from Gaza have done: “refut[ed] the terms” of the Israeli self-concept that denies the genocidal violence, past and present, on which it depends. It is impossible, having seen what we’ve seen, to accept Israel’s account of its actions or the terms on which it relays that account. And it is impossible to deny that a genocide is unfolding before our eyes. Israel has taken more than thirty thousand lives in Gaza in five months, and we can’t say we didn’t know, didn’t see. The horrors of this moment will be suppressed and denied in the future, as they’re being suppressed and denied already. These photos and videos are for the record as much as for the present. Today much of Gaza lies in ruins; it is thanks to their images that Gaza’s people will not be erased.

  1. Schulman’s remarks were originally posted in a numbered series to fit X’s character limits. They have been run together here, with the numbers omitted, for ease of reading. 

  2. Kingsbury writes, “For me, the tipping point was how clearly the viewer could identify each of these children. This is often one of the factors we use when children are in a photo, and we frequently try to get parents’ consent before publication. We were not able to reach the parents or families of these kids, and given the ongoing violence, they may even be deceased themselves. I could not imagine loved ones discovering that this image had been published in the Times without warning.” 

  3. CAMERA, which was founded in 1982 to “respond to the Washington Post’s coverage of Israel’s Lebanon incursion, and to the paper’s general anti-Israel bias,” accused New York Times reporters of being “Hamas stenographers” for using the phrase “Israeli occupation forces” in a December 2023 article describing an Israeli attack on a hospital in northern Gaza. The Times subsequently deleted the word “occupation” from the article. In January 2024, the Intercept noted in a report on the Times’s deference to CAMERA that the Times executive editor Joseph Kahn’s father, Leo Kahn, was a longtime member of CAMERA’s board. 

  4. We mean this literally. Nisreen Shehada, a dentist and food blogger, invites followers to “Join [her] for a baking day in the tent .” She mixes water and flour by hand as a familiar TikTok sound — a flute cover of a song from the Up soundtrack — plays sweetly in the background. “The bakeries [have been] closed for about three months,” she says in English voice-over. Her tone is gentle, unhurried, and friendly. “Due to the scarcity of electricity and flour we have to make our own bread. Each morning mothers bake fresh bread and the smell is simply captivating.” She shapes the dough, rolls it out, places it on a stove, all using the standard montage techniques of cooking vlogs. “This [stove] used to work with electricity but we found a way to modify it using coal.” The extreme abnormality of her situation is downplayed. 

  5. News outlets like CNN and CBS source videos from social media and claim to have verified each one. Human Rights Watch’s Digital Investigations Lab analyzes and confirms the authenticity of images using geolocation and chronolocation. Out-of-context images posted to X are promptly flagged by users with a community note — Elon Musk’s Band-Aid solution to his website’s content moderation problem — though these, too, can be wrong. 

  6. On January 16, Omer Benjakob reported in Haaretz that Israel had purchased a “technological system capable of conducting mass online influence campaigns” in response to what the author’s sources called Israel’s “credibility crisis” and “‘clear loss’ to Hamas on the digital battlefield.” An earlier article by Roxana Saberi reported that the decision to compile and screen previously unseen footage from October 7 to foreign journalists was also based on Israel’s sense that it needed to gain lost ground in the “narrative battle” with Hamas. 

  7. The former photojournalist and academic Yoav Galai writes that obtaining a victory image “became a stated goal of any Israeli military operation” during the 2006 Lebanon war, and that a specific attempt was made to stage an image of a soldier “waving an Israeli flag” over a house that had been used by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. “The image of the Israeli flag waving over that balcony six years later was meant to send a message to Israelis and to Hezbollah that would serve as a ‘victory image,’” Galai writes, “but the result was unimpressive and grainy and the picture was never used for propaganda purposes.” 

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