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city is a manifestation of the stories that it tells about itself, and the stories of Tel Aviv are intricately bound with the apologetics of Zionist settlement, the denial of Palestinian historicity, and sociocultural equation with cosmopolitan metropolises of the world. Development practices over the last three decades indicate the drive to “globalize” Tel Aviv with a boom of high-rise construction projects and increased privatization of resources throughout the city to maximize market value of the land. Architecture and art have developed into a commodity catering to consumer tastes, with emphasis on urban renewal and “reinventing” Israeli urban space. While the processes of gentrification in Tel Aviv are not forms of violence that can be explicitly conflated with the events of the Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic), Naksa or other blatant acts of ethnic cleansing and population transfer in Palestine, it is a violence nonetheless. The production and maintenance of the city’s image is predicated on the erasure and/or appropriation of Palestinian culture and space, and is integral to the Zionist colonial project. Tel Aviv’s glistening high rises, the dulcet waves of its Mediterranean shoreline, the raging nightlife that attracts jetsetters – everything chic that’s so eagerly promoted by stakeholders – is occupied territory, too.
The present wave of violence in Palestine  – while but a blip of the ongoing, systemic Zionist settler colonialism spanning over 73 years – has for many Palestinians and allies churned up memories and lessons of the Nakba. Amidst the uptick in brutality against Palestinians and their land, it is also necessary to encourage awareness of the settler colonial hydra, beyond the sites and scenes that grab headlines. There is no shortage of imagery depicting Palestinian suffering, yet the circulation of visual works that depict resilience, courage, and decolonial futurity in the face of the occupier’s barbarism seldom grab the spotlight. I examine the artwork/activism of Oren Ziv of the photo collective Activestills and of Dareen Tatour to amplify visions of a free Palestine.
In a contemplative Facebook statement about various traps in her discourse she’s reflected on, discussed and learned from, Palestinian journalist and educator Mariam Barghouti wrote: “The term is not occupied territories. It’s territory. We refuse to legitimize our division and being turned into bantustans. We are one land, from river to the sea that has been colonized by settlements that were legitimized without recognizing that the Indigenous population was dispossessed from them and continue to be. We are not West Bank and Gaza. We are Yaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, Um Rashrash, Safad” (Barghouti 2018). This statement for brazen Palestinian unification despite the Zionist settler colonial logics of separation, subjugation, and erasure was particularly prescient of what’s currently called The Unity Intifada – an uprising, a resurgence of Palestinian courage and pride with the goal of “reuniting Palestinian society in all of its different parts; reuniting our political will, and our means of struggle to confront Zionism throughout Palestine.”
As so much focus in recent headlines is put on the visuality of dis-placement and the excesses of conflict, can turning attention to counter-hegemonic emplacement chip away at Zionist settler colonial organizations of space? More than any historical text, academic theoretician or trained contemporary urbanist – the Activestills collective and their profound praxis of critical visual culture guided me through my evolution into an anti-Zionist artist/activist . This grassroots collective of several dozen photographers formed in 2005 seeks to expose the brutality of the Israeli occupation and give a platform to counter protests/demonstrations. The collective views their photographic acts:
[As] tantamount to the act of protest itself and not simply as a form of witnessing, the group emphasis [is] not on “representation” of the “suffering of the other,” or on victimhood, but on the enactment of political agency and the demand for rights – to mobility, livelihood, and protection from violence. (Maimon & Grinbaum, 2016: 31)
The Activestills’ body of work is a project of intervention and serves as an archive of the present; not only is the photographers’ presence at a demonstration or uprising an act of being there – being witness to upheaval, rebellion and violence – but their photographic documentation is concurrent political action. The recording of these moments – be they exceptional or constituent of the ordinary – is visual activism that disrupts everyday power relations.
A co-founder of the collective, Oren Ziv, has worked in the region documenting political and social issues for over 15 years. Ziv’s photographic practice and body of work has informed the way I see myself – as a perennial outsider to the city (despite a trove of intimate desire paths), fervently rebuking any presumed connection to a Jewish homeland; critically documenting, presenting and naming the destructive forces of the Zionist occupation of Palestine. While the arts-led gentrification of Tel Aviv is only a drop in the bucket of the staggering violences enacted by Zionist colonizers against the land and its people, Ziv’s photographs of the city make visible that which has attempted to be rendered invisible or altogether erased and forgotten. It is a kind of critical visual culture that actively performs reclamation and (re)reinscription – particularly as the imagery circulates through activist networks, in alternative media, and promotes dialogue and introspection in a wide array of spaces – instead of just representing it. These images, among thousands more, are primarily displayed on Activestills’ website, Instagram, and with accompanying texts on activist and/or progressive news outlets that feature Palestinian voices, rather than being confined to purely “academic” spaces – Israeli, or otherwise. The trove of photographs works tirelessly against “the possible epistemic trap of focusing the narrative on the settler structure and therefore replicating the silencing of Indigenous voices” (Hawari et al., 2019: 166).
A years-long photo series by Ziv spotlights Palestinians visiting Charles Clore Beach and the Sea Walls Promenade, both adjacent to Charles Clore Park – a green space built on top of the al-Manshiyya neighborhood – during the Islamic holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha (Fig. 1-4).
During the fleeting holidays, many of the Palestinians in these frames are “granted” a one-day permit to cross the so-called Green Line and visit the Mediterranean Sea in celebration. These permits are distributed through the Civil Administration, an operating body under the Israeli military that runs day-to-day affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank (Ziv, 2018). For many, this is the first time they’ve spent time at these shores – as much if not all of their lives are spent sequestered within the Bantustans created by the Israeli occupation. These images simultaneously evoke romanticizations of a pre-Nakba past, and a borderless, decolonial futurity. They aid in the visualization of alternative political futures and the engendering of new solidarities, and the exploration of alternative forms of sovereignty and self-determination (Abu-Lughod, 2020). Here, I am reminded of an essay by Nadia Awad (2015) entitled, Nostalgia for the Future, which begins with the charge, “Images of Palestine circulate globally as long as they don’t picture return.” What is meant here is that in the post-Oslo Accord era, the ease of image-making (-taking) and image-circulation through digital technologies and social media increasingly enables the world to see vignettes of Palestinian suffering and deprivation; yet, so infrequently is happiness, success, and the celebration of Palestinian culture centered. Palestinian pain pushes headlines… but envisioning their return, their reconnection to the land and its liberation is still restricted to the margins, if shared by the media at all.
While photographs of occupiers’ aggression on a host of scales abounds in the Activestills’ archive, Ziv’s photographs create the opportunity for Israelis, Palestinians, the world, to visualize the Palestinian Right of Return; the beaches of Charles Clore Park, the grounds of the Etzel Museum and Jaffa promenade packed with people who can move freely, safely and rekindle connection to their ancestral spaces. It is a photographic action – an artistic and social declaration – of new lines of thinking and living conscientiously while rebuking colonial systems.
The “art world”, referencing the bureaucratic structures of galleries, museums, curatorial practitioners, art instructors and artists themselves – is increasingly shifting attention to “artivism” – or, art as activism (and vis versa). While the field isn’t necessarily new, the abundance of projects and creators on social media and as visible in the streets are dictating trends in documentation and exhibition worldwide. But for Activestills, as a collective, and as individual photographers like Ziv demonstrate – these categories are useful analytical tools, though ultimately limiting – and this counter-hegemonic practice of centering visions of a decolonized future is instead where efforts are and must be focused:
There is a war being waged in the imagination, and we are urged to ask, “How do we live?” and then, despite the feeling of helplessness, to act. It is by acting that we learn a new way of thinking, or, as the Zapatistas say, “asking we walk.” (Decolonize This Place, 2016)
The Palestinian Right of Return is similarly visually represented by Palestinian artist/activist Dareen Tatour. My awareness of her work began in October 2015, when Tatour published an original poem entitled “Resist, My People, Resist Them” in Arabic on Facebook and YouTube. The poem was misappropriated and its meaning demented by Zionist propagandists, which led to Tatour’s arrest and indictment for incitement to violence and support of a terrorist organization. Tatour is no stranger to suffering and injustice, having survived innumerable violences by Israeli occupying forces – she channels this torment and demand for change into her artwork. While her tribulations and the poetry sprung forth are worth far more than this space can provide, I fixate on a recent digital photo collage, where a woman and child enjoy the seashore in golden afternoon light (Fig. 5).
The piece, To Palestinians, Jaffa Then is Jaffa Now, is a composite image of al-Manshiyya from the past and present. In Tatour’s words from the image’s corresponding Facebook post (2020):
This photo was taken on August 10, 2020, to document this mother’s first visit to Jaffa and the Sea. I hated very much the background that appears behind the woman and the child, which is the new look of the Mansheya neighborhood after the ethnic cleansing that took place in the city in 1948. Today, the occupation has transformed the Mansheya neighborhood into a park full of green grass, overlooking the beach and behind it, new and high buildings. I could not bear this scene despite the beauty of the image in which the mother and daughter appear and the expressive moment that tells a lot. I like to restore the image to its original image, to revive the Mansheya neighborhood and to integrate the neighborhood [of 2020 with 1939]. This mother visited Jaffa and saw her sea with her daughter and husband for the first time in her life. Jaffa is her hometown, and this neighborhood is the neighborhood she is supposed to live in today with her husband and daughter[,] instead of Nablus. This would have been true had the Etzel and Haganah Zionist gangs not demolished this neighborhood and concealed this crime under a green lawn. The occupation authorities think that by changing the landmarks, we will forget our country, but this is impossible. Palestine will remain in our minds as we knew it from our ancestors and will return one day, [even if the wait is long].
What I find most striking about this juxtaposition of old and new imagery is how tangible the act of return is rendered; because the physical and material act of repatriation is and must be far more simple than politicians (sic: warmongers) lead us to believe, even though geopolitics and biopolitics are completely knotted together in the settler colonial context (Tuck & Yang, 2012) with physical and psychological barriers impeding revolutionary imagination. The removal of walls, checkpoints, biometrics and other borders, which are not permanent fixtures/structures upon which anyone’s survival is predicated, must fall. Tatour’s photographs are active rejections of the status quo in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and this creative work of emplacement creates insistent challenges to the dominant settler colonial project of elimination (Abu-Lughod, 2020). They are visualizations, enactments, of political resistance not only representative of the Palestinian struggle – but generative of spaces of appearance and intervention (Maimon & Grinbaum, 2016).
While I cannot ascribe a singular solution to occupiers’ implacable razing and reconstructing of Tel Aviv, through this artwork, I better understand how the reclamation of space/culture/identity, the repatriation – re-they-triation – of Indigenous land, and therefore life – is the crux of the meaning of decolonization in Palestine. Tatour creates artwork about how decolonization is accountable to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity (Tuck & Yang, 2012); an elsewhere that is firmly emplaced in her homeland.
These ordinary scenes of community and seaside leisure, so commonplace in the Tel Avivian visual regime, are presently extraordinary to Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Still, this begs of us all – if this pleasure, this freedom, can fleetingly occur (once or twice each year during the holidays, or in the scarce instances that the apartheid wall is breached), what is preventing it from becoming the new normal? I ask this not in avoidance or defiance of the plethora of scholarship on decoloniality, Indigeneity and so forth, as well as the broad range of activists, artists and artworks whose mission is to un-border this failing planet. Decolonization requires a change in order of the world (Tuck & Yang, 2012; Fanon, 1963), and there is an unwieldly amount of ruptures, revisions and unsettling moments that must happen for this to come to fruition. Still – the actions, gestures… the event of photography occurring during these instances of counter-hegemonic inhabitation of the shoreline are a sort of permanence themselves; a (re)reinscription onto/into space that cannot be reversed and instead indicate radical potentiality (Fig. 6). We, as spectators of these images co-produce the radical re-envisioning of Palestine, should we choose to see it. These photographs by Ziv and Tatour that center the Right of Return and disrupt the settler colonial landscape – ones of Palestinian presence, belonging and reconnection with the land and their communities – are more than metaphor. They are also documentation of the future.
This sample of photographs – along with both Tatour and Activestills’ rich archives – also expose the failing façades and crumbling concrete crafted and curated by hegemonic powers. The images argue the materials’ impermanence; that the colonial organization of space, while set in stone, won’t always be. This access to different modes of inhabitation – landscapes at once old (of pre-Nakba eras) and new (of horizons in-progress/process) – is suffused with the imagery (and imaginary) of futurity. Of a decolonized Palestine, a Free Palestine, where the distances between the most marginalized and precarious communities and others are shortened – psychically, physically, fiscally and spatially – in the quest for liberation; beyond the kind of architectural or social practice where the well-funded bureaucratization of alienated people’s desire for community effectively normalizes oppression, rather than engaging in struggle and revolution (Decolonize This Place, 2016). Pushing back against anaesthetization by these curated images of the city, the co-option of culture as commodity, and against the material manipulation of occupied space is a necessary disobedience to disrupt and dismantle the hegemonic systems inscribed onto/into these places.
 In recent weeks, Zionist lynch mobs roam the streets of Lydd, Akka, and Haifa while terrorizing Palestinian residents with the backing of Israeli police and lawmakers. Death to Arabs! A Second Nakba is Coming! is shrieked throughout the Old City of Jerusalem by fervent regime supporters during marches venerating its flag, while forced displacement of Palestinian communities persists nearby. Over 240 Palestinians, including 66 children, were massacred in May 2021 in the besieged Gaza Strip – and the bombing of the world’s largest open-air prison persists – despite a purported ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government. Scores of unlawful arrests and detainments, and myriad other abuses perpetrated by the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces) against Palestinians and their allies on both sides of the so-called Green Line take place before our eyes as soldiers, undercover agents, accomplices in the Palestinian Authority, and Zionist settler community members act with impunity. As social media hashtags (#SaveSheikhJarrah, #SaveSilwan, #SaveLifta, #BlockTheBoat, amongst others), flash protests, more vocal support for the BDS Movement, and interviews of Palestinian activists who refuse to be silent in the face of ethnic cleansing is broadcast on global stages. This increased awareness of the Zionist occupation of Palestine is encouraging – driven by the praxis of activists in the streets and online, urging intergenerational and international unification and galvanizing resistance against censorship, elision and erasure.
 Regarding the self – its infinite forms, traits and tendencies – I’ve realized with the passage of time that my motivation to critique Zionism and the atrocious architectures of occupation aligns with that of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s: “Being born a Jewish woman, I felt compelled to use my position as a Jew against the way this history [of imperial violence] was scripted to justify that violence” (Alli, 2020). At risk of dipping into an entirely new project or begging psychoanalysis of my upbringing, I skip that to spell out that, in spite of a very pro-Israel, moderately conservative Jewish upbringing, I actively choose to sustain a culturally “Jewish” identity for the very purpose of being in vocal support of Palestinian human rights, their right to self-determination, and the imperative to decolonize Palestine while dismantling all systems of oppression against the land and its people. Also, to underscore, it is not antisemitic to ardently criticize and boycott Israel – and that combatting antisemitism must not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the ongoing occupation of the land of Palestine (The Guardian, 2020).
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Taylor Miller is a photographer and writer based in Tucson, Arizona who earned her Ph.D. in the School of Geography, Environment & Development at the University of Arizona, with research centered on arts-led gentrification in Marseille and Tel Aviv, and the aesthetics of occupation that underlie the cultural infrastructures of those cities. Her creative practice enmeshes psychogeography with vernacular mapping, with particular interest in the other-than, more-than-human impacts of colonialism, neoliberalism and the reinscription of urban space in places through which she moves.