Vignettes from a Contested Land: An American Photographer in the West Bank

4 minute read

An Israeli-government appointed committee ruled July 9 that the West Bank was not “occupied” land, something Palestinians who live there — and, indeed, much of the international community — consider it to be ever since Israeli troops seized control of the territory in 1967. The report reaffirms the longstanding view of the Israeli government, particularly the right-wing-led coalition currently in power, and pushes for a number of measures further supporting the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s news that can only deepen the sense of outrage and dispossession harbored by Palestinians, who have cause to feel exasperated with the current state of affairs: the peace process with Israel has gone moribund; the Palestinian leadership’s feeble attempt to unilaterally bid for statehood at the U.N. was brushed aside last year, all the while as Israeli settlements further entrench themselves on West Bank soil under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba day, which marks the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent loss of their homeland. In the weeks leading up to Nakba day this year, hundreds of Palestinians in jail had gone on a mass coordinated hunger strike in protest of Israeli detention laws. Scores took to the streets once again, clashing with Israeli security forces. As ever, images of burning tires and stone throwers were beamed around the world.

But American photographer Adam Golfer’s images of the West Bank look beyond the hurly burly of one of the world’s intractable conflicts, past what he terms “the theater of war” and the almost “ritualized” scenes of violence that seem to shape the outsider’s view of the Middle East. Golfer, who is Jewish, has an art background and does not consider himself a photojournalist. He spent three weeks roaming the West Bank last November and five more this February. The resulting photographs are, as he puts it, “not a documentary, but rather something far more personal,” tied to his own meanderings across a land over which “every aspect is disputed.”

Golfer’s photos, he says, “are vignettes of an experience.” They are bathed in a painterly glow, dwelling over terrain that is at once stark and desolate but suffused with centuries of accrued history and memory. In one, three foreign journalists stand atop the stony earth, at the center of the narrative they seek to tell. In another, an Israeli “Center for Tolerance and Human Dignity”—built despite local protests and appeals—emerges from what is the site of a 7th century Muslim cemetery. A gnarled tree rises out of the foreground, its leafless branches pointing limply at the new construction.

A photo poised on a kitchen counter shows three men whose ties date back to this land well before 1948. “It’s a mixture of nostalgia and also a proof of life,” says Golfer. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but not long ago Newt Gingrich was saying there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. Here we have a portrait of a family, a sense of roots, a sense of place.”

That idea of place and of a moment interests Golfer, who hopes to expand his work with field recordings and other media. He says he’s not keen on “running into the line of fire.” Too often, says Golfer, our vision of this region gets represented by a “tableau of violence.” Instead, he is curious about “how the Palestinian way of life has taken shape”: families negotiate real and imagined boundaries; a line of gorgeous woven rugs airs out in the early evening half-light. “There is a quiet about a lot of the stuff I was looking at,” says Golfer. If so, it’s a silence full of meaning.

Thrower (Nabi Saleh)A Palestinian teenager in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh uses a sling to hurl stones at Israeli soldiers amassing at the bottom of the hill. Every Friday local residents, Israeli activists and international activists gather in the village to stage non-violent demonstrations denouncing the Israeli Occupation and asserting Palestinian human rights. The protesters are met each week with tear gas and other aggressive crowd dispersal tactics, transforming peaceful demonstrations into violent exchanges of stones, rubber bullets and mass arrests.Adam Golfer
Generations (Surda)A photograph in a house in Surda displays a Palestinian man of the pre-1948 generation with his nephew and son.Adam Golfer
Route 60 Tunnel Road (Walaja Valley) Route 60 is the major highway which extends from Jerusalem across the Green Line, south to the West Bank city of Hebron. Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israel has constructed a complex array of roads, bridges and tunnels intended to reduce interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. The tunnel road—commonly used by Israeli settlers and off limits to Palestinians without permits—connects Jerusalem to the settlement block of Gush Etzion, while bypassing the Palestinian Walaja Valley and the town of Beit Jala (part of Bethlehem).Adam Golfer
Manara (Ramallah) Palestinian boys browse through toy guns in the main market near Al Manara Square in Ramallah.Adam Golfer
Gilad (Tel Aviv) Cardboard cutouts of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in front of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, on the front page of The International Herald Tribune. Shalit was captured during a Hamas raid near the Israeli border with Gaza in 2005, and held hostage in an undisclosed location for over five years. In an unprecedented agreement in October 2011, Israel released over 1000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit.Adam Golfer
X (Ramallah)A red X is painted on a gatepost in a residential neighborhood of Ramallah across the street from the Red Crescent.Adam Golfer
Demo 3 (Bi’ilin) A Palestinian boy in the West Bank village of Bi’ilin marches in a demonstration against the route of the Israeli separation barrier. He carries a mask of Khader Adnan, the Palestinian political prisoner who went on a 66-day hunger strike to protest his administrative detention in an Israeli jail. Israeli law allows for political prisoners to be held for up to six months at a time without a trial or charges, which can be extended indefinitely. After being detained for four months, a deal was reached and Adnan was released in April.Adam Golfer
Hisham’s Palace (Jericho) A child peeks into a scale model of the former palace of Hisham, the wealthy son of the 7th century Umayyad Caliphate. The Arab Caliphate ruled much of the Middle East and North Africa from the mid 7th to the mid 8th Century, encompassing almost five million miles of the region.Adam Golfer
Mamilla Cemetery (Jerusalem) Future site of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance and Human Dignity. Controversy erupted in 2009 when the Palestinian community expressed outrage with the Center’s proposed location, which is home to a Muslim grave site dating to the 7th Century. Since 2005, both Israeli and Palestinian community leaders have protested; In July of 2011 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that there was no legal justification to halt the construction and it will continue as planned.Adam Golfer
Chairs and Rugs (Ramallah)Across the West Bank, Palestinians air out their rugs at the end of the day, using lawn chairs to secure them down in the wind.Adam Golfer
Fadi near Qalandia Checkpoint (Ramallah) Fadi Quran, a 24-year-old Palestinian activist, walks in Area C near Qalandia Checkpoint, an area of Ramallah controlled by the Israeli military. The area lies between the edge of the city and the separation barrier. It has served as a dumping ground for the city’s waste since 2005, when the barrier’s construction cut off the municipality from its original landfill location on the Israeli side of the wall.Adam Golfer
Coat Rack (Ramallah)The traditional Arab scarf known as a “keffiyeh” hangs from a coat rack in Ramallah. The keffiyeh first gained prominence as a Palestinian national symbol during the Arab Revolt of the 1930s, and was popularized once more in the 1960s, when Yasser Arafat adopted it as a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Today the scarf can be seen across the Occupied Palestinian Territories and abroad, standing as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity and national determination.Adam Golfer
Burning Trash (Burqa)Around the West Bank trash burns continuously in heaps on the side of the road, and at the edges of the villages and cities. There is no standardized solid waste disposal in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and each municipality is forced to deal with garbage independently.Adam Golfer
Military Operation (Nabi Saleh) Israeli soldiers conduct a military operation in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh in pursuit of teenagers throwing stones.Adam Golfer
Yassir Arafat’s Grave (Muqata'a) Gravesite of former Palestinian Authority leader Yassir Arafat at the government Headquarters in Ramallah. Arafat’s compound was under siege by Israeli military forces between 2001 and 2002 during the Second Intifada after a string of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israeli cities.Adam Golfer
Doorway (Ramallah)A doorway leading to the garden of a home in Ramallah.Adam Golfer
Belly of the Whale (Akko) Two men take photos in the port of the Old City of historic Akko, near Haifa. Adam Golfer
Emilie, Thomas and Caroline (Ofer Prison) Journalists for French media cover a demonstration outside of Ofer Prison in the West Bank.Adam Golfer
Planting Trees for Tu B’shevat (Arbor Day) Israeli settlers in the West Bank outpost settlement Migron plant trees during the Jewish holiday of Tu B’shevat to celebrate spring in Israel. In March, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling that the outpost is illegal and that the forty-nine Jewish families in Migron live on private Palestinian-owned land. In the decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Migron residents must evacuate the settlement by August 1, 2012.Adam Golfer
Demo 4 - Qaryout (Near Shilo Settlement) A group of Palestinian men carry a protester who collapsed after inhaling tear gas. Residents in Qaryout staged a demonstration to march down a village road which had been closed to them by the Israeli Military. After an armed Israeli settler threw a rock at the protesters, an intense volley was exchanged and soldiers immediately fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.Adam Golfer
Tear Gas (Nabi Saleh)A tear gas canister lands next to a house in the village of Nabi Saleh during a protest. During demonstrations, the Israeli military frequently shoots gas canisters into densely populated village centers. In 2010, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiyeh, an 18-month-old Palestinian boy named Ahmed Abu Sarah died after inhaling large amounts of tear gas fired by Israeli police during a confrontation with demonstrators. Massive amounts of gas often drift into residential homes, harming and sometimes killing infant and elderly bystanders who are not mobile enough to escape.Adam Golfer
Morning (Efrat) A child on a residential street in the Israeli settlement of Efrat in the West Bank.Adam Golfer
Goggles (Nabi Saleh) Demonstrators often wear swimming goggles to protect their eyes from tear gas. In December of 2011, Mustafa Tamimi, a 28-year-old resident of Nabi Saleh, was shot in the face with a tear gas canister at close range during a demonstration in the village. He sustained critical injuries and died the next day. Tamimi was the first demonstrator to be killed during a protest in Nabi Saleh.Adam Golfer
1948 Kids (Nabi Saleh) During a protest, Palestinian teenagers look out across the village of Nabi Saleh as shebab (young men) throw rocks at Israeli soldiers amassing at the bottom of the hill. Adam Golfer

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