The Palestinian exile: a visual history
To write a visual history of the Palestinian exile we have to look at the history of those refugees through the eyes of the people, the political groups, humanitarian organizations and states caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The role of pictures, important in any war, was doubly so in this context. For a long time historic Palestine had been an issue reaching far beyond its frontiers: a holy land for three religions, the centre of a conflict which was about territory and politics but also about symbols. For years how its history was told depended on the images each interested party was able to produce and transmit to the greatest number, to gain world-wide international support and to create empathy and identification.
In a sense, the authorised images of the refugees in 1948 and then 1967 – those which have been widely broadcast and those which have not – are a part of their history and metaphor: they reflect and even in part shaped the development of that history. In some ways the story of Palestinian refugees, and beyond them of the Palestinians themselves, is about having access to forms of visibility, starting with the vacuum that accompanied the 1948 exodus (the Nakba) and the creation of just one of the two states provided for under the historic UN Partition Plan of Palestine in 1947. After 1948, the disappearance of the Palestinians, their exit from history is also based on a lack of visuals.
History and politics are all shaped by images, by the possibility of being noticed, by the visibility of – and often competition between – memories. But here, more than elsewhere, the mix of invisibility and visibility worked on the perceptions, dreams, fears and imaginations of the Palestinians, Israelis and the foreign spectators involved to a greater or lesser extent in the conflict.
It is easily understood: this visual history is as much about the things which can or could be seen as about those which cannot, the absent elements, the large blind spots. So the analysis of the existing images is often hollow – reading them is as much about looking at what we have as at what we don't have.
Also, the visual documents on this subject which have been shown on Mediterranean television stations are extremely biased. To understand them, I will draw on various existing visual archives: first the films and photographs of the humanitarian organisations (mainly the Red Cross and UNRWA) which were aimed primarily at European and American audiences; then the Israeli archives – the newsreels of various private studios, the pre-1948 Zionist then post-1948 Israeli feature films, both institutional and independent, photographs and artists' images; finally I shall look at the work of Palestinian film-makers and artists – the revolutionary cinema, photographs, video creations, documentaries and feature films.
In 1948, the humanitarian organisations did indeed come to the rescue of the exiles, and for the first years they also controlled the images. Their starting point was an internationally shared Biblical iconography and imagination about Palestine – the holy land as seen by tourists and pilgrims from around the world. This mythical vision of Palestine helped dissociate the refugees from the land where they belonged. The humanitarian organisations focused their lenses on the universal category of the refugee, on wandering, presented as a perpetual destitution without reason or cause: it made a documentary without any reference to the exile. The camps and re-settlement through work in the main host countries (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan) were supposed to ease the pain of being displaced.
At the same time, the Zionist then Israeli iconography and cinematography staged the Zionist dream and adventure, using images taken from the land taken over by the newcomers. In these films and photographs the only refugees possible were the Jewish refugees who had fled Europe and escaped the Holocaust. The war of 1948 is not mentioned. Israeli pioneers seemed quietly and naturally to take possession of the empty places and villages, shown as immemorial relics which then became the peaceful backdrop of the nation being created.
Between 1960 and 1980, following the revival of the nationalist movement, Palestinians entered visual history with the revolutionary cinema. Militant film-makers linked to the PLO made the conflict into one about the future of a land and its people, a people now showing its face, making an impact on screen through its absence.
Following the collapse of the PLO in the Lebanon in 1982 , cinema, like the resistance, was revived from within the occupied territories, with independent film-makers turning to fiction. During the 1980's, the national and institutional image was shattered.
Over time the way of looking became more personal, intimate, freer, and visual forms were more diverse: short films, personal documentaries, art videos. Palestinian film-makers, photographers, artists and video-makers subverted the divided country to invent another place, imaginary journeys and returns, poetic, sometimes tragicomic, a virtual country.
During the same period in Israel, the end of 1990's and especially the mid-2000's, cinema and photography finally began to look at the traces of the exile. The war of 1948 was no longer a non-subject, the settings of the fiction of the pioneers became the marks of history in the landscape.
 Meaning 'the catastrophe', it is the name given by the Palestinians to the 1948 exodus.
 After the 1948 exodus the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the West Bank, The League of Societies of the Red Cross in the Lebanon, in Transjordan and in Syria, and the Quakers on the Gaza Strip were mandated to deliver aid to Arab refugees. As from April 1950, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) was created to coordinate the different humanitarian services. Its mandate, originally planned as temporary, is still effective today.
I. A mythical land, exiles with...
II. What people see is dominate...
III. Footage of the newcomers p...
V. Palestinian visual creation ...
VI. Traces of the 1948 war and ...
To write a visual history of the Palestinian exile we have to look at the history of those refugees through the eyes of the people, the political groups, humanitarian organizations and states caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The role of pictures, important in any war, was doubly so in this context. For a long time historic Palestine had been an issue reaching far beyond its frontiers: a holy land for three religions, the centre of a conflict which was about territory and politics but also about symbols. For years how its history was told depended on the images each interested party was able to produce and transmit to the greatest number, to gain world-wide international support and to create empathy and identification...
Latte Abdallah Stéphanie
Research fellow in contemporary social history and anthropology, CNRS, IREMAM, MMSH