Writings on the wall

It is impossible to enter any Palestinian refugee camp, village or city without noticing the vibrant colors and meticulous calligraphy of graffiti on most every wall. In some places it is like an unending open-air art gallery that stretches along the entire length of a street onto a school wall or a factory gate and then into the narrow alley of a refugee camp or a wide main street like the Omar Al Mukthar Street in Gaza City.

But the graffiti is not there for aesthetics primarily. “The walls have become a daily notice board for us,” says Saad Hassan from the Shati’ Refugee Camp in Gaza. “It saves you the bother of reading the newspapers or leaflets being distributed here and there.”

On this “notice board” one can read about almost every aspect of everyday Palestinian political and social life. News of the activities of the Palestinian factions can be found in their near entirety. On this wall, Hamas announces that it exploded an Israeli tank in the northern Gaza Strip near the Dugit settlement. On that wall, Fateh’s military wing, the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, claims responsibility for a military operation in Ramallah. Saraya Al Quds, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad uses wall space to announce that it carried out a bombing in a Haifa restaurant, giant-size letters spelling out the name of the bomber: Hanadi Jaradat.

Political slogans and positions are also given due space. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) proclaims that the “resistance will continue and will not stop. It is the only option for the Palestinian people.” An Islamic Jihad slogan calls on the Palestinian Authority to abandon the political process and to “join the ranks of the resistance.” Responding to recent events, Hamas graffiti on a wall near the Islamic University in Gaza accuses Palestinian signatories to the Geneva initiative of making too many concessions and of selling short refugees’ rights.

The mainstream Fateh group varies in its messages. Some of its slogans call for “the continuation of operations against the Zionist entity” while others urge “Israel to commit to the implementation of signed agreements.” This, of course, is in addition to the plentiful expressions of Fateh support for President Yasser Arafat, the “symbol of the Palestinian people.”

But most common of all is the graffiti glorifying the dead. All along Al Nasr Street in Gaza City, are pictures of Islamic Jihad “martyrs”, some on walls and others on huge iron panels. On the wall of the Islamic University, Hamas has painted pictures of its slain members including Salah Shehadeh, Imad Aql and Yihya Ayyash. Near the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City is a large portrait of Jihad Amareen, the head of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Gaza who was assassinated by the Israeli army a year and a half ago.

But it is not only political messages that are posted on Gaza’s walls. Palestinians in Gaza also share their personal joys and enmities through graffiti. Many times one can find congratulatory messages for a newlywed couple or congratulations to a Muslim returning from the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Some messages convey congratulations to a person who has received an official position in government. Occasionally, threats are posted on the walls, especially in relation to family or tribal feuds. Some messages call on the Palestinian Authority to “mete out a punishment and try the murderers,” when there has been a killing.

Fierce competition

Haytham, 17, and still in high school, introduces himself as a member of Hamas. “I have been writing graffiti for the past two years,” he says, clearly proud of his work. “[Hamas] discovered that my handwriting was nice, so they asked to me to write on the walls.”

His profession holds no fear for Haytham. “During the first Intifada, young men used to mask their faces so not to be recognized by Israeli soldiers,” he says. “After that, they covered their faces for fear of the Palestinian security forces. But now everyone writes without fear of anything.”

But, much like sought-after advertising slots, the factions grapple with each other for the “best” and most wall space, such as the Gaza City Square or Omar Ibn Mukhtar Street, one of Gaza’s most prominent streets that stretches for ten kilometers. Often, factions have fought over empty “white” space on a wall or have scribbled “private” on a section so others will not trespass.

Haytham does not deny that squabbles occur between the factions on who will write what on which wall. “Sometimes I see one faction erasing what another wrote to add its own slogans. This is where the problem arises,” he says. But, he adds, ongoing dialogue between the factions have lessened the friction.

On the Thalathini Street in Gaza, Abdel Nasser, 19, a Fateh graffiti artist, says he admires much of the graffiti for what it stands for, the nationalist slogans and the encouragement to people to resist the occupation. “I believe that I am resisting the occupation and helping the resistance through my writings. They are an open book for every Palestinian to read.”

Abdel Nasser’s special talent is painting portraits of Arafat. “Abu Ammar represents the Palestinian people and he is a symbol and a leader, and that is why I like to draw him.”

Abdel Nasser admits that Hamas stole a march on the other factions with their unique calligraphy, but now all the factions have begun to choose the best calligraphers so there is not much difference. “The walls of all Palestinian cities are adorned with beautiful portraits and writings,” he says.

Part of the Intifada

Professor of journalism and media at Al Najah University, Dr. Farid Abu Dheir, says graffiti constitutes a healthy phenomenon in society as well as being an inexpensive way of expressing opinions. Graffiti, says Abu Dheir, provides an outlet for everyone at a time when official media have been monopolized. Semi-official outlets do not always do justice to everyone’s opinions.

Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, however, goes further, and says graffiti “has played a major role in awakening the emotions of the people and in encouraging them to resist the occupation and glorify the martyrs.” It’s effectiveness, says Rantisi, is evident in Israel’s efforts “to stop the Intifada by any possible means, starting with washing the slogans off the walls.”

Graffiti in Palestinian culture originated in the years before the first Palestinian revolt in 1936, and can be traced as far back as 1931. Perhaps the most famous incident of what could be called “revolutionary graffiti” was what one Palestinian wrote on the walls of his Acre prison cell in black coal, moments before his execution by the British Mandatory government in 1936:

“To my brother Yusuf:
Look after our mother.
To my sister: Do not grieve.
For the homeland I sacrifice my blood,
And this for your eyes,
O Palestine.”

While the identity of the prisoner is unclear, most believe the poem was written by Awad Nabulsi of Nablus. His verses later became a revolutionary song, “From Acre Prison,” which has been passed down from generation to generation.

However, graffiti didn’t take on its collective and public character until the first Intifada in 1987. Before that, the art remained more or less seasonal and connected to a certain occasion such as the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the partition of Palestine, or the wars of 1948 and 1967.

During the first Intifada, graffiti, however, came to be considered an effective and influential method of resistance because of its necessity at the time in relaying messages to the people in the absence of other forms of communication available to Palestinians. A similar reasoning applies to the art’s resurrection during the Aqsa Intifada, though some argue that with the advent of the internet, various media outlets such as radio stations, land and satellite television channels, and many free publications, graffiti’s importance as a means of communication is less today.

Most Palestinian factions, however, say that these “wall journals” serve to raise educational, factional and national awareness and even if other methods of communication have improved over the years, graffiti still has an enormous impact on the Palestinian street and is part of the culture of resistance.