Both Sides of the Fence: A Photo Connect
Between politics and ideologies, terror and threats, beauty and danger from all sides, there are people. People who live the Palestine-Israel conflict every day. People who just want to get on with their lives: to earn an honest living, to put food on their tables, and have safety for their families. The stuff life is made of. Let me tell you about two such people, and the art that helps them deal with all that lies between them, while at the same time opening a window upon their lives and circumstances.
Batia Holin is a friend of mine who lives in a kibbutz on the border with the Gaza Strip, about 20 minutes north of me. As she takes her daily walk around the perimeter fence of her community, which all too frequently experiences the sounds and dangers of war, she takes pictures documenting the scenes.
A young man, whom we shall call “Machmud”, in order to ensure his safety, takes a similar daily walk, also taking pictures.
Between them lies the border fence, and all the intricacies of a decades-long conflict.
Batia had a dream of doing something more with all those pictures she had stored up in her phone. Something that might make a difference. Her idea was to find someone who was seeing the same sights as she was, the same fence as she was, hearing the same sounds as she does – but from the other side.
And then, with the help of some friends, she found “Machmud”, a young Gazan who feels that sharing his photos of the same fence, from the other side, is his way of speaking to the world. Thus the photo exhibition “Between Us” came together.
Communication between them took place either via text or voice messages. Never on Zoom – that would have excessively endangered “Machmud”. When you live in Gaza, you are not free to interact with Israelis. If you do, Hamas will accuse you of the severe crime of “normalization”, which will get you jailed, and tortured, if not worse. This has happened to friends of mine, and I know all too well that Gazans take it very seriously.
“We don’t talk politics,” says Batia. “Never. Our goal was to communicate to the world that despite the circumstances in which we live, we still have a sense of optimism.”
Both of these amateur photographers use their phones to document their surroundings. Some photos include scenes of the Mediterranean Sea – the same sea that washes onto the shores of both Gaza and Israel. The exhibition even includes two pictures of the sea, focused on the same border area: one pointing north, the other aiming south: meeting in the middle. The area between them.
Many of the photos include fences because they are, unfortunately, a fact of life down here. We who live here hardly notice them anymore, they are so much a part of the scenery. Sort of like white noise.
In the middle of the exhibition stand three cacti, the type that produces the fruit which is used as a metaphor for Israelis who were born here: Sabras – prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside. Moshe Esh, the curator, explained that the sabra is also very Arab. These cacti have, for hundreds of years, been used here in the region as fences, separating this one’s land from that one’s.
Woven between the 60 pictures on the walls, (45 taken by Batia, 15 by “Machmud”) are 6 poems in Hebrew written by a third resident of this region, named Silit. She is an agronomist with a PhD who lives on a religious kibbutz, right across the 232 highway from Batia. Her poems construct connections between the land, the wonders of nature, and faith. As Batia tells it: “A kibbutznik, a moslem and a religious woman …. it sounds like the opening of a joke”
The ceremony launching this collaborative exhibition of life on both sides of the border took place on February 4th. Batia was astounded when 200 people attended the opening. As of the day I visited, 1,250 people had already come to visit. The exhibition is a part of the “Darom Adom” festival in the Western Negev (meaning “Red South” – the GOOD kind of red, named for the anemones flowers that are in bloom- not the “scary” red, alerting us to incoming rockets.) After that, the exhibition will remain for viewing in “Oz Banegev”, by appointment only. However, for these pictures and Batia, the future holds a lot. She will be traveling with the entire exhibition to San Diego to present the story, as well as other places in Israel and abroad.
Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of life in the Gaza Strip, “Machmud” will be unable to accompany her, just as he was unable to attend the opening. Instead, he sent her this letter:
I am very happy to be a partner in your important exhibition. The photos I send you are from my daily life in Gaza, a life that I try to build like every other person anywhere in the world. I know there are people around me who don’t like our cooperation, but I take this risk in the hope that this project will influence and improve understanding, quality of life and security on both sides of the fence.
I hope that with the help of my photos, the Israeli society and the whole world will know that the Gaza Strip is not only a place of rockets and missiles but a place worth living in. I hope that with the help of my photos the Israeli society will see that in Gaza the people are simple, love life and not fighters and terrorists.
This exhibition for me is hope for a peaceful life.
Although I cannot come to Israel and physically participate in the exhibition, I feel that my photos that tell my story allow me to feel that a part of me is beyond the fence, next to you in Israel.”
I have heard different (even opposing) interpretations of the various pictures in this exhibition. I, myself, tried to guess who took which photo. Some of them were easily recognizable, but others were very tricky. My assumptions and knowledge of this region misled me, as too often happens in regions of conflict with all our assumptions and existing knowledge. Rather than relating any of the opinions I have heard or formed, I will simply suggest that – as with any artform – you go and see it for yourself. I’ll leave it for YOU to decide.
Come visit “Oz Banegev” at Kibbutz Nachal Oz, any day of the week during the month of February, from 10:00-15:00.
For more details, call Batia at 054-816-0343.
Tell her Adele sent you 😉