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New Texts Out Now: Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar, eds. Gaza as Metaphor

Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar, editors. Gaza As Metaphor (London: Hurst, 2016). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar (HTS and DM): During and in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli attacks against Gaza in July 2014, we shared a sense of anger and a responsibility to respond to the ways in which Gaza was a target of both military and representational violence. We were struck by the disconnect between how mainstream media, for example, talked about Gaza, that was generally ahistorical, and our own experiences and realities of Gaza. We were equally struck by how the word “Gaza” came to substitute for processes such as asymmetric warfare, poverty, neoliberalism, surveillance state, terror, resistance, and humanitarian crisis on the brink of collapse, among others. While some of these seemed resonant and others not, the discursive strategy of positing Gaza as synonymous to different processes distanced a grounded and historical understanding of Gaza even farther away. Not only was Gaza locked up behind walls and military force, but also behind misunderstanding and misrepresentation. As such, the project also grows out of a broader concern that we both share as media and cultural studies scholars interested in and worried about the representations – of Gaza, of Palestinians, of the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Middle East region, as well as other parts of the world – and how representations form, their connection to political and economic power interests, their ability to veil historical and personal processes, as well as their ability to mobilize to different ends.

We reached out to colleagues, some of whom we already knew, and some of whom we didn’t, and asked if they wanted to contribute to the book, trying to keep a balance between people situated in different fields and writing in different styles. We did to not want to limit what our contributors wanted to write about, asking them to think through a metaphor and its relationship to Gaza. They could think of a metaphor as an entry point to interrogate the realities of Gaza, to excavate, contextualize and make visible the effect of Israel’s settler colonial project, among other forces, on Gaza and its people. They could conversely ask what Gaza could tell us about meta-moments of history that continue to shape what it means to be Palestinian, or simply, to be a human. Our goal was to interject the realities of Gaza into various metaphors while also figuratively asserting the world into Gaza, and in the process, convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the practices of the people within it.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HTS and DM: The book addresses a multiplicity of topics and literatures, reflecting the background and intellectual interests of the twenty-one individual authors. Written by variety of writers, scholars, journalists, and ordinary people, the essays are eclectic in style, some are reflexive and personal, others are interpretive and discursive, some draw on humor, others on historical and comparative analyses. What they collectively share is an inter-disciplinary approach to addressing how metaphor, as a discourse and an image, can either help us understand complex issues or close down interpretations and further understandings of these issues. But metaphor symbolizes something else in this case: the ways in which it can refocus attention to aspects of relational power.

This volume is in conversation with other works specifically about Gaza, such as Mohamed Omer’s on-the-ground analysis, Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault (Haymarket Books, 2015), as well as journalistic and scholarly books such as Gideon Levy’s The Punishment of Gaza (2010), Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky, Gaza in Crisis (Haymarket, 2010/2013), and Sara Roy’s Failing Peace (Pluto, 2006). The book is also similar in scope to other edited volumes bringing together different voices analyzing the Palestinian predicament. Given the broad range of contributors, it should come as no surprise that some essays are located in specific academic fields such as anthropology, history, psychiatry, media and cultural studies, law, and literature. The topics thus range in scope as well: the ongoing effects of the Nakba, the political and spatial formation of “the strip” which was not a historically natural entity, everyday survival strategies, Gaza’s misrepresentations, the need to draw on anticolonial literature and redefine solidarity strategies, the limits of speaking about Gaza as a humanitarian disaster rather than an outcome of Zionist strategies of control, living through the 2014 military campaign, as well as love and children.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

DM: This work connects to my previous work on Palestine, most specifically, on narrative, politics and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and more broadly, to my interest in the role of narrative in helping us understand the world or in restricting our understanding the world. My interest in narrative began with the oral history project, which ended with the book What it Means to be Palestinian: Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood (2010) and continued with an edited collection titled Narrating Conflict in the Middle East (2013). However, the volume as a whole addresses areas of study well beyond the inter-disciplinary field of media and cultural studies.

HTS: Editing this volume on Gaza is a natural extension of my academic work on media, technology, infrastructure and territory in Gaza specifically and more broadly across the Palestinian context. But the project departs from what I have usually done for a number of reasons: to begin with it is a collaborative effort to bring together a range of voices on Gaza touching on areas beyond my or Dina’s areas of expertise – for example psychiatry, literature, and history. Second, it is written and edited with a non-academic audience in mind; and third, it is concerned as much with a grounded understanding of Gaza as it is with its representations. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HTS and DM: We hope that students, scholars, journalists, politicians and human rights activists and agencies who are all interested in Gaza, in Israel/Palestine, in the Middle East, but also in the wider context of dispossession and survival, do read this book. We would like it to open peoples’ minds to the different ways in which power asserts itself, most noticeably and powerfully in metaphor. In explaining the diversity of metaphors used to talk about Gaza and Palestine in general, we hope to provide a larger, more contextualized, understanding of how Gaza, as a real and imagined spatiality, came to be discussed and understood. At the same time, we hope that readers will begin to see Gaza not as a far-away, exceptional place, but in connection to the workings of occupation, colonialism, resistance, and to questions specific to Palestine as well as pertinent the world over about refugees, the limits of humanitarianism, urban warfare, technologies of surveillance, and various ways in which inequalities are imposed and lived with.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HTS: I’m finishing up some articles: a creative solution to the limitations imposed on Gaza’s telecommunications and internet infrastructure; the relationship between Israel’s territorial fragmentation of Palestine and Palestinians’ experiences of time, and how technologies of mapping re-imagine “Palestine” in ironically narrow ways. When done with those I plan to finish my book on digital infrastructure controls and borders in Israel/Palestine, before moving on to a long-term project about turnstiles – yes, those things we go through in subways and stadiums but also at checkpoints, prisons, and international borders. 

DM: I have just published a book chapter on narrative and agency with reference to the Syrian uprising and the use of digital platforms and finished an article on the PLO’s aesthetics of liberation through art and cultural production between 1968 and 1974, and working on a number of articles on communication, politics and conflict as well as on the dynamics of narrative and power relations in the context of Palestine/Israel conflict from the perspective of the Palestinians. I then will move on to a long-term project putting together a cultural history of the PLO between 1968 and 1993. 

Excerpts from Introduction:

No matter when, where, and to whom the word is uttered, ‘Gaza’ immediately evokes a plethora of metaphors: Open-air prison, Terror, Resistance, Poverty, Occupation, Siege, Trauma, Bare humanity. Conversely, a plethora of terms also invoke Gaza: Crisis, Grief, Exception, Refugees, Nationalism, Destitution, Tunnels, Ruin, Persistence. 

Metaphors pervade our lives and our thinking. They turn up everywhere, in stories, plays, films, news, politics and everyday life. Metaphors are figures of speech, sometimes standing for something abstract. A metaphor can serve as a symbol, a parallel, a relationship, a connection, an example. It helps us make sense of the unfamiliar and transfer meaning from what is a complex phenomenon to something more easily understood, or vice versa. A metaphor is also a question of distance, identifying something as being the same as some unrelated thing, perhaps for rhetorical effect, or for making clear a sense of continuity or proximity.

Gaza increasingly seems to also stand at a distance, territorially sealed, subsisting in conditions hard to comprehend, politically marginalized, subjected to ongoing forms of violence, segregated behind stereotypes and misunderstandings.

As Gaza becomes increasingly physically inaccessible, perhaps the easiest way to bring it closer – to grasp it, to humanize it, maybe even to change it – is through metaphors. Equally, the more life becomes unsustainable from within Gaza, the easier it becomes to think of it as a metaphor as well. As one author writes, while inside his house under the non-stop barrage of drone, warship, tank and F16 bombings in the midst of the Summer 2014 Israeli war: “[You] presume […] to be a microcosm of the trembling, boiling world outside.”[i]


Gaza – the city and the Strip – today is hermetically-sealed: the flow of people, goods, as well as medicines, fuel, and electricity is tightly controlled by Israel, all the while subjected to various forms of military and political violence. As any other place, Gaza’s changes are dynamic. But the conditions imposed on the territory and the people that live in it, are man-made.

         By thinking of Gaza through an allegory or a comparison, a metaphor can help bring Gaza’s lived reality closer into focus. Gaza is described along a spectrum of increasingly worsening conditions, from Israel’s backyard as a cheap labor pool and captive market to an open-air prison. However, as Ariella Azoulay explains in this volume there was no original crime committed by Palestinians when they were first corralled and locked-up in what became the Gaza Strip in order for the metaphor of a penitentiary to hold – although it is the term that the Israeli military has officially ascribed to the Gaza Strip since 2005. Or, as Darryl Li writes in this volume, Gaza has not only become “a space in which the ‘pure’ conditions of laboratory experimentation are best approximated,” but has also been transformed into a zoo. Said Shehadeh pushes the metaphor further as he expounds on the psychological impacts of the latest war: Gaza is not a zoo but a torture chamber. Glenn Bowman turns to bodily metaphors of disease to posit Gaza as a “cyst” which is quarantined into a life constantly exposed to death. Although they may focus our attention invariably on territorial, political, or psychological factors, these metaphors address the qualitative shift of Israeli policies and levels of violence since the mid-2000s. This beckons a question: Can Gaza keep being (re)produced and squeezed as something beyond, worse than what it already is? In fact, as the contributors who speak to the Palestinian – and originally Gazan – form of resistance, sumud, highlight, both the metaphors of prisons and torture chambers have historical purchase. However, as Sherene Seikaly and Haidar Eid note, also in this volume, Gazans’ original sin were to be born Palestinian, and over the years, to refuse, as would anyone, to be colonized, subjugated, and humiliated.


Despite the 2005 disengagement, Israel maintains direct control over Gaza. Israel continues to control Gaza’s air and maritime space, six of the seven land crossings (the seventh, along the border with Egypt, is the only one Palestinians are permitted to use, and is rarely open), and control the flow of trade, water, electricity, monetary currency, communication networks, identity cards and permits, medicine, building materials, and so much more. Israel continues to occupy Gaza through on-the-ground military incursions and through its technologies that seal Gaza: unmanned aerial drones, CCTV cameras, remote-controlled bulldozers and boats, F-16s and Apache helicopters constantly buzzing overhead, and, not only during times of heightened violence or explicit warfare. The limits and stunted mobility of Gaza are actively produced by Israel. Gaza is sealed with a buffer zone manned by military sensors, remote-controlled cameras mounted with made-to-kill artillery, and padded with electrified fences and concrete walls, created and enforced and expanded by the Israeli military, stretching as much as 3 kilometers into the Gaza Strip in certain areas, and encompassing, in total, 44% of Gaza’s entire land mass. Gaza is continuously and violently rendered smaller -- not only because one can’t get out, but because there is less and less space on the inside. But small here is not just a size, it is a condition. As Ilana Feldman writes in this volume, restrictions on Palestinian movement that have isolated the inhabitants of Gaza from the rest of the world, impeding their ability to live full lives, impairing the Palestinian political community, increasing distance, distrust, and ultimately division between the West Bank and Gaza (let alone the rest of Palestinians in Israel and beyond) are just part and parcel of the process of isolation that began with the creation of the “Strip” in 1948.

Concomitant to territorial, aerial, and maritime enclosure is the range of socio-economic and psychological impacts of the process of rendering Gaza isolated, impoverished, marginalized, always on the edge of collapse. As many of the contributors contend, this is not Gaza’s “natural” condition, nor a result of an abstract humanitarian crisis, but of policies practiced for decades to render Gaza marginal, to render its inhabitants, in the words of Haidar Eid, “unwanted Palestinians.” As importantly, each violent outburst on the part of the Israeli military is a moment in a much longer trajectory of colonialism and occupation. There is no doubt that Israel plays the lead role here, but by no means are others immune from blame, critique, and responsibility, both inside and outside the Palestinian nation: Egypt of course, but all other neighboring and regional countries, the entire international community of states and institutions, Palestinian elites, and, more recently, the Palestinian Authority.


If Gaza seems awash in apocalyptic metaphors, it is also, resolutely, a site of life and resistance. In the contributions by Helga Tawil-Souri, Khaled Hroub, and Selma Dabbagh, for example, the largesse of Gazan life is highlighted, focusing our eyes on Gaza as a site brimming with life and an insatiable will to survive, and even find new love. It is also a place where resistance to power and to processes of exclusion comes in different cultural forms, such as poetry, fiction, images and new historical critiques as Atef Alshaer, Dina Matar and Ilan Pappe write in this volume.

Discursive tools are, too, employed to keep a distance from understanding and unearthing this history. Metaphors, such as Gaza’s perpetual vulnerability, destitution, its need for the “drip-feed” of international aid and the “benevolence” of Arab states has also come to define Gaza, as have processes of structural and discursive externalization through which its Palestinian inhabitants have come to be treated as the Palestinian “other,” and through which it is seen as a negative space, or as a special kind of place that is, in essence, a problem.

Gaza has always been and remains a problem for Israel; as Tawil-Souri, Azoulay, Li, Bowman, and others write in this collection, Gaza will remain a “menace” to Israel, a blemish on its image, an eyesore it cannot keep hiding from the world – or, to turn an earlier metaphor on its head, it is that there are and continue to be Palestinians refugees (and so many of them) that remains evidence of a crime. Of course this menace is not simply one that arises out of the threat of Hamas rocket fire into Israeli areas, for example, which is the excuse Israel has been using more recently to justify its repeated violence and incursions. As is argued through the volume, Israel has used various forms of justification to isolate and quell Gaza for decades, all of which have had to do with, ultimately, preventing Palestinians from returning to their original homes, keeping them fragmented, in the hope that these processes would thwart – and eventually completely quell – the desire for return, liberation, or, quite simply, freedom. 

The history of Gaza’s resistance to occupation is well known and rehearsed in some of the essays in this volume. Gaza is the place from which the first Palestinian guerrilla operation inside Israel was mounted in 1955, resulting in an Israeli reprisal raid against an Egyptian military barracks north of Gaza City. From Gaza, too, came some of the key leaders of Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Gaza is also the place from which the first Palestinian intifada of 1987 began and where Hamas and other Islamist factions first took root. In Gaza, as Atef Alshaer, Nimer Sultany, Ramzy Baroud and other writers in this volume attest to, resistance is a historical inevitability, an existential necessity. The everyday actions and practices to resist and exist have also come to define Gaza’s relationship with Israel, as Li, Matar, Shehadeh, Alshaer and others in this volume demonstrate, as has, of course, Israel’s violence against it.

[Excerpted from Gaza as Metaphor, edited by Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar, by permission of the authors.]

[i] Atef Abu Saif, The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire. Comma Press, 2015, p. 45. 

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