It is impossible to come to Gaza and not notice the drawings and murals that fill the walls along the streets of the Strip. Ever since the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, graffiti has served as a sort of diary open to all. But no longer.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has launched a campaign to clean and beautify the walls and streets of Gaza City.
At first glance this would seem a strange priority for the Palestinian Authority, but the fact that it is a priority speaks volumes about the power of graffiti and the contradictary nature of propaganda. It also gives a stark example of how the control of public space and public discourse is in fact a fight for political hegemony.
Check out the shifting understanding of the utilitarian value of graffiti. During the spontaneous and mostly non-violent first intifada:
During the late 1980s when the Gaza Strip was under Israeli military occupation, Israel banned any Palestinian publications not following military censorship rules. Speaking about the occupation, mentioning Palestine or even drawing the national flag were serious crimes that were harshly punishable.
As a result Palestinian militant groups resorted to the only means available to them to inform Palestinians of their operations and to express their opinions freely: graffiti.
Soon, the walls of the Gaza Strip became the Palestinians’ national newspaper, reporting news about the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) abroad, attacks on Israeli soldiers or the date of the next demonstration or strike. The graffiti-ridden walls also served as an obituary and a congratulations page all at once.
But, now that the PA is in charge:
Officials at Gaza Municipality, which is spearheading the cleaning campaign, say that the era of “wall newspapers” has ended with the end of the Israeli occupation.
“We are not under Israeli military administration anymore, so there is no need to ruin Gaza’s special aesthetic with graffiti,” Majdi Abu Shaaban of Gaza Municipality’s public relations department said.
“We have our own newspapers, radios and TV stations to announce everything, so continued graffiti spraying on walls would be considered vandalism,” he added.
Writing on walls was considered a subversive activity if it was critical of the PA, and for several years after the PA took root in Gaza in 1994, Palestinians believed that the messages were appropriate as long as their content attacked the Israeli occupation, but they shunned the use of graffiti as a means to criticize their own government.
This is revealing of the particular tension that happens when a movement against those in charge finally takes charge. Political expression is reined in as the nationalism fueled by hatred for the old oppressor is channeled into patriotism and faith in the new rulers. It reminds me of the ways in which early Soviet poster designs, intially bursting with revolutionary egalitarian energy, was twisted into cult-of-personality authoritarianism under Stalin (the best book on this is Building the Collective, sadly out of print).
As a sidenote, the article also makes clear that no matter where you go, politicians all basically think alike:
As a clear sign of the importance of this campaign, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei showed up on the first day wearing a white T-shirt and a white baseball cap, and then took a paint roller and started erasing a slogan scribbled by his Fatah movement.
…as do home owners:
“Of course, I understand the value of graffiti and the posters of fallen Palestinians to our people,” he says. “But I don’t understand why they have to ruin my wall.”
Photo at top from Reuters, via Middle East Times.