Paradise belongs to everyone

The cult of Martyrs in occupied Palestinian territories

They are all over the place on the West Bank of the Jordan and they look at you from walls, in bus shelters and on lampposts: the Palestinian martyrs. Photographer Sander Buyck and journalist Ward Schouppe went to Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin and to the villages and camps around these cities to better understand this obsession with martyrdom. A story about special ways of dying and about logos on memorial posters.

Most posters on the West Bank of the Jordan are so weathered that the dead they commemorate are all but unrecognisable. Most martyrs look like ordinary citizens although some are portrayed as armed men in battle dress in front of the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. All these dead are fading witnesses, perpetrators or victims of violence, conflict and injustice. They lived in the neighbourhood where now their image is withering, or they were prominent politicians like Yasser Arafat. The posters’ lay-out is simple: a portrait with a name, the date of their death, a logo of a political party or militia. From time to time a verse from the Koran has been added. An old man in the refugee camp of Jenin summarizes: ‘We leave the posters, years on end. And even if they weather, no one will change or remove them. If they loosen or fall to the ground, we put them up again. We have great respect for our shahideen.’

The turbulent years of the Intifadas on the West Bank are over, yet still today the number of martyrs is steadily growing. When Moussa Kadora, the governor of Jenin died of a heart attack in May last year, he was commemorated as a real shaheed in his home town. Posters with his image were spread all over town. Conflicts outside the occupied Palestinian territories too keep on producing martyrs. Palestinian exiles who die in conflicts in neighbouring countries are treated with the same respect as the residents of the Palestinian territories. In 2011 the Israeli border police opened fire on Palestinian refugees who were trying to flee the Syrian civil war, seeking refuge in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Fifteen Palestinians lost their lives. One of them was Inas Shreitah, born in the refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus. Her family in Jatta near Hebron received a martyr’s poster by e-mail. With the help of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine the poster was spread in Inas’ parents’ native town. ‘Without that e-mail we wouldn’t have known how Inas looked. Our family here had never really known her. But out of respect for her martyrdom we will put up the commemorative posters.’ says her nephew Imad.

In a refugee camp near Bethlehem we see a remarkable poster representing two boys. Inhabitants of the camp tell us that they were two eleven year old classmates who drowned in irrigation ponds nearby in 2009. Why then are they martyrs ? What do they have to do with the conflict? The mother of Azzedin (one of the boys) explains: ‘A martyr is someone who dies in an unusual way. Drowned, dead in a fire, or soldiers fallen in combat, they are all martyrs. Allah said so.’ Even some Palestinians who died of heart failure, cancer or in a car crash are commemorated as shahideen.

Hamas next to Fatah

Omar Al-Akad owns a medium-sized printshop in Ramallah. ‘Most of the posters I print are for deceased who were a member of a political party or a militant movement. The party or the militia are responsible for having the martyr posters made and spread. The deceased would have wished so anyhow.’ Omar says 1000 copies of a shaheed from Ramallah costs about 150 shekels (30 euros). Only for persons of national renown like Arafat are more copies printed. ‘Although I have the greatest respect for our martyrs, the customer pays the expenses. I have to earn some money too you see.’

Khalida Jarrar, an active member of the PFLP, confirms that the party pays the expense of the prints. ‘If a member of the party dies or is killed, we make a commemorative poster. It is a tradition in Palestine, it is a tribute really. Everyone respects these posters, even if one has different political views.’ The PFLP has ties with the Abu Ali Mustafa brigades (an armed militia). For Israel and the West these groups are terrorist organizations. Jarrar says martyr posters for fallen members of the brigade are paid for by private persons, not by the PFLP. ‘Other political parties do the same’, she adds.

In Al-Khader near Bethlehem we visit the family of Rami Moussa. A sixteen year old schoolboy, he was killed during the shelling of the village in 2001. The Moussa’s living room is arranged in typical Palestinian style : plenty of setees, a big picture of the Dome of the Rock in the centre, lots of family photos. Two different martyr posters of Rami adorn the walls. One with a Fatah-logo shows a friendly looking young lad, the Hamas one pictures Rami with a kalashnikov over his shoulder, in the background the golden Dome of the Rock glows.

Questioned about this poster, the family reacts oddly. ‘No photo! They only fitted his head to another body! This is not Rami! Rami was an innocent child!’ says his mother. Then why the poster is such a distinct presence? ‘We got the poster from Hamas, we can’t remove it, we’d be in trouble’, she whispers. Clearly the family is cautious about what they say.

The logo of the Fatah party graces the poster of the drowned children from Bethlehem : two crossed guns with Palestinian flags over the outline of the Palestinian state, on a yellow background. Azzedin’s mother sympathises with Fatah and doesn’t object: ‘My husband is a party member, the militants supported us after the accident ánd they had the posters made. They stayed to help arrange the funeral. To us, the martyr poster above all has a social meaning.’

In the refugee camp Diheisheh near Bethlehem we talk to a man who has connections within the highest political ranks. That’s why he prefers to remain anonymous. He confirms some political parties have a keen interest in martyrdom. Having many martyrs can prove to be an electoral advantage for a party. It shows they are the one and only real Palestinian party, prepared to anysacrifice for her ideals. But even if some of the deceased weren’t party adherents, but accidental civil victims, they are sometimes changed into a party martyr. To further stress the heroism some will use Photoshop. This is done at the print shop, or at private homes.’


When our interpreter tries to find a printer or photographer who edits photos or posters before they are printed , we meet with a lot of resistance. Omar Al-Akad from the printshop in Ramallah says he doesn’t put logos on photos without permission. Editing photos is altogether out of the question. ‘We don’t do this. We don’t edit, we don’t add. We always use the photos as they come. I think such edits don’t show much respect to the martyrs. That’s manipulating the truth.’ He claims not to know any printer who does edit. But he will print the occasional fixed photos showing martyrs in battle dress or with arms.

Then who does edit the photos before they are delivered to the printer? Most witnesses say it is done by covert one-man businesses. Clearly this form of political propaganda is steered from the dark corners of Palestinian society. It is hard to tell how many martyr posters are fixed since the printers don’t keep copies of their work. Anyway most Palestinians we talk with don’t approve of these manipulations.

Manipulation afterwards isn’t always necessary. Sometimes the photos are prepared during life, to be used on a poster later. Many young activists have their martyr photo taken in obscure studios. The story of Khamis Jarwan a suicide terrorist who blew himself up in a supermarket in Tel Aviv in 2003, is telling . His father recounts: ‘Three months before the attack Khamis came home with six photos. He asked his mother which one she preferred. She chose one, asked why he wanted to know. Khamis simply answered: “I want to use it after I become a martyr.”’ Khamis’ were ordinary portrait photos.

Others will pose in battle dress. Raed Karmi, a zealous militant of the Al-Aqsa brigade was well prepared for his martyrdom. Visiting his widow, we get to see photos with Karmi proudly posing with kalashnikovs. On some pictures he holds a weapon in one hand, his baby daughter in the other. Discomfiting images. Yet it is not so surprising that real militants reckon with death. It is much more striking that many ordinary young men pose with fake weapons in improvised studios. ‘You never know if you’re next’ they tell us by way of explanation.

Political annexation

Palestinians on the West Bank actively commemorate their martyrs. It doesn’t matter whether the dead are muslim or christian, militant or civilian, young or old. The once religious aspect has made way for nationalistic motives. The meaning of the word shaheed has thoroughly eroded as it is used today for every Palestinian who dies unexpectedly.

Martyr posters are paid for and spread by family or political parties and militias and almost all bear a political logo. Parties strive to support the families who lost dear ones, all the while promoting themselves as a real Palestinian nationalistic movement willing to make sacrifices. For this, some parties or private persons will edit photos to enhance the militant aspect.

The ever present (threat of) violence in Palestinian society, the arbitrariness of death and the political annexation of civil victims as icons for the national struggle are all contributing to the great impact the martyr cult has on civil society, not only on the West Bank, but in the whole of occupied Palestinian territories. Without a doubt this glorification is a way to make sense of life in a hopeless conflict, to feel one is contributing to a bigger scheme of things . In the Palestinian territories, believing in a nation has all but become a religion in itself, its centre piece is self- sacrifice for a higher cause: Palestine.

This article is part of an artistic journalistic project ‘Rendez-vous au Paradis’ by photographer Sander Buyck with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund. The exhibition shows the personal tales of twelve ‘martyrs’ with unique visual material and interviews with family members and friends. Until 9th June ‘13 inDrongenhofkap, Patershol (Drongenhof 15), Ghent.
See also websites / containing the complete archive of martyr posters.


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