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Peter van Agtmael: A Decade of Documenting Israel and Palestine

The photographer shares a selection of images from 2012 to 2023 and a short essay. Warning: this article includes graphic content.

Mohammed (also known as Abu Yazzem) in the door of his home. Residents of Nabi Saleh have been protesting the Israeli Occupation every Friday after midday prayers since 2009. The protests started a (...)

I was drawn to Israel by family and to Palestine through friendship. I’ve been trying to excavate the many layers of the conflict for more than a decade, with many years of work to come. How do you tell the story of an endless war? What are the duties and responsibilities of a journalist in a war that is as much about information as it is bullets and bombs?

A few days after the October 7 attacks, I was standing on top of a hill overlooking Gaza when I was asked for my thoughts by a journalist I’d just met. Not knowing the person or the implication of the question, I responded neutrally, “It’s complicated.” She started shouting at me that Hamas was a bunch of bloodthirsty cowards who provoked the conflict, murdered children and any response by Israel was justified. She said I was a fool and a coward for not immediately acknowledging that. 

I’m trying to hold onto more than one truth simultaneously right now, a private act of grieving. My days in the Kibbutzim after October 7 and interviews with survivors and first responders are amongst the most harrowing I’ve seen and heard in decades of covering conflict. Outside a container packed with bodies, an Israeli forensics specialist on the verge of a nervous breakdown described the telltale signs of sexual assault on murdered teenage partygoers.  The father of a dead 8-year-old punched the air in an unhinged fit of ecstasy and grief as his sunken, quavering mouth talked about his relief when he discovered his daughter was killed rather than a hostage. A week later, he found out he’d been given the wrong information, that she’s being held hostage after all. In Paris, I passed by a half-torn down picture of her. 

An engagement party after Friday clashes against Israeli security forces. Nabi Saleh, Occupied West Bank, 2012. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Protestors run away as Israeli soldiers fire tear gas at them. Every Friday after prayers, a mix of Palestinian and International activists march on gathered Israeli security forces. The peaceful p (...)
Weekly protest. Nabi Saleh, Occupied West Bank, 2012 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A Palestinian boy after getting tear gassed during weekly protests against the occupation. Nabi Saleh, Occupied West Bank, 2013. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A bullet hole from the Second Intifada in the house of an Israeli settler. Hebron, Occupied West Bank, 2013. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Palestinian school children watch Purim in Hebron. Settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers as they parade and dance through areas populated by Palestinians. Hebron, Occupied West Bank, 2014. © P (...)
Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem during clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli border police during the 2014 war with Gaza. Jerusalem, Israel, August 2014. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnu (...)
The family of Anas Al-Atrash, a young Palestinian man killed at a checkpoint between Jenin and Hebron. He was returning from work at his father's shoe store. Al-Atrash was studying accounting at un (...)
A resident of Nabi Saleh. Nabi Saleh, Occupied West Bank, 2013. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A performance of “The Siege” by the Freedom Theatre of Jenin. The play looks at the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the Second Intifada. The Freedom Theatre is a Palestinian (...)
The family waiting area of Ofer Prison, which houses many Palestinians arrested for resistance activities against the Israeli occupation. Ofer, Occupied West Bank, 2013. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnu (...)
An Eritrean wedding. There are approximately 20,000 Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, who tend to occupy the lowest socioeconomic rung in society. Tel Aviv, Israel, 2015. © Peter van Agtmael / Mag (...)
Three minutes of silence to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). Tel Aviv, Israel, 2015. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Caliber 3 is a training center in the West Bank that trains police officers, private security guards, and settlers as well as offering courses to tourists. Gush Etzion, Occupied West Bank, Palestin (...)
An advertisement for a television station during the 2014 war. The sign reads “Iron Dome in front of the World Media.” Jerusalem, Israel, 2014. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from July 8 to August 26, 2014, killing 2,251 Palestinians of which 1,462 (...)
Two men warm themselves by a fire in the destroyed Shujai'iya neighborhood. Gaza, 2014. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
The funeral of Avraham Walz, 29, killed in an attack earlier that day by a Palestinian in a stolen digger. Six Israelis were injured and the assailant, identified as Muhammed Naif el-Ja’abis. Walz (...)
A procession for two teenagers, Luay Kaheel, 16, and Amir al-Nimra, 15, killed in an Israeli airstrike. Gaza City, Gaza, 2018. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
The Najar family in their destroyed home. Operation Protective Edge lasted from July 8 to August 26, 2014, killing 2,251 Palestinians of which 1,462 are believed to be civilians. 67 Israeli soldier (...)
Zvi Sukot, spokesperson for the Israeli settlement Yitzhar, at home with his daughters. Yitzhar is known for its hardline nationalistic views and is often in confrontation with nearby Palestinian v (...)
A building damaged by a rocket fired by Hamas in Ashkelon. The 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. 13 people were killed in Israel, including tw (...)
Children in a bomb shelter during Operation Protective Edge. Since 1991, houses have been mandated to be built with bomb shelters, but in the older neighborhoods, communal bomb shelters are still i (...)
The Kerem Shalom border crossing separating Israel from Gaza. Humanitarian aid is transferred through this crossing. Normally 250 trucks pass through a day, during the war it has increased to 300 t (...)

In the weeks, now stretching into months, that have followed, I wait every day for news from Gaza. One day it was photos of the ruined garden where I spend evenings when I visit. The parents of a friend lived in an old Ottoman house, and always insisted I join for dinner after the work day was done. We’d chat, surrounded by roses. One day three Hamas guards came by to investigate why I was there. My friend’s father chased them down the street, yelling it was none of their business who he invited over for dinner. Now the house has been destroyed, they have fled south, but are still trapped in Gaza. 

Or the story of a former student photographing in a hospital, peering at every screaming bloody face to see if it is one of her sons. Another friend sends a proof of life selfie with his daughters to our group chat when he has internet, growing more haggard and desperate with every message. Most of his days are endless searches for a few drops of water and some scraps of food, thankful for the simple miracle of survival. 

The Kerem Shalom border crossing separating Israel from Gaza. Humanitarian aid is transferred through this crossing. Normally 250 trucks pass through a day, during the war it has increased to 300 t (...)
A watermelon stand after the 11-day 2021 war. Gaza, 2021. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Family and friends mourn two teenagers, Luay Kaheel, 16, and Amir al-Nimra, 15, killed in an Israeli airstrike. Gaza City, Gaza, 2018. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A store selling dresses continues to operate next to the ruins of the destroyed Al-Shorouq tower. The 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. 13 peo (...)
The divided neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Israelis are steadily trying to push out the Palestinian residents. In May 2021, a threatened court ruling to evict four families from S (...)
The annual meeting of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group that raises money for candidates who they believe will vote in accordance with Israeli intere (...)
A building damaged by a rocket fired by Hamas in Ashkelon. The 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. 13 people were killed in Israel, including 2 (...)
The Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, the site of a 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists. Israeli Defense Forces had surrounded the camp and o (...)
A Palestinian refugee holds up the shirt her son was wearing when he was killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila and neighboring Sabra were the site of a 1 (...)
A Palestinian child sleeps under an olive tree during the harvest. Palestine, October 2020. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Soldiers take cover in a bunker during a rocket attack on a refreshment station set up for soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces near Netivot, a town near the Gaza Strip. Iron Dome missiles interc (...)
Protestors flee police water cannons and charging horses during a night of mass protest after the Knesset passed the Judicial Reform bill. Following six months of protests, on July 24, the Israel (...)
Opponents of Judicial reform clash with police after the Knesset passed the bill. A large number of protestors blocked a major highway. After failing to clear the protestors from the road, the poli (...)
Tom, a survivor of the massacre in Kibbutz Be’Eri. His ex-wife was killed and Emily, his eight-year-old daughter, is missing. Survivors of the massacre in Kibbutz Be’Eri have been relocated to the (...)
Dan. Survivors of the massacre in Kibbutz Be’Eri have been relocated to the David Dead Sea Resort and Spa. Ein Bokek, Israel, October 2023. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A mass funeral on Mount Herzl of Israeli soldiers killed during the October 7 attacks at the cemetery. Jerusalem, October 2023. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
A forensics specialist recounts identifying mangled and mutilated bodies during an information session as part of a press tour of Shura Base, where the victims of the October 7 attacks are being id (...)
Outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, the faces and names of Israelis kidnapped on October 7 are plastered on the walls and family members keep a constant vigil. Tel Aviv, Israel, October 20 (...)
Stars of David painted on walls of the Palestinian quarter of the Old City by Jewish residents. Israelis are steadily trying to push Palestinians out eastwards towards the occupied territories. Jer (...)

Scroll scroll, a Palestinian baby missing half its face is pulled from the rubble, scroll scroll, a Japanese choir sings “Ose shalom” waving Israeli and Japanese flags, scroll scroll, a series of grumpy cats making faces, scroll scroll, a Hamas fighter in a mask rocks a carriage holding a kidnapped Israeli baby, scroll scroll, a recipe for tuna tartare. I’ve had to shut down my social media for my own sanity.

At a moment when every side seems to demand you choose a team or take a loyalty oath, I am continuing my deliberate approach.  We get nowhere but deeper into the mess of our own rage and grief by dehumanizing people. What are we so afraid of? 

Yet in the images of the violence we are also reminded of the asymmetrical and often indiscriminate nature of the conflict. So far, there are more than 1,200 dead Israelis, and at least 14,000 dead Palestinians. 

When you care about people on both sides, there aren’t many people to talk to and everyone seems to think you are a traitor. But I’m not sure there was ever real peace without compromise and understanding, so I hold onto my beliefs, born from two decades of covering war. The truth of my convictions has come from them being tested, again and again. In response to these challenges, they strengthen, shift, or weaken. I believe there is little strength to a conviction that cannot withstand complexity or counterevidence. 

One thing is very clear — the role of the professional photojournalist is much diminished. The witnesses, the perpetrators and the survivors with camera phones now dominate the making of the first draft of history, and it has been this way for some time. 

When made by the offenders, the propaganda acts as both evidence and a crude and violent form of intimidation. But when the horrors are seen by innocents caught in the middle who have the fortitude to keep filming (and it is almost always video), their record is often the only document of the raw disasters of war, unfiltered by the sensibilities of the media. 

For myself, I’m trying to use the stories and emotions of reporting in the field alongside rigorous critical thinking to scrutinize history and the present and make a more rounded and measured understanding. It seems a very modest and perhaps futile act in the face of so much madness and grief, but one always worth attempting. I’m trying to see clearly with deep feeling and a minimum of hatred. It can be a struggle. 

Meanwhile the cycle of violence continues, with no end in sight. I always try to think about what might be next, but now I’m afraid of my thoughts.

More on this:

Three Voices From Palestine Curated by Myriam Boulos

From the Archive: Israel and Palestine

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