The Camera as Witness


By Alex Levac

On April 13, 1984, four young Palestinians commandeered bus number 300 as it made its way from Tel Aviv to the southern city of Ashkelon, and forced it to Dir el-Ballah, a small town in the northern Gaza Strip which at the time was under Israeli occupation. There the bus was surrounded by soldiers and police. Just before sunrise, after an all-night standoff, crack troops stormed the bus, turning the silent pre-dawn into a delirium of screaming, gunfire, and explosions that lasted several minutes.

With other photographers and reporters who had evaded police roadblocks to get to the scene, I ran toward the noise in the near total darkness. Suddenly, I found myself confronting two men who alternated between dragging and propping up a third person. Convinced that he was one of the many passengers rescued from the bus, I snapped just one picture. The two men were on me instantly, demanding that I surrender the film from my camera. With a sleight of hand, I managed to give them an unused roll, and they were on their way.

On the journey back to Tel Aviv, I heard the army spokesman telling Israeli radio that one passenger had been killed, a few had been wounded, and the rest rescued unharmed. He said that two of the Palestinian hijackers had died in the raid and that two others had been captured when the troops stormed the bus. However, an hour later, the next news broadcast reported that all four hijackers had died when the troops stormed the bus. And that version became the official government line.

It wasn’t until I developed the film that I realized why the men in the picture, members of the Shin Bet—the domestic security service—wanted my film. The man they were dragging off, I discovered to my astonishment, wasn’t a passenger at all. He was one of the hijackers—young, handcuffed to his captors, and very much alive. At least one of the Palestinians had survived the raid. The picture was proof that the security officials had lied. The truth peered out from the eyes of this young Palestinian, bound but living. Here was a man who only a short time earlier had been terrorizing a bus full of passengers and striking fear in the hearts of all Israelis.

The more I looked, the more complete his transformation had become from an abhorrent figure to a pitiful one—a man in need of protection from the two Shin Bet agents guarding him. Moments earlier the agents had been heroes rescuing passengers on a bus. Now, standing on either side of their captive, they were the bad guys. Does the knowledge of impending death shape our judgment? From the moment of his death, the Palestinian became a reflection of our own mortal image. Are we to erase him from our collective memory and let him disappear under a mound of earth, or do we raise his ghost and grapple with his right to live, to be tried, to be a human being?

Every photojournalist wants to make an impact, wants his picture to be worth a thousand words. The power of my photograph of the Palestinian hijacker escorted to his death by his Shin Bet captors is drawn from what the observer does not see but is compelled to imagine—the moment the agents crush the Palestinian’s skull with a stone, the moment of death.

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