# PALESTINE /// The Photograph as Judicial Evidence in the Context of Tear Gas Warfare


Tear gas canister shot directly at B’Tselem photographer Muhmmad ‘Awad by an I.D.F. officer (image B’Tselem)

Léopold Lambert – New York on December 26, 2013
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We have seen many times how the State of Israel and its army manage to maintain the status quo of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the incarceration of the Gaza strip, through the spectacle of sparing the “international” opinion (understand the opinion of countries that could actually do something against these conditions). In order to do so, the I.D.F. provides a simulacrum of submission to the international legislation (see past article “Law as a Colonial Weapon“), which disguise military practices that violate this legislation.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ban the use of “riot control agents” like tear gas or pepper spray in the context of international warfare. However, their use is not restricted for domestic conflicts and we have seen them used extensively by the various polices of the world in these last five years of social struggle (see past Funambulist Paper by Philippe Theophanidis about the “Biopolitics of Tear Gas Warfare“). As usual, the Israeli government takes advantage of the ambiguity of the status of Palestine to optimize the range of tolerated actions it undertakes. Depending on the situation, the situation is either presented as an international conflict — when Palestinian prisoners are being judged by military courts for example — or as a domestic problem — in the case of the civil colonization, or the use of these “riot control agents” on the other hand.

The recognized use of tear gas involves shooting the canister on the ground, its cloud then creating an unbearable atmosphere (bringing long-term health issues) that dissipates the crowd against which it is used. The I.D.F. uses tear gas on a quasi daily basis and has been often seen shooting canister directly at individuals. In 2009, peaceful demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahmeh was shot dead by such a canister aimed directly at his person by an Israeli soldier. More recently, Israeli NGO B’Tselem reported that one of its photographers, Muhmmad ‘Awad, had been targeted by an I.D.F. officer who shot a tear gas canister directly at him (see +972 Mag’s article for more information). Awad provided the powerful document visible above: a series of photographs that shows the canister leaving the officer’s weapon and sequentially reach the photographer.

It has been seen in the past that an expressive photograph can touch a vast amount of people; however, the emotion triggered by it is often misplaced, overwhelming the attention on the effect of a situation — Phan Thi Kim Phuc burnt by the American napalm in Vietnam is a quintessential example — rather than on its cause. Many Palestinian individual tragedies have thus created a sincere emotion thanks to a visual document, yet this emotion and its punctuality never challenged the status quo. This photograph of the tear gas canister ‘slowly’ and coldly reaching its author carries something less emotional, but for this same reason, succeeds to express something broader. In this case, the invisible photographer with whom the viewer identifies is no longer the voyeur in a situation that does not concern him/her, (s)he is the body attacked. The viewer can therefore identify to this fragile position. In the contrary of many war photographs, this one also refuses any other aesthetics than the one of the event itself, unfolding within its frame. This absence of any other dramatic conditions reflects the situation in its coldness, and therefore do no longer address the punctuality of an event, but rather the continuity of the occupation, lived on a daily basis by its subjects.

This coldness also allows this document to acquire the status of proof, that is the status of evidence in the context of a forensic investigation of this particular event.  This type of investigation has been developed by Goldsmiths collective Forensic Architecture (see past article) in the past in the case of Bassum Abu Rahmeh’s death already evoked above. Ballistic is known to be used as a search for evidence in the judicial context of firearm murders; it can also be investigated to both prove a violation of the legislation and to identify responsibilities in the context of (domestic or international) warfare. The ability for an increasing amount of people to access tools (phones, cameras etc.) that document the reality of a situation provide the accumulation of potential evidences to retrace the conditions of such an event. It would be a mistake to think that these documents carry an absolute objectivity in their production of evidences; however, none of the proofs (‘traditionally’ gathered or not) brought in the context of a judicial investigation can be said to own such an objectivity. It is through the accumulation, the interpretation and the articulation of these evidences that an objective judicial discourse can be enunciated.