Palestinian's keen caricatures keep censors occupied
GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP
As a child, she drew on scraps of paper, the walls of her house, anything she could find. Now, Omayya Joha's cartoons express the suffering and sense of victimization of an entire nation.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Joha works in the war-torn and destitute Gaza Strip, where life is often crueler than anything fiction could conjure up. Last week, she showed a small Palestinian boy - barefoot, as many Gaza children are - saluting the Palestinian flag to start the schoolday. He was surrounded by six Israeli tanks and an army bulldozer. It was a harrowing image from the refugee camps, entire sections of which have been leveled by tanks and bulldozers in what the army says are operations to remove potential cover for Palestinian snipers.
A few days later, last Thursday, life mirrored her art in horrific fashion: Five Palestinian boys were killed as they walked to school by a powerful explosive device in Khan Yunis refugee camp. After hesitating, the Israeli army confirmed it had planted the device in what it said was a position used by Palestinian fighters to attack settlers. The area is traversed daily by civilians in view of a nearby army post.
Israel is not the only culprit for the oppressed Palestinian and Muslim masses Joha identifies with. A few days ago, she had a reporter ask an obese Arab leader, dressed in the flowing robes of the Gulf countries, for a comment on continued bombings in Afghanistan during the sacred month of Ramadan. "Not while I'm fasting," came the reply.
Such cartoons last year earned the youthful Joha an award in the United Arab Emirates as the best cartoonist for a newspaper in the Arab world. Joha believes the Palestinian struggle should continue until Israel is replaced by a Palestinian state and all refugees return to former villages, many of which have long since become Israeli towns.
Like the renowned Palestinian cartoonist Naji Ali, who was her model, Joha's identification with the oppressed stems from her uncompromising views from her own refugee background. Her family hails from Mukhraka village, just inside Israel, and today the site of an Israeli collective farm.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians start their day with her cartoons, which have been published since 1999 on the back page of Al Quds, the most popular Palestinian newspaper. A recurring theme is the suffering of the common Palestinian at the hands of Israel and the United States, and the indifference and hypocrisy of the Arab regimes.
In a political culture and climate where censorship has always been heavy, Palestinian cartoonists are seen by their print colleagues and the public as having leeway for greater freedom of expression than writers. But there are limits. Naji Ali allowed himself to criticize top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Yasser Arafat in the Kuwaiti Al Qabas daily. He was assassinated near his office in London in 1987 by unknown assailants. Many Palestinians believe the killing was the work of the PLO or the Mossad or both. Ali continues to be revered as a martyr, especially in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Joha believes she is in a more secure situation than Naji Ali was, in part because the Internet provides her with supportive feedback from people all over the world, fortifying her courage.