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.
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.
Still, being a cartoonist in the Palestinian territories is not easy. Unlike colleagues whose newspapers are published in Ramallah, Joha must contend daily with censorship from Israeli authorities because Al Quds is published in East Jerusalem, an area declared by Israel as part of its sovereign territory. And Al Quds, according to Palestinian journalists, although officially independent, is in practice heavily influenced by the Palestinian Authority and anxious to maintain its working relations with Israel, Palestinian journalists say. That has a direct impact on the writers and Joha, the journalists say.
"The Israeli censorship has translated into a kind of self-censorship for the newspaper," Joha said. "I send in the cartoon and the paper calls me and tells me I have to remove things. There is a negotiation, and sometimes it doesn't work out," Joha says. Sometimes no cartoon appears in the paper - a sign, she says, that agreement could not be reached. Cartoons that do not make it often end up on Joha's website, www.omayya.com.
On Sept. 13, Joha placed on the Web a cartoon of buildings shaped in the letters USA going up in smoke and a group of what she calls "oppressed Arabs" standing nearby. They were happy.
"When I drew it, there were a lot of massacres by Israel with American-supplied weapons," she explains. "Everyone was angry at America. The feeling was that this calms people's anger. After I thought more and more, I felt these are innocent people and did not deserve what happened to them." She quickly pulled the cartoon, but not before eliciting death threats from American viewers.
It is on the theme of refugees that Joha's efforts are most severely disrupted by the Israeli censor, she says. Her leading character, Abu A'id (Father of Return), is an old man who always carries around his neck the key to the house he lost during Israel's creation in 1948. But the Israeli censor does not allow the key to appear in Al Quds, Joha says. "For them the key is like a knife." Abu A'id has his key only on the Internet.
Joha says she has never been censored by the Palestinian Authority, but adds: "I know what pictures will make problems. So if there is an issue that the authority itself is talking about, that encourages me to do it."
Joha says she "does not make fun of or make people laugh at" Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. "It's out of respect for him; he is the president."
Her cartoons sometimes show Arafat as angry and frustrated from American policies. Once she was told that she had drawn Arafat's lips too big. "Sometimes the paper tells me to change part of the picture, that maybe he will be upset with us," she said.
While she has achieved unusual success for a woman in Palestinian society, Joha is not a women's rights campaigner. Any change in the status of women should be "in accordance with an Islamic point of view," she says.
Joha's cartoons have attracted attention in Israel. "When I see her cartoons, I feel she knows much more than is printed," says Moti Kedar, an Arabic language specialist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "She provides a mirror for what is really agonizing the people. This makes her miserable. She reflects the real situation on the street better than anyone who writes."