“Here, the child and the sheikh die and we do not give up. A mother falls on her dead children and we do not give up.”
These words, by Samih Al-Qasim, a luminary poet who talks of the Palestinian resistance, have been painted by Palestinian artist Belal Khaled on to an unexploded missile in Gaza.
They are applied in a thick braiding calligraphy that winds around the weapon – one of hundreds fired into the besieged city during the latest flare-up of violence between Israel and Palestine. More than 250 people were killed in the fighting and almost 2,000 injured.
"It fell on the home of a family in central Gaza," Khaled tells The National. "Thank God it did not explode. The losses would have been devastating if it did."
Hours after the missile fell, Khaled donned a safety helmet and a navy blue vest like those worn by journalists in conflict zones and rushed to the scene.
With a broad, flat brush in one hand and a disposable cup brimming with white paint in the other, he stooped over the weapon, scribing Al-Qasim's verse on its iron husk. Above him, F16 jets tore through the sky and explosions broke nearby ground.
Choosing what to paint on the missile wasn't difficult. The message, Khaled says, had to be forthright and clear, that "in spite of everything, in spite of the missiles that fall on our houses, we will not give up. That as a people of this land, we will not surrender".
Khaled’s work also has an alchemical motive to it. The artist, who prefers painting on cars, walls and everyday objects to canvas, says he wanted to transform the missile, “this device of destruction”, into an art piece. To disarm the weapon with calligraphy.
“I wanted to make something beautiful out of this ugliness. I wanted to find life and beauty in the midst of all this death and destruction.”
Though the missile has been removed since the May 21 ceasefire, Khaled's work has been immortalised in a number of photographs that have since gone viral.
One picture shows people of all ages huddled around Khaled, watching attentively as he paints on the missile.
“The missile transformed afterwards. it turned into something else,” he says. “First it was something scary, something that instilled fear, but then it became an artwork. It lost its scariness. People started posing for photographs beside it. The calligraphy turned it into something natural.”
Khaled sees a commonality between what he does as an artist and as a photojournalist. In both those roles, he says he wants the world to see another side of Gaza – one in which its persistence is not only exhibited in its battle for its right of self-determination against the Israeli onslaught, but also in its ability to sprout beauty from amid the ugliness of war.
“In Gaza, we are surrounded by ugliness, blood, death, and destruction,” he says. “But we want to show the beauty of Gaza, show the music, the dabke and the art. All the beautiful things that can come out of this city that is suppressed by death.”
Khaled's work as a photojournalist is as stirring as it is relevant. One of his images shows a group of schoolgirls huddled behind the open door of a bomb-wrecked car, smiling and holding up peace signs. He shows pupils drawing on blackboards pockmarked and punctured by blasts. In another, he shows a child hanging up clothes on a laundry line, a Gaza devastated by air strikes in the background.
The pictures, published in esteemed publications such as Time, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, show not only the struggle Palestinians in Gaza face under constant Israeli threat and siege, but also the perseverance of positivity and daily life.
In every one of his works both as a photojournalist and as an artist, Khaled says he is aware of representing Palestine, the struggles of its people and their persistence.
"I want to tell the world of our country and our art," he says. His work has taken him around the world, including to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "I've covered three wars in Gaza," he says. "It is the artists and photographers who are out there to show the world what is happening. It is up to them to document the pain of the people, their resistance and struggle," he says.
“We always wonder whether it’s the last time we’re out, whether this work is the last in an artist or journalist’s life, whether a bullet or missile will stop his work.”
Khaled previously covered the 2014 conflict in Gaza, where he superimposed several pictures of bombardments with sketches of horses on the plumes of rising black smoke. Though he now lives in Turkey, he says he is going to continue spending time in Gaza for the foreseeable future to document the post-war landscape.
There has been a noticeable change in the tone of public reaction to the latest events, he says. "The world is more aware who is the assaulter and who is being assaulted; who is the oppressor and who is oppressed."
He says art and photography were instrumental in pulling the curtain back on the daily tragedies unfolding in Palestine.
“We managed to earn the support of the international community through photographs and art from Gaza, Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah.”