Mohammad Sabaaneh’s Cartoons Reflect the Truth of Israeli Occupation

On political cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh’s Instagram account, you can find some of the most evocative depictions of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. One post shows the word “Gaza” being crushed by rockets that spell out “genocide”; another shows a Gazan child attempting to block an incoming bomb with a plate painted to resemble a bullseye. And there are countless more, each showing, in stark terms, the costs of war and apartheid. 

Sabaaneh, who currently lives in Ramallah in the West Bank, was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Kuwait in 1978. The political cartoons of Naji al-Ali, creator of the enduring Palestinian symbol Handala, were an important part of Sabaaneh’s childhood. He tells The Progressive that his mother “used Naji’s cartoons to educate me about Palestine while we were in Kuwait. That’s how I learned about Palestine and political cartoons.” 

Sabaaneh has worked as a cartoonist since 2002, with his art appearing in publications in Palestine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Jordan, and Lebanon. He has been a Middle East representative for Cartoonist Rights Network International since 2015, and the Palestinian ambassador for United Sketches since 2016. 

Sabaaneh, whose cartoons will appear in the next issue of the radical comics anthology World War 3 Illustrated, says that he works “under Israeli military censorship” and that the “threat of imprisonment is a constant reality, not just for cartoonists but for all Palestinians.” 

This is a threat Sabaaneh has faced directly: In February 2013, he was arrested and convicted in an Israeli military court because his brother, a member of Hamas, had published a book on Palestinian political prisoners that included some of Sabaaneh’s artwork. When accused of collaborating with Hamas, he told them “the collaboration was with [his] brother, not with Hamas.” (That brother, in military detention, was beaten by Israeli guards on October 7, Sabaaneh says. His glasses were broken during the beating. He was not given any replacement.) 

In 2018, Sabaaneh was detained again when returning to Ramallah from Europe. He was held for five hours, and Israeli forces confiscated a tapestry he was carrying with him. Nevertheless, Sabaaneh continued drawing. He took aim at the various indignities faced by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli military detention: They could not call loved ones, food was often withheld, and they received inadequate medical care. He was particularly incensed by the case of Maysara Abuhamdieh, who died of cancer in 2013 after prison doctors denied him proper treatment for his illness.

Although much of Sabaaneh’s work has appeared primarily in the Arabic language press, he has also contributed to English publications like The Nation and The Electronic Intifada. Two books of his work have been translated into English, the first being White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine, published in 2017. The book is a collection of previously published cartoons that follow al-Ali’s cartooning advice of “drawing situations and realities, not drawing leaders” by focusing on the institutional oppression that Palestinians face, from military checkpoints to the apartheid wall. Truthdig called White and Black a “dazzling book,” giving particular attention to Sabaaneh’s reworking of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, one of the great pieces of anti-war art. 

Sabaaneh’s second book published in English was 2021’s Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine. Inspired by his time in prison, the book is peppered with surrealistic imagery, such as when Sabaaneh looks at a giant globe, only to see that a prison cell has taken the place of the Earth, or when he is constricted by a giant snake whose head is a prison bus. In one scene, he speaks with a bird, who tells him, “You bring the pencil, and I will bring the stories.” This bird draws a connection between the narrator’s imprisonment and the Israeli occupation. “After watching real news about Palestine,” Sabaaneh told me, “do you think realistic illustrations and cartoons can reflect the truth?” 

Sabaaneh decided to work on Power Born of Dreams using a linocut process where images are carved into pieces of linoleum or wood, covered in paint, and then printed onto paper. He was influenced both by the work of World War 3 Illustrated’s Seth Tobocman and by his fellow prisoners, who carved their names and images into the prison walls. Since he found that he could not do the same, he “decided to carve their stories outside the prison.” 

Part of Sabaaneh’s goal with Power Born of Dreams was to inform Western audiences about what is being done in our name, with our military and political support. At a comics symposium held in New York City in May, Sabaaneh said that “The story is not over yet.” Near the end of his talk, he showed the audience some of his recent pieces. They are heartrending drawings of a girl who lost both hands to Israeli bombings, a boy mourning his dead father, and a father who left to buy candy for his son, only to discover upon returning that his son had been killed. 

“As a Palestinian, the cartoon is my contribution to this liberation movement,” Sabaaneh says. “We are human beings and deserve our rights.”