"Draw Until Palestine is Free" - Mohamed Moataz's Murals of Solidarity

Written by Andi Schmitz

On the walls of the 1,000-year-old neighborhood Al-Khalifa, tucked indiscriminately into a corner of Cairo, Egypt, are murals depicting solidarity with the Palestinian people. Al-Khalifa is known for its religious and historical significance; the existence of the murals painted by artist Mohamed Moataz is an expression of the Egyptian people’s sense of unity with the Arab community. Despite the government’s ban on public protesting, Egyptians have turned out in numbers to rally their support for the Palestinians in Gaza. The Israeli war against Gaza has continued since October 7, 2023 when Hamas launched an attack on Israeli civilians. The subsequent war has resulted in the deaths of over 30,000 Palestinian civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and the death toll is still climbing, with impending imminent famine threatening further lives.

Art by Mohamed Moataz

As the Israeli government continues its bombing of Gaza, including self-declared safe zones, hundreds of thousands of displaced people are crowding into the southern city of Rafah, which borders Egypt. With the looming threat of Israel’s ground offensive in Rafah and without clear plans for the evacuation of the displaced Palestinians, the situation continues to escalate. Despite the desperate need for humanitarian aid and the growing concerns surrounding the health and safety of the Palestinians in Rafah, the Egyptian government has opposed allowing refugees to enter the Sinai Peninsula.

This has been the stance of the Egyptian government since the 1967 Six-Day War when the Israeli military captured Gaza, which had been under the administration of Egypt for almost two decades. Currently, Egypt has begun building a “buffer zone” along its Sinai border, indicating the country is potentially preparing for the displacement of Palestinians. Egypt has continued to attempt to provide aid to the Palestinians in Rafah, contending with various blockades by the Israeli military. However, the question of why remains, especially to those unfamiliar with the long-standing tensions within the region. Why won’t Egypt open its borders, given the mounting severity of the situation in Rafah?

This has been the stance of the Egyptian government since the 1967 Six-Day War when the Israeli military captured Gaza, which had been under the administration of Egypt for almost two decades. Currently, Egypt has begun building a “buffer zone” along its Sinai border, indicating the country is potentially preparing for the displacement of Palestinians.

According to U.N. figures, Egypt already houses about nine million refugees. It has repeatedly insisted that an exodus of besieged Palestinians is, as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called it, “totally unacceptable.” The fear on the part of the Egyptian government is that allowing Palestinians into Sinai would result in permanent displacement from their homeland, with Israel not allowing them to return to Gaza.  Shoukry has noted that transferring Gazans to Egyptian territory would be a violation of international humanitarian law and “an effort to liquidate the Palestinian cause.”

The hesitation on the part of the Egyptian government can be understood within the context of its past conflicts with Israel and its interest in homeland security; however, it is hard to accept when there are daily reminders of the atrocities the Palestinians are facing. Mass protests have been continuing across the globe in support of Gaza and condemnation of Israel’s actions in the region and their attacks on hospitals and schools under the guise of self-defense.

Art by Mohamed Moataz

The murals painted by 26-year-old Moataz include depictions of the Palestinian flag standing erect behind the Dome of the Rock, a gold-domed Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, and a face shrouded in a Palestinian keffiyeh, peering through the recognizable outline of a map of Palestine.

“I started drawing to express my feelings towards the Palestinians,” Moataz told The National, a United Arab Emirate state-owned English-language daily newspaper. “The urge started when I watched videos of children in Gaza. I felt I should support them even if it’s only with my drawings.”

Graffiti has long been a tool for the oppressed to speak out against the world’s injustices, a way for civilians to feel a little less helpless in the face of tyrannous aggressors. Moataz, who has been creating street art for five years, wields his paint to amplify the Palestinians’ voices, whose plight has been muted by Eastern and Western media for over 75 years.

Art by Mohamed Moataz

“These children have dreams and goals that they want to achieve and should have this right,” he told The National. “I hope all the dreams of Gaza’s children come true, even the small ones.”

The desire and right for Palestinians to return to the homes they were forced out of at the beginning of the war will likely never come to fruition. The amount of damage Israeli air strikes have done to the already limited infrastructure in Gaza has left 85% of its 2.3 million inhabitants displaced. There are no homes to return to.

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3236, adopted by the 29th Session of the General Assembly on November 22, 1974, “reaffirms the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted and calls for their return.”

One of Moataz’s murals in old Cairo is a simple, large Palestinian flag standing two meters tall. Another is of a raised fist rising from a pool of water in the colors of the flag; across his works are the words “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine.” His paintings are in a dilapidated little street, with crumbling steps and stray dogs everywhere. The emotion they evoke is that of hope but also sadness, as civilians worldwide wonder what they can do to encourage a ceasefire. The Egyptian citizens of Al-Khalifa watch as I take photos of the murals, seemingly unphased by my Western presence.

Art by Mohamed Moataz

“He’s decorating our neighborhood, and it looks very nice,” said Hossam, a resident, to The National. “He’s drawing and representing what the Palestinians feel.” The murals, although relatively hidden unless you know where to find them, add color and brightness to the area. Between the mass amounts of construction and the chaos of the bustling traffic, you have to know where to look; once you find them, you’ll see how this little side street stands out from the rest.

On January 12, 2024, South Africa brought a case against Israel to the International Court of Justice, claiming they are in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. While the official ruling on genocide could take years, the court stopped short of calling for a ceasefire in the region during their hearing on January 26, 2024, instead indicating that Israel’s military actions in and against Gaza are plausibly genocidal. In its ruling, the Court indicated that Israel’s actions have caused significant harm to the vulnerable Palestinians in Gaza, including killing, injuring, and displacing many people, as well as destroying homes, schools, and medical facilities, leading to a serious humanitarian crisis that needs immediate attention. The second provisional measure voted on by the ICJ was that Israel “shall ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit any acts described under Article II under the genocide convention.”

Although the International Court of Justice cannot force Israel to cease all actions in the Gaza Strip, its ruling could have implications for the international community, specifically those third-party states who are funding Israel in its plausibly genocidal actions. The rulings are a step forward in holding Israel accountable; however, the international community, especially civilians who have been protesting in the streets since October, continue to feel helpless. All while horrific images and videos continue to come out of Gaza and, more recently, the West Bank.

People are taking to the streets with spray cans and paint brushes, covering walls with graffiti, demanding an end to the fighting, or at minimum, a humanitarian ceasefire. An example of how graffiti plays an important role in conveying the psyche of the uprising and raising people’s morale, it’s better than doing nothing.

Rabeea Eid, a Palestinian journalist and cultural activist, told The New Arab in November 2023, “Graffiti art — and writings — are very influential in Palestine. Graffiti plays an important role in conveying the psyche of the uprising and raising people’s morale. Many Palestinians spent years in prison for writing on walls. This is something that we continue to experience today.”

Art by Mohamed Moataz

Eid started Graffiti from Palestine to document graffiti in Palestine, collecting the expressions of the liberation of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank and abroad. Throughout the region, graffiti has played a large role in the uprising of civilians, including the first and second Arab Spring. Since starting Graffiti from Palestine in 2021, Eid has documented over 800 murals showing support for Palestine and its struggle for independence.

“When you finish a drawing, it feels the same as providing aid. Any support anyone can give is meaningful,” Moataz said again to The National “I will continue drawing until Palestine is free. I will continue drawing the Palestinian flag all over the streets of Egypt.”

While painting or spraying “Free Palestine” or “Ceasefire Now” may not directly do anything to support its people, it allows the release of anger. It gives people the sense that they are making some small difference by their show of support. When your government isn’t listening or actively funding Israel, no matter how many protests you attend and how many walls you cover in tags and murals, you are left feeling helpless as you scroll through the harrowing images coming out of Gaza and the West Bank.

 

“When you finish a drawing, it feels the same as providing aid. Any support anyone can give is meaningful,” Moataz said again to The National “I will continue drawing until Palestine is free. I will continue drawing the Palestinian flag all over the streets of Egypt.”

 

Andi Schmitz is a writer, artist and recent American expat. Born in Dublin, Ireland and raised in a smörgåsbord of places, she has recently relocated to Berlin, Germany. Lifelong writer and artist, she is recovering from former corporate fintech life by self-induced art immersion. Her hobbies include painting, a good whiskey sour, and exploring art as a form of social outcry.

IG: @andischmutzz