Why the "All Eyes on Rafah" image is being criticized – and it's not just because it's AI-generated

The viral image has been reposted on Instagram more than 47 million times, but what good does it actually do?

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published May 30, 2024 5:55PM (EDT)

Portrait of a woman with keffiyeh and face masked by a small Palestinian flag during a demonstration to denounce the IDF attacks on the Rafah refugee camps and in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in Toulouse, southwest of France, on May 29, 2024. (PAT BATARD/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images)
Portrait of a woman with keffiyeh and face masked by a small Palestinian flag during a demonstration to denounce the IDF attacks on the Rafah refugee camps and in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in Toulouse, southwest of France, on May 29, 2024. (PAT BATARD/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly eight months since Israel waged war against Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, internet activism has been one of the main avenues people have used to amplify the pro-Palestinian cause and disseminate information about the latest developments.

This week, the slogan "All Eyes on Rafah" jumped to the forefront of the online Palestinian movement, shortly after an Israeli missile hit what was designated as a safe zone for displaced Palestinians in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. At least 45 people were killed in a housing camp on Sunday, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Following the deadly missile strike, outraged activists across the globe have been criticizing Israel's military offense and President Joe Biden for inaction after he had said a “major offensive” by Israel on Rafah would be a red line, The Associated Press reported.

Soon after, an AI-generated photo of a field of refugee tents with the slogan “All Eyes on Rafah" sprawled across the center of the image began to pop up online. Since the photo's release, it has been shared and reposted over 47 million on Instagram. While the intention of the photo may be to spread awareness of what has happened in Rafah, the mass distribution of the AI photo has also drawn criticism.

Salon digs into the origins of the phrase and image, and the reasons for the backlash to those sharing it online:

Where did the phrase "All Eyes on Rafah" come from?

According to the New York Times, the phrase may have originated after Rik Peeperkorn, leader of the World Health Organization for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, made comments in February about Israel's increased military campaign in southern Gaza.

“All eyes are on Rafah,” Peeperkorn said.

Following Peeperkorn's comments, the phrase was repurposed by pro-Palestinian and humanitarian groups to draw attention to Gaza and Rafah. The slogan has been seen on signage at protests and other social media posts previous to this AI image that went viral Rafah is one of the last remaining cities in Gaza for displaced Palestinians across its territories. The phrase is now being used by groups like advocacy groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations across prestigious universities in the past several months.

The sanitization criticism

Throughout the past eight months, online spaces like Instagram have been sharing information graphics, donation links to help aid families in Gaza and several other resources to amplify the Palestinian cause. The app has become one of the most crucial outlets for the pro-Palestinian cause even though its owner, Meta has attempted to limit the spread of political content, NBC News reported. 

This online activism didn't seem to reach the mainstream though until lately. The one post that seems to have broken through to the masses just happened to be the now-viral AI image. However, it's received criticism for having very little value in what it wants to communicate because it's deemed a sanitized version of what the death and destruction in Gaza looks like, especially because there are plenty of images and videos coming from Gazans and journalists.

The post has also reached celebrities: Dua Lipa, Lewis Hamilton and half-Palestinian models and sisters, Gigi and Bella Hadid have posted the photo.

However, celebrity usage of the photo has also drawn some pushback from vocal progressive celebrities like "West Side Story" actress Rachel Zegler. On her Instagram story, she said she finds "it disturbing that the only way so many people have suddenly felt comfortable sharing their support for Palestinian lives is via an Al-generated image that doesn't even begin to touch upon the actual horrors of what these human beings are experiencing."

This very neutral image may exactly be why it's been the one to go viral because it's not as provocative as any actual real footage or photos from Gaza. In this case, AI, even wielded by a human, isn't conveying the humanitarian crisis.

The performative criticism

Many have taken to X and Instagram to air their grievances with the photo and the people posting it seemingly without a second thought. This brings us to the second major criticism, that the emptiness isn't just about the lack of realism, but the lack of messaging as well. In short, critics say that it's performative activism, mainly done for show with no real value.

One user on X said, "It is so crazy seeing people who have been silent for weeks repost that ugly AI generated 'All Eyes on Rafah' pic with no actual information on what’s happening no practical ways to provide aid no protest information just 'All Eyes on Rafah' OK?? What’s next??"

Another compared the photo to the black squares posted in 2020, "That f***ing AI all eyes on Rafah story template is so stupid like BLM black square levels of Instagram performatism, it communicates nothing! If you’re gonna limit your activism to social media at least post something with information or images of what’s actually happening there."

One person said, "I find this All Eyes on Rafah Instagram reel post that everyone is using to be odd, and I would like to understand the story of its origins and why this particular AI image has become people’s default Instagram protest statement."

Another person also encouraged people online to share a real photo of bodies covered in white while grieving Palestinians surround their bodies with the words "All Eyes on Rafah" accompanying the photo. The person said, "There's no need for AI pictures when there‘s real on the ground images of the horrors in Palestine (especially when zionists try to push the narrative that the footage by Palestinians we see is fake)."

This is not to say that everyone who has shared the image has done nothing else to amplify the Palestinian cause. "Bridgerton" star Nicola Coughlan is one such person who has shared the image, but this was in addition to wearing a Ceasefire Now pin and speaking out about Gaza throughout the global "Bridgerton" press tour while also raising money for aid relief for Gazans. 

From slacktivism to activism

Even another Hadid sister, Alana, shared the photo on her Instagram but included her own sentiments: "If the only thing you've ever done is repost this photo welcome to the movement. Now educate yourself. Talk to Palestinians. Join a rally. Listen to videos and teach ins. Get acquainted with the reality on the ground. The history."

She continued, "Performative activism is not helpful. Education and sustained activism and action is. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and get acquainted with that feeling. Reposting is not enough anymore."

Alana's post garnered some backlash, but she clarified, "I'm not discouraging people from starting to speak out now but I am saying don't let THIS be the only post, the only action, the only activism. Rafah isn't a trend. Palestine isn't a way to virtue signal. We want to welcome everyone to the movement. Now get involved."

Zegler has also shared alternatives to the AI post, pointing out there are GoFundMe's to support Palestinians "everywhere, all over the internet. Info graphics are shared all day, every day on this app, other apps, everywhere. Even art made by talented individuals— visual artists, poems, songwriters, intellects- would serve more of an impact than what the internet has decided is its 'trendy' version of showing up for a population that has been (publicly) massacred."

Others have also been urging people to get involved in Operation Olive Branch. The organization is currently helping Palestinian families leave Gaza. They have compiled a spreadsheet full of GoFundMe's to donate "in order to help these families," an Instagram template being passed around by nearly 200,000 people online said.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Activism Black Lives Matter Explainer Gaza Israel Rachel Zegler Rafah Social Media