‘All eyes on Rafah’: how AI-generated image swept across social media

<span>Palestinians in Rafah flee with their belongings on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Bashar Taleb/AFP/Getty</span>
Palestinians in Rafah flee with their belongings on Wednesday.Photograph: Bashar Taleb/AFP/Getty

An image depicting refugee tents spelling out the phrase “all eyes on Rafah” has become one of the most-shared pieces of content relating to the Israel-Gaza war, spreading rapidly on social media this week. The graphic, which was generated using artificial intelligence, had been shared on Instagram more than 45m times by Wednesday.

The image and reactions to it have also gained traction outside Instagram. On TikTok, one creator’s video commenting on the image amassed 10m plays within 24 hours of being posted. After the image was shared on a pro-Palestinian account on X on Monday, the post gained 8m views and 188,000 retweets within days.

Although “all eyes on Rafah” has floated around as a pro-Palestinian slogan for months, the surge in posts of the image and its mainstream adoption has taken place over the past few days. International attention towards Rafah increased this week after an Israeli military strike on Sunday killed at least 45 people at one of the city’s tent encampments for displaced persons. Witnesses described scenes of devastation and civilian deaths from the strike, including women and children who were burned to death in the ensuing fire.

The Israeli military said it had been targeting senior Hamas militants, and the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the civilian deaths a “tragic mistake”.

Since Israel launched its war in Gaza in October 2023 in response to the Hamas atrocities in southern Israel, social media has been flooded with harrowing images of violence, even as some activists and users have complained that platforms are actively suppressing such content. Observers do not know why this particular picture has risen to the top of feeds.

“It’s difficult to say why this image has caught the public eye and not others,” said Nadim Nashif, founder and director of the social media watchdog group 7amleh. “I would guess that for graphic images from that night, Meta would reduce their reachability or remove them totally.”

The exact origins of the image featuring the “all eyes on Rafah” slogan are unclear, but Mashable reported that the Instagram template that allows users to repost it was created by a relatively small account that appears to be based in Malaysia and has shared various pro-Palestinian graphics. The image bears little resemblance to what Rafah or Gaza looks like, showing an open desert landscape with rows of refugee tents and snowy mountains in the background.

The phrase may have originated in comments made in February by Dr Rik Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization’s representative for Gaza and the occupied West Bank, who said “all eyes” were on an impending Rafah offensive.

As the image grew in prominence, a number of celebrities and influential Instagram accounts boosted the post to their millions of followers. The actors Priyanka Chopra, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt, each of whom has tens of millions of Instagram followers, all reposted the image. The actor Pedro Pascal and singer Dua Lipa shared other posts with the slogan.

The popularity of the post has also resulted in several imitations and counter-images from pro-Israel accounts, including one graphic design agency’s post showing a Hamas fighter holding a gun in front of a baby, that has been shared more than 300,000 times on Instagram.