copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Gaza Sderot: personifying the conflict

by Jacqueline Levitin

The episode is identified as “December 4th, 2008, Sderot.” On the small screen of the web documentary we see an ordinary-looking Israeli father and his teenage daughter taking a walk up a hill a short distance from their home. Their conversation, however, is not ordinary.

“Kassam or mortar?” Ben Abu Haviv, the father, asks, pointing to shrapnel on the ground.  “2008 or 1967?”  

Lior, his daughter, knows the answers. She is soon to be called up for military service. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since age 7!” she tells him. The father scoffs, but Lior defends herself: “I want to be closer to those who are protecting us,” she explains.

“You feel protected these last years!” Haviv retorts. Then he teases: “We’ve been shot at for eight years and they are waiting for my daughter Lior to save the country!” Better you volunteer in a hospital or in education, or with old people, he advises her. “Think about where help is needed in these times.”

I first heard about Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv) a few years after it was mounted on the French broadcaster Arte’s website in 2008, and was happy to discover that it was still available. An unpretentious, intimate web series about ordinary life in Israel-Palestine seemed like a miracle. Everything else then available presented as skewed ideologically. Here was a way into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the viewer’s terms, at one’s own pace. Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything proposed to bring an everyday citizen dimension to the conflict, to show it in a balanced way, and in a new medium.

Web documentary

I began to be interested in web documentary when I undertook my own first forays into the format with Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside (2010) (http://womendtes.com), a simple web documentary made in collaboration with student assistants and residents of a poor neighborhood in the heart of Vancouver (Canada). Our web documentary allowed the web user to safely penetrate the reputably dangerous world of Vancouver’s downtown eastside, only a few blocks from office tower wealth, where “hotels,” originally built to house seasonal workers in the fishing and logging industries (more rooming houses than hotels), had become home to the city’s poor, the drug addicted, and a majority of the city’s indigenous people. Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside offered the user short videos, photos, audio files and Google walks through the neighborhood. It was political in that it introduced the user to the economics and racialization of the drug problem, exposed issues around women, race, poverty and violence, and celebrated community activism in the face of a gentrification that threatened to destroy it.

I hadn’t really seen other web documentary when I first saw Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything and its aesthetic and technical sophistication was (and still is) a discovery. Even outside its importance in personalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a model of documentary journalism, simple it its production, and stylish in its presentation.

The setting

Some historical context is essential to understanding the role that Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything would play in the Middle East conflict upon its release in 2008. In the years prior to 2008, and following peace agreements signed with Egypt in 1979, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had moved away from Israel’s southern borders to other regions. The Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005) had brought the conflict to Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, in the form of suicide bomb attacks. Israel’s military response focused on refugee camps in the West Bank. Following the Intifada, Israel waged war in the north in Lebanon against Hezbollah (July-August 2006). Gaza and Sderot, towns on either side of the border many kilometers south of Tel Aviv, were not yet on the radar of the conflict.

In the aftermath of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, little remained of the optimism generated by the 1995 Oslo peace process for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, some surprising events in the period leading up to the release of Gaza Sderot would cause a ripple of change that would impact the two border towns. In 2005, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shocked supporters by expelling some 9000 Jewish settlers from Gaza. Though the right wing in Israel had always stood for territorial expansion, Sharon gave the impression that he was complying with Oslo’s principles; settlers’ possessions-laden vehicles drove past Gaza and Sderot back into Israeli territory.

Additionally, in the months preceding the mounting of the web documentary, political developments occurring within Palestinian territory rivaled those happening externally. In January 2006, Hamas won a surprising victory over the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in Palestinian legislative elections. My own research indicates that Hamas’ electoral victory more likely signaled the falling popularity of the PLO than enthusiasm for the religious practices of Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement. Neither did voters appear to champion Hamas for their prominent role in suicide bombings in Israel since 1993 (cf. Pina “Palestinian Elections”). However, Fatah, the major party of the PLO that had long dominated Palestinian politics, contested Hamas’s right to govern. Battles broke out between militant groups of the two parties in early 2006. Fatah’s justified its contestation of the electoral results on political-economic grounds, since foreign aid from the Quartet[1] [open notes in new window] [open endnotes in new window] was dependent on the Palestinian Authority accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, something Hamas refused to do.

By June 2007, heavy ground fighting between Hamas and Fatah militants left Hamas in control of a Gaza cleared of Jewish settlements. Meanwhile Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian National Authority declared a state of emergency and dissolved the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council, placing the PLO back in power in the West Bank. Authority was now geographically divided between Hamas and the PLO.  

These last events would have an impact on the media role Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything would come to have. With Hamas firmly in power in Gaza, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, resumed kassam rocket and mortar attacks against Israel, in particular against nearby Sderot. For its part, Israel launched air strikes and punitive incursions into Gaza. An air, sea and land blockade of Gaza had been imposed by Israel and Egypt when Hamas took power in Gaza on the grounds that Hamas was a ‘designated terrorist group.’ But on June 19, 2008, a few months before the launch of the web documentary, Egypt brokered a six-month pause in hostilities between Israel and Hamas and an easing of the onerous embargo. Egypt also agreed to interrupt the smuggling of arms across its own border into Gaza. By coincidence, for the time of the shooting of the documentary, from October 26 to December 23, 2008, there was relative peace in the region.

Though what I have just related is the setting for Gaza Sderot, the conflict as conflict is not the subject of the web documentary. The web documentary avoids engaging in politics. Instead, focus is on daily life in the city of Gaza, population half a million, suffering from scarcities due to the boycott and Israel’s control of Gaza’s borders, and on daily life in the Israeli development town of Sderot, barely two miles away, where a nervous population comprising primarily immigrants anxiously awaited the next ‘red alert.’

From October 26 to December 23, 2008, the Gaza Sderot website of Arte France, the French Culture television network, followed a number of Gaza and Sderot’s men, women and children in daily episodes—one short film from each side per day, five days a week, eight weeks in total, in a format that allowed the viewer to appreciate their situation. Though in the 2 ½-minute-long films, characters occasionally refer to the current brokered pause in hostilities, comment about its effectiveness or question if it will endure, their musings are simply part of their daily lives. “People’s lives go on, even in a war zone,” announces the Arte website; Gaza Sderot’s subject matter is “life in spite of everything.”

Making a joint web documentary in times of separation

Arik Bernstein recounts that the original idea for the project was not for a web documentary but for a series of five-minute long films to be broadcast on Israeli television in a spot before the evening news.[2] Founder and producer at Alma Films in Tel Aviv, Arik Bernstein was well known for making films that addressed politics, often indirectly. Recognizing that the Oslo Accords had led to a situation where Jewish Israelis no longer knew their Palestinian neighbors, Bernstein’s idea was to re-personalize the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Implementation of the boundary provisions of Oslo had put a stop to the circulation of Jewish Israelis in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, while fear generated by the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada further reduced Israeli travel. In parallel, Israeli border closures prevented Palestinians from working in Israel as they had previously. Personal contact between the two populations, once common, had thus now become rare. The intended series was to reacquaint Israelis with their neighbors. But Bernstein’s projected television spot was cancelled; a reshaping of the original idea was needed.

Bernstein brought aboard Osnat Trabelsi[3] (of Trabelsi Productions), like Bernstein a ‘hands on’ style of producer known for her left-liberal stance. The two had already collaborated on a film in Gaza.[4] For this new project, they began discussions with producers on the Gaza side of the border. But Israeli-Palestinian co-productions by 2008 were no longer practicable. When the idea of the film project turned into a web documentary, the producers brought aboard France’s Arte[5] under Alex Szalat, Director of the unit “Current Issues & Society and Geopolitics.” Arte would be the refigured project’s external, neutral production center. The French documentary film production company, Bo Travail!, under Serge Gordey, with whom Bernstein had also worked before,[6] was to serve as Executive Producer. UPIAN, a French company under producer Alexandre Brachet, would provide the web programming, and the CNC (France’s National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image) was to provide the funding. Bernstein relates that it all came together quickly; the team managed the job of designing, financing, and building the website in the space of only ten months—between December 2007 and October 2008 when Gaza Sderot went on line.

The production

Although Israeli and Gaza producers were in constant telephone communication, crews on each side of the border worked separately. On the Sderot side, a crew comprising recent graduates and advanced students from Sderot’s film school at Sapir College worked under director Robby Elmaliah,[7] with Alma Film’s Ayelet Bechar[8] in the role of content editor. On the Gaza side, the producer was Yousef Atwa of the Palestinian news agency Ramattan, with which Bernstein and Trabelsi had worked previously. Ramattan had been founded in 1998 to present “the image of what was taking place here through Palestinian eyes” since “foreign media organizations were not objective in transmitting what was taking place here” (Hadad). Also connected with Ramattan were producer-cameramen Ahmed Shehada and Ibrahim Yaghi. Direction was under Khalil Mahmoud al Muzayyen.[9] On both sides, two-person production crews were equipped with unimposing prosumer-style cameras (Gilinsky).

Producers on each side found their documentary subjects among individuals they knew directly or indirectly. As Bernstein had originally conceived for the television project, the focus was to be on ordinary citizens; there would be no politicians and no military people. From Bernstein, too, came the imperative that the lives of the web documentary subjects include an evolving story, something that could generate audience interest to span the eight-weeks of the web documentary’s postings and create an emotional bond.

The work was intense. Each day, one episode each from Gaza and Sderot was filmed on location, edited, then sent to France for translation and subtitling into French, German, English, and Hebrew or Arabic, and posted on the Arte France’s website.[10] Between October 26 and December 23, 2008, 40 episodes were posted, 80 videos in all. The original plan called for six stories of six characters from each side to allow each to be seen once a week. In actuality, there are seven characters on the Israeli side, and six main and one minor character on the Gaza side, and the number of episodes per character varies. Bernstein explains that the number of episodes per character posted on the website depended on the interest they generated. In Gaza, the ‘minoring’ of one character appears to have resulted from his unanticipated absence.

Documentary subjects: Gaza

[Editors' note: open links to web documentary episodes in new windows as you read the text in this essay.]

In Gaza, producer Yousef Atwa recounts, individuals agreed to be followed because no one else was telling their stories. Relative to the Sderot stories, as a viewer, I sense an urgency in the videos from Gaza. Neither crew nor characters lose time communicating the harshness of life under the boycott. Though Israel had officially withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, characters complain, Gaza was ‘under occupation’ just the same.

Characters are fairly matched on either sides of the border; there’s an approximate symmetry: a young kung fu fighter in Gaza, a young boxer in Sderot; aspiring teenage girls on both sides; musicians/ performers on both sides; middle-aged women on each side, middle-aged men, characters with big families, etc. Producer Atwa says he initially had difficulty getting access to potential subjects in Gaza because of the restrictive media environment under Hamas. “They were initially concerned about opening up their homes and personal lives to us, but we reassured them by telling them that we will not be political” (Gilinsky).

Gaza characters include Abu Khalil, a long-time ambulance driver from Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza city. We accompany Abu Khalil on the road, hearing that the arbitrary intransigence of Israeli border guards often endangers the lives of patients he transports (cf. the November 7, 2008 episode, http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_07_2008_gaza_abu-khalil-and-pregnant-woman ). From Gaza, too, is Amjad Dawahidy, a pharmacist who complains he can’t get the medicines he needs because of Israel’s control of the borders. Dawahidy has difficulties Skyping family in Jordan because of the blackouts. ‘But are they having blackouts in Aman, too?’ he wonders when his internet connection is suddenly cut off (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/17/12_04
); he is filmed playing backgammon in the dark. At age 20, Kung fu teacher Ahmed Quffah is ‘already famous’—“named in the Guinness Book of Records for doing push ups on two fingers.” Sefian Baker is a fisher. He and a fellow fisher complain that finding fish requires going off shore, but they don’t dare because soldiers have already killed twenty fishers who went beyond Israel’s arbitrary boundaries (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/
). In any case, complains Baker, Israeli control of Gaza’s borders means that he has no fuel to run his boat. Khalaf Qassim, from Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the middle of Gaza territory, is a musician and leader of a folklore group that performs at weddings. We first see him as he is forced to travel to a wedding by ox cart. The wedding party is counting on him, he explains, so he will get there no matter the lack of petrol. Later, he performs in style, having found enough fuel to run a diesel generator, sidestepping Israel’s imposed electricity crisis (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/
). Most of the humor on the Gaza side of the web documentary comes in Qassim’s exchanges with a friend.

Then there are the women—the outspoken farmer, Madeha Abu Nada, and the affable young Heba Safi.

Gaza producer Atwa told journalist Jaron Gilinsky that Muslim women were generally reluctant to appear in the web documentary. He managed to overcome this obstacle by choosing less religious characters (Gilinsky). This clarifies the role of Heba, a hijab-wearing but impressively freely circulating young woman who aspires to be a documentary filmmaker. Still in high school, Heba is a member of the Young Journalists Club. We first see her alone, approaching a café where she intends to film “Palestinian youth in distress.” We are immediately struck by the young woman’s pluck: young Heba is the only female in the crowded coffee shop (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_04_2008_gaza_heba-at-coffee-shop). We are also reminded that class differences exist in Gaza when we see Heba’s parents’ well-appointed home in a later episode. Heba regularly invites her female classmates to her home for refreshments. They tell her about the marriages she has missed while recuperating from her tonsil operation. We have already witnessed the operation in an prior episode, conducted in a private clinic Heba’s family can afford.

Other women sometimes appear in the background in scenes featuring a male character. Such is a scene showing fisher Sefian Baker with his family (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_20_2008_gaza_lunch-at-the-bakers). Lacking cooking fuel because of the blockade, Baker gets a wood fire going so that his family can eat their meal. (They will be 30 for lunch, he explains to neighbors.) Baker’s wife is featured commenting on the fuel problem. Abu Khalil’s mother is similarly encouraged to recount about the ‘good old days’ when women would make bread three times a day in wood-fired clay ovens—a good solution for the Israeli-caused fuel crisis and resulting bread shortage, Abu Khalil appears to feel. Khalil’s wife is noticeably silent on the subject. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/12_05_2008_gaza_shlomo-keys)

To my Westerner’s eyes, women are at times strikingly absent from the Gaza episodes. An example is the episode where the father of kung fu teacher, Ahmed Quaffah, has put on a surprise banquet to celebrate his son’s achievements and forthcoming competition in Cairo. When the camera exposes the rows of seated guests, I am startled to note that not one woman has been invited to the feast. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_05_2008_gaza_a-future-kung-fu-champion)

A Gaza woman who definitely is seen is Madeha Abu Nada. A middle-aged strawberry farmer and mother of three, Madeha Abu Nada is boss of her enterprise in Bet Lahya, near the border in the northeastern area of Gaza, and her carefully tended fields are beautiful (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_12_2008_gaza_madiha-strawberries-are-her-children ). This Gaza farmer is articulate and outspoken in her comments about closed borders and consequently ruined crop sales. Her independence is certainly distinct from the other women characters in Gaza Sderot—both Israeli and Gazan. Madeha’s character and ease in front of the camera baffled me until I read that it was Madeha that the Israeli producer, Osnat Trabelsi, had previously featured in the second documentary she made in association with Ramattan.[11] While closed borders now prevented Trabelsi from working directly with her old friend, the web documentary at least allowed Trabelsi to see Madeha in the virtual world (Gilinsky).

Documentary subjects: Sderot

Like Madeha in Gaza, the Israeli character, Yafa Malka, a middle-aged hairdresser and mother of three, laments that war has forced her town’s youth to leave their birthplace. Characters such as Yafa Malka on the Israeli side appear chosen as much for their personalities as their message—understandable since everyone’s message in Sderot appears to be the same: “Rocket attacks rule lives in Sderot.” Yafa Malka alternates between exuberant and subdued. One scene finds her joking with her clients, then bemoaning the anxiety that has caused her own and others’ heart conditions; she confesses to no longer having the will to take shelter from rocket attacks.[12] In another scene, Yafa defends an old Palestinian merchant friend who regularly travels from Hebron in the West Bank to Sderot to sell his wares. Outside her shop, Yafa is seen jauntily playing the mini keyboard her friend is delivering when he is verbally assaulted by a passing Israeli who calls for ‘the terrorists’ to go home. Yafa Malka shouts back that her friend is no terrorist. Her defense of him is calm but insistent, and a little sad. Moments before, her newly uniformed nephew arrived, seeming hesitant to join his aunt and her Palestinian friend. “Of course,” he has replied to the camera crew, he has chosen to be in a combatant unit for his military service. Yafa Malka expresses her hope that this young soldier will return unharmed and that her Palestinian friend will find peace (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/12_18_2008_sderot_a-terrorist-merchant).

Likeable, too, but more subdued than Yafa Malka, is the young Russian émigré, Andre Avhalikov. Age18½, Andre is an aspiring boxer and already a local champion although still in high school. He goes regularly to the gym to work with his trainer. We later discover, however, that Andre must forego taking part in an important upcoming competition because he has missed too many workouts. He is responsible for his little sister, he explains simply to the camera, and can’t bring her with him to practice because the gym offers no protection from rockets attacks. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_10_2008_sderot_andre-and-his-little-sister)

Avi Vaknin, a singer-songwriter in his early 30s, has just released his first single. He rehearses in bomb shelters that have already provided practice space for other up and coming musicians. Sderot, it seems, has a reputation for inspiring compositions with haunting lyrics. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/10_26_2008_sderot_sderot-blues)

Sixteen-year-old high school student, Daniele Mordechai, has ambitions to be an actor. In one episode, we see her playing ‘red alert’ at a playground with her babysitting charges. ‘If a rocket attack warning sounds,’ she instructs the children, ‘run and hide in the big worm.’ The giant worm’s 60-centimeter thick walls are a clever disguise for a bomb shelter (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/

I note that the introductory episode with Sderot grocer, Sason Sara, still manages to be about rocket attacks. Sason Sara’s store lies in disorder for want of attention while (typically) he is occupied writing letters for his customers—in this episode for a neighbor applying for assistance for rocket attack damage (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/6/10_27_2008_sderot_the-grocer-who-wants-to-change-the-world). Sara has hopes to become Sderot’s mayor and the camera finds him when he gets his unhappy election results several episodes later. Betrayed by those he helped and whom he thought supported him, Sason Sara is comforted by his wife and friends.

The wife of Ben Abu Haviv, the father who identifies rocket attack shrapnel with his daughter and the artist who constructed the bomb shelter in the form of an imaginative worm, tells the camera that she wants to leave Sderot because she can no longer stand the tension. But stalwart Ben Abu Haviv declares his intention to stay[13]: It seems that those who can are leaving; those who remain in Sderot are either idealists or without the means to choose. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/time/88 )

Born in Morocco, Simi Zubib, age 65, likely has no choice about staying in Sderot but appears happy nonetheless. Though she immigrated to Israel at age 10, she explains that she is illiterate; her role has always been in the kitchen. A mother of ten, Simi is religious. Her two weekly escapes from the kitchen are a trip to the market to buy clothes for the family, or to buy food. In one episode, she is making a big holiday meal for her family. However, she explains, her daughter from Tel Aviv won’t be coming because she is too afraid of the rocket attacks. Indeed, we see that there is no place to hide in the Zubib family home when a Red Alert does occur in the midst of a filming session. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/12/11_07_2008_sderot_immigration-and-kassams )

Journalist Gilinsky writes that Gaza producer, Atwa, who was watching the Sderot clips as they came out, told him he was surprised to learn that so many of Sderot’s inhabitants were of Moroccan origin. There are so many similarities with people of Gaza, Atwa told Gilinsky. “We are both victims of this terrible situation;” “both our governments don’t really listen to us.”[14] “The main difference,” Atwa stated, “is that our suffering in Gaza is much worse than in Sderot” (Gilinsky).

Constructing the web documentary

Matching themes running through the two sets of films are brought out in the 55-minute version of the web documentary that was broadcast three times on Arte in February 2009, two months after the web documentary was completed.[15] Yafa Malka’s reminiscing about the ‘good old day’s before Oslo, for example, when Israeli Jews felt safe visiting Gaza city (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en
), is made to resonate with the episode with fisher Sefian Baker listening to his friend’s reminiscing about Gaza’s good old days when he could take his boat far out to sea and bring back a bountiful catch to sell to Israeli customers (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/12_19_2008_gaza_we-are-surrounded-from-all-parts). In the web documentary, viewers have to make such connections themselves.

Web viewers, however, likely did not watch all episodes. On December 16 (six days before the project was completed), Executive Producer Serge Gordey, who was keeping an eye on viewership statistics, said the site was getting “an average of 10,000 hits per day with people spending an average of eight minutes on the site, or watching about four webisodes”(Gilinsky).

David Dufresne, mentor of the "Web Lab,” argues that “a filmmaker’s perspective lies in the information base, in all the pieces of information the viewer can access” (“Interview of David Dufresne, mentor of the ‘Web Lab’”). In this sense, Gaza Sderot could be said to offer “personal, interactive and non-linear access,” just as the web documentary describes itself (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/ar/about/). It is also liberal, undirected and well-designed. And it is sophisticated in its presentation despite the modest total budget of $265,000. The absence of an exposé of political context, together with a wealth of viewing possibilities, indicates the producers’ willingness to trust the viewer’s own interaction with the web documentary.

The viewer first selects a language for viewing from Arabic, Hebrew, English, French and German. Although the main page (the ‘Time’ tab where one first finds oneself), proposes a growing timeline with a video from Gaza on the left, and a video from Sderot on the right showing what was happening simultaneously, viewers can choose to click anywhere on the timeline and watch any episode in whatever sequence.  They can choose to watch all episodes involving the same character one after the other by clicking on the ‘Faces’ tab and rolling their cursor over the participants’ faces to make a selection—a face in the black and white lineup of characters expanding and changing to color when a selection becomes possible. It is also (‘is’ because the website is still up and running) possible to pick videos from a satellite map indicating where each was shot and to watch episodes according to location.  “At all moment (sic), you can zoom and displace yourself on the maps,” instructions explain. All the viewing possibilities are clearly laid out at http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/help.

Likewise, the viewer is able to arrange their viewing by subject matter and see all the videos that pertain to a particular topic (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/ar/#/topics/ ). The number of episodes associated with each topic gives an indication of the concerns of the characters and, likely also, the interests or cautions taken by the crew filming. For example, there is only one episode dealing with ‘religious/secular’ from the Sderot side of the border and none at all from Gaza, though religion could easily have been addressed in either locale. The highest scoring topic on the Gaza side goes to ‘siege’ (16 episodes), with ‘borders’ (12) and ‘electricity’ and ‘shortage’ (10 each) close behind. Not surprisingly, on the Sderot side, the highest score is for “Kassam rockets” (18 episodes). Interestingly, and echoing assumptions of the producers of Gaza Sderot, more appears to join the two towns than separate them: ‘Family’ scores 11 in both locales; ‘money’ gets 8 on the Sderot side and 7 in Gaza; ‘optimism’ wins over ‘pessimism’ 6 to 5 in Gaza, and 9 to 4 in Sderot; and ‘humour’ is a topic in 6 episodes in Gaza and 3 in Sderot. Interestingly, I note, in Gaza, humour typically takes the form of irony, the misery-born wit of the underdog traditionally associated with Jewish humour. [As an example, Ahmed Quffah’s friend says they will have to create currency from leaves since they don’t have any Israeli shekels (the currency of the region)—grape leaves will make good 20-shekel notes, but a banana leaf should be worth 200! (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/1/12_09_2008_gaza_to-create-local-currency )]

Web documentary was still a new format in 2008, which explains Gaza Sderot relatively minor impact when it was first mounted. Although the ‘about’ page indicates that the producers envisioned the site having ‘blogs, forums, etc.’ in addition to the videos, in reality, little of that occurs: Producers blog but very few respond. As Bernstein notes, the problem was that Gaza Sderot predated the popularization of social media. In 2008, Twitter as a tool to publicize the production and as a place to react was in its infancy. The producers, Bernstein says, did little in the way of outreach, using only radio and newspaper articles to promote the series since as a state broadcaster Arte couldn’t advertise. As well, he notes, Israelis were then not accustomed to following stories on the web; television was the more familiar medium.

Notably, despite the electrical blackouts, it was still possible in 2008 to view the web doc in Gaza because “Gaza Sderot’ was made available in both broad band and in lower resolution. But the series was not well known in Gaza either. Nor was it frequently viewed in other locales in the Middle East. According to Bernstein, the primary audience for Gaza Sderot was France and the United States.

What catapulted Gaza Sderot into the public eye is what happened after the web documentary was formally completed. The military campaign against Hamas that Israel called “Operation Cast Lead” began December 27, 2008, by chance three days after the last episode of Gaza Sderot had been posted on Arte’s website. Suddenly attention was focused on the work of film crews who had been there before the war broke out. The production team immediately realized they had a subject of vital interest. They wanted to continue filming with the documentary characters, but because of attacks, the producers in Gaza were unreachable (“Video project highlights life on the border”).

Gaza Sderot went on to win several prizes[16] and was a nominee for the International Digital Emmy Award.[17]


Was Gaza Sderot the web documentary a success? The means to judge success in the medium of the web documentary is still beginning to be developed (Nash; Nash et al.). As a learning experience, for me what stood out in the Gaza videos (I mention Gaza because for me it was the less familiar territory) were class differences (i.e. the existence of an economically comfortable class in Gaza when all I had viewed previously concentrated exclusively on scarcity), and similarly, the incongruence between the number of unemployed youth in the café and an abundance of cakes on offer. As noted, I was also struck by the clear separation of males and females in the social world, but also by the simple gestures of kindness between people (e.g. as Amjad, the pharmacist, stands in line at the bakery, a man who doesn’t need his quota of bread proposes that it be given to another). Did these elements also strike other viewers? In the space for comments joined to each episode, only the occasional episode received a good number of remarks; many received none at all. Comments were in French, English, and, less often, in German or Hebrew or Arabic—with speakers of Hebrew and Arabic apparently most often using English instead. Lengthy comments, and more opinionated comments were more common at the beginning of the series. A few entries posed questions or left web addresses where viewers could seek more information. Most commenters seemed to grasp the web doc’s appeal to view the similarities between the two sides. My personal observations about class aspects were not generally echoed (though incongruously, one viewer from Sderot taunted the producers to show the wealthy of Gaza), However there was frequent appreciation for the shared humanity of the characters on both sides, echoing my own appreciation for gestures of kindness. A few commentators persisted in spewing invectives.

To an episode with Yafa Malka where she and others comment about the ‘good old days’ when they would frequently visit Gaza and Gazans came to them (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/8/11_26_2008_sderot_happy-days-of-coexistence), I came across a strikingly political reply from what I thought was a viewer:

"I grew up in the center of Israel, near Tel Aviv, where we seldom met real-life Palestinians. To me, what the people of Sderot are saying sounds a bit like how a master would remember his subordinate — friendly, nostalgic, but always above. Indeed, most of Sderot is politically right wing, prodding our government to make no concessions. In contrast, the people I grew up with and whose example I followed, left wing liberals of European descent, had a sympathy to the Palestinians which was mainly theoretical — never marred by memories of living together in the old country or by day to day business transactions or disputes.”

It was only when I read the ‘Blog’ did I realize that this comment was actually made by Ayelet Bechar of Alma Films, content editor on Gaza Sderot—not an ordinary spectator.  

Similarly, in the comments section to the ambulance driver, Abu Khalil’s, episode about Israeli soldiers’ refusing to allow a pregnant Gaza woman to cross the border for treatment, though she has the necessary permit, it is Yousef Atwa, the Gaza producer, who replies to an irritated ‘Enrique from Israel.’ The Israeli questions the right of Gaza’s sick even to go to Israel for treatment since they do not pay Israeli social security fees. He suggests (apparently not with irony) that they should be sent to Egypt instead. Then, directing his attack at Gaza Sderot’s production team, the Israeli accuses the web documentary’s producers of hiding from the ‘real’ question, which is, “Why is the city of Ashqelon [in Israel] which provides medical attention and electricity to Gaza constantly shelled with Kassam rockets?” Atwa struggled with his English to present the producers’ point of view. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/he/11_07_2008_gaza_abu-khalil-and-pregnant-woman/en/ )

Though Atwa could have defended the episode with a strong analysis of Israel’s economic relationship with Palestine, he justifies the episode simply by speaking of the sorely inadequate medical facilities in Gaza, and the dangers of decisions made according to soldiers’ moods—points already made in the online episode. He avoids the Ashqelon challenge of ‘Enrique from Israel’ in his reply. 

But should Atwa have replied in the comments section in the first place? Though directly challenged to do so, replying to comments presumes a lack of trust that other viewers will make the producers’ points for them. The same day that Atwa replied, an American Jew argued the necessity, from a purely moral position, of helping the sick no matter who they are. Humbly, she notes, Americans also “still have difficulty not to pre-judge another based on colour or background.” She says she wholeheartedly hopes “that we can get past our differences and see the overwhelming commonalities”—a worthy reply for Atwa.

The etiquette for online replies and for appropriate responses from producers was relatively undeveloped in 2008. That in Gaza Sderot the production team wanted to blog and reply shows them personally engaged in their web endeavor and unable to stand aside or to speak only of production matters.

The war ends

Operation Cast Lead ended in a unilateral ceasefire by Israel on January 18, 2009, followed by a ceasefire by Hamas twelve hours later. Not having managed to resume the web documentary when the escalation of hostilities began, the producers felt it was necessary to at least add new videos from the war in the Blog section. They only succeeded in doing so after the fighting ceased and things settled down. They shot four videos from each side, produced in association with B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and posted these on the Arte France website between March 26 and April 14, 2009. One viewer insensitively complained that these episodes did not appear in the normal regular intervals.

Executive Producer Serge Gordey; Producer Arik Bernstein; and documentary characters, musicians Avi Vaknin and Khalaf Qassim, appeared together in a short radio document on PRI (Public Radio International) on December 30, 2008 while the war was still raging (“Video project highlights life on the border”). Here, Serge Gordey proposes that Gaza Sderot was an antidote to Middle East compassion fatigue engendered by seemingly non-stop reports of violence in Israel-Palestine.  Yes, “the Gaza Sderot video project lets you be a fly on the wall for the intimate and mundane moments of people's lives,” adds the radio host; “the power of these films is that they remind you that people in conflict zones are really just like everyone else.” “When you realize that people have the same issues about work or about love, about raising your kids, in places where you don't first think in these terms, well then I get the feeling that we're doing good work,” Gordey concluded; “and that happened quite a few times.” But, he added, “it's a bit depressing to think that we spent a year showing that, you know, life goes on, and the day that we finished, the war broke out.


It is important to note that the ground and air attack of Operation Cast Lead drastically changed the situation in Gaza. In the PRI interview, reporter Carol Zall explains that she had tried to reach the Gaza team while fighting continued, but telephone communication was impossible. A note with a later transcript of the radio interview reassures that no one from the Gaza team was injured in the Israeli attacks [“Video project highlights life on the border” (audio transcript)].

Ramattan, the news agency of Gaza producer Atwa, played a major role during the 22-days of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead.” Ramattan recorded footage of what was taking place in Gaza under difficult and dangerous conditions. With foreign news agencies not present, theirs was often the only footage sent to worldwide cable-news markets; it was broadcast on television screens across the globe.[18]

Ramattan’s images were praised in The Electronic Intifada by Gideon Levy, a columnist at the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, and a member of its editorial board: “The whole world saw the images. They shocked every human being who saw them, even if they left most Israelis cold,” he wrote. “The conclusion is that Israel is a violent and dangerous country, devoid of all restraints and blatantly ignoring the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, while not giving a hoot about international law. The investigations are on their way.” (https://electronicintifada.net/content/ramattans-war-worlds-eyes-gaza/8078)

Gaza Sderot is not the only web documentary made on the Israel Palestine conflict, but, to date, it is the most ambitious and, despite the engagement of its producers, the most balanced in its approach.[19]


[1] Quartet on the Middle East: the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. [return to text]

[2] I interviewed Arik Bernstein in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2015. Factual information on the production of Gaza Sderot not otherwise noted here comes from this personal interview.   

[3] Osnat Trabelsi’s family is from Tunisia and her grandparents settled near Sderot. Cf http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/11/18/Gaza-Sderot-and-I

[4] Gaza—another kind of tears, 2006, directed by Abed El Salam Shehada, is a co-production of Alma Films, Trabelsi Productions, Ramattan Studios and ARTE France. Osnat Trabelsi also produced Sadot Adumim (Strawberry Fields) directed by Ayelet Heller and shot in Gaza in 2007.

[5] Arte had been co-producer of Gaza—another kind of tears. Cf note ‘iv’ above.

[6]   Serge Gordey is credited as a writer on Six Days: June 1967: 40 Years, New Revelations, on the 1967 Six-day war, produced by Arik Bernstein and broadcast in 2007. Of note, Gordey was later one of the producers of the 2013 Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras (2011).

[8] Ayelet Bechar’s own film, Just Married (2005) treats both Israeli and occupation marital situations. “Documenting the Middles East.” P.O.V. No. 22. http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_22/section_1/artc3A.html

[9]   Khalil Mahmoud al Muzayyen was born in Rafah refugee camp. He trained to become a filmmaker in Russia after working for many years as a builder in Israel. cf http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/10/29/Filmmaker-in-Gaza

[10] See Alexandre Brachet’s blog about the production process: http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/10/28/Say-thanks-to-Overstream

[11] The documentary is Strawberry Fields, July 2006, directed by Ayelet Heller. See http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/11/18/Gaza-Sderot-and-I

[12] I interviewed Yafa Malka in Sderot in June 2015. Her nerves are shot, she complained, and her heart condition is now worse.

[13] Ben Abu sounds much less stalwart in the description Ayelet Bechar (content editor, Sderot) gives of him in her Blog post: “He says that in the last few years his life is in a stand still. Because of Kassams, he can't move forward with his projects. His yard was hit, and since then he didn't fix it. His street was hit, two children died, and he can't bring himself to finish painting the walls of his home. He also says that he stopped thinking about the other side, about the children of Gaza. He ran out of empathy.” http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/11/17/A-Rocket-rookie%3A-my-first-Red-Color-alarm

[14] Sderot director, Roby Elmaliah, makes a similar claim about the Israeli government’s neglect of Sderot:  http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/blog/index.php?post/2008/10/27/Filmmaker-in-Sderot

[15] Serge Gordey is credited as director, along with the original directors, Robby Elmaliah and Khalil al Muzayyen. See  http://www.arte.tv/fr/Videos-sur-ARTE-TV/2282584.html (with French subtitles)

[16] The UER (l'Union Européenne deRadio-Télévision) awarded « Gaza-Sderot: la vie malgré tout » the prize for best documentary program of 2008. It received “Le Prix Europa” in the category "Best European Emerging Media Project of the Year 2008.”

[17] Serge Gordey, Alexandre Brachet, and Alex Szalat of Arte generally replicated the format of Gaza-Sderot in a subsequent production, Havana/Miami produced two years later. The new production encouraged viewers to respond with videos and photos in addition to written comments.

[18] According to the International Middle East Media Centre, November 12, 2009, “The administration of the Ramattan news agency in Gaza decided on Wednesday to shut its offices down until further notice due to repeated attacks and violations by the Hamas-controlled security forces in the Gaza Strip.” (http://www.imemc.org/index.php?obj_id=53&story_id=57097) While quoting this IMEMC article, Wikipedia blames the closure was due to “repeated violations and coercion by Qatar-based station Al-Jazeera.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramattan) IMEMC says that, this time, Ramattan had not been able to pay the Internal Security Forces of Hamas to prevent an attack because of its financial crisis. Several media outlets, including Al Jazeera, “were supposed to pay Ramattan for using its equipment, facilities and personnel during the war on Gaza as Israel prevented foreign journalists from entering the coastal region.”

[19] Other web documentaries on Israel-Palestines include Points of View (2014), an Israeli-produced i-doc funded by B'Tselem, the ‘Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.’ Its short pieces on daily life under occupation produced by Palestinian youth through B'Tselem’s Camera Distribution Project can be viewed by clicking on a map of Israel-Palestine. Broken Hopes—Oslo's Legacy (2013) is a French/European production by Action Against Hunger but involved the Israeli group "Breaking the Silence"—ex-soldiers critical of the Israeli government. An interactive map through the West Bank opens to information links and testimonies by Palestinians in particular, documenting the splintering of the territory and the restrictions on life in occupied Palestine.

Works cited

Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything. Production Alex Szalat, Susanna Lotz and Joel Ronez for Arte France. Exec Prod. Serge Gordey. Co-Prod. Arik Bernstein, Yousef Atwa, Osnat Trabelsi, and Alexandre Brachet. Dir. Roby Elmaliah (Sdereot) and Khalil Al Muzayyen (Gaza). Gaza Sderot—Life in Spite of Everything. N.p., 26 Oct. 2008. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/

Gilinsky, Jaron. “Innovative Web Video Series Shows Real Life in Gaza, Israel.”
December 16, 2008. http://mediashift.org/2008/12/innovative-web-video-series-shows-real-life-in-gaza-israel351/

Haddad, Toufic. “Ramattan's war: The world's eyes into Gaza.” The Electronic
Intifada, 20 February 2009.  https://electronicintifada.net/content/ramattans-war-worlds-eyes-gaza/8078 20 Aug. 2015.

“Interview of David Dufresne, mentor of the ‘Web Lab.’”

Malka, Yafa. Sderot. In person interview. Israel. June 14, 2015.

Nash, K. What is interactivity for? the social dimension of web-documentary
participation. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 28(3), 8/5/14-383-395. doi:10.1080/10304312.2014.893995. Web.

Nash, K., Hight, C., & Summerhayes, C. (2014). New documentary ecologies: Emerging platforms, practices and discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Print.

Pina, Aaron D. “Palestinian Elections.” CRS Report for Congress, February 9, 2006. Web. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33269.pdf

“Video project highlights life on the border,” “The World” with host Lisa Mullins, and reporter, Carol Zall.  PRI (Public Radio International). December 30, 2008. Web. http://www.pri.org/stories/2008-12-30/video-project-highlights-life-border

“Video project highlights life on the border,” “The World” with host Lisa Mullins, and reporter, Carol Zall.  PRI (Public Radio International). December 30, 2008. Web. http://www.pri.org/node/8047/popout (audio transcript)