Gaza screened

by Inez Hedges

Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the power of film more striking than in its portrayal of the Gaza strip. The seismic shifts in Israeli policy, military intervention, and access rules that have affected this narrow stretch of territory, lying between Israel and Egypt along the Mediterranean sea, have resulted in a landscape so transformed and traumatized that fiction films from a few years ago become documentaries of what was, while documentaries evoke ravaged science fiction dystopias.

The violent displacement of Palestinians from their towns and villages in 1948 by Israeli armed forces is known throughout Palestinian communities as the “Nakba,” or disaster (Farha, a 2019 film by Darin J. Salaam, powerfully re-enacts this catastrophe from the point of view of a young girl). When the UN voted to partition Palestine in November 1947 into a Jewish State and a Palestinian Arab State, the decision was met with opposition in the Arab world and an invasion beginning May 15, 1948. Once Israeli forces prevailed, more than 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were forcibly removed from their homes, settling in refugee camps in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and other Arab countries. Many of the refugees settled in camps in Gaza, which was ruled by Egypt until the 1967 war. After 1967 it came under Israeli control.

In 2005 the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon made the decision to remove the 8,000+ Jewish settlers from Gaza, judging that the settlements there had become too difficult to defend. Hamas (The Islamic Resistance Movement) won the 2006 Palestinian elections in both the West Bank and Gaza, in what was seen predominantly as a no-confidence vote in Fatah. In retaliation, the elections were nullified by Fatah. Armed confrontations between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza resulted in the defeat of Fatah and victory of Hamas. Thus was born the division between the West Bank ruled by Fatah, and Gaza ruled by Hamas.

Israel reacted by sealing off Gaza’s ports and land borders from the rest of the world, putting it under siege, a situation that remains in effect today. At the same time, the Israeli government welcomed and encouraged the Fatah/Hamas split since it made a unified Palestinian movement unlikely.[1] [open notes in new window]

In 2008-9 and 2014, Israeli forces bombed Gaza, in operations known, respectively as “Cast Lead” (Israeli) or “The Battle of Al-Fourquan (Palestinian); “Pillar of Clouds”(Israeli) and “Stones of Baked Clay”(Palestinian); and “Protective Edge” (Israeli) and “Eaten Straw” (Palestinian, from a passage in the Koran). Israel justified its actions by saying they were in retaliation for rockets fired into Israeli towns by Hamas. During the Great March of Return (Mar 30, 2018 – Dec 27, 2019), which began on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, unarmed Palestinian men, women and children went by the tens of thousands to protest near the separation fence with Israel. Israeli forces met them with violent repression. In May 2021, Israel again attacked Gaza in “Operation Guardian of the Walls” (Israeli) and “Sword of the Jerusalem Battle” (Palestinian), following the conflict over Israel’s attempt to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem.[2]

Before the surprise Hamas attacks inside Israel on October 7, 2023, the Gaza population, living on 141 square miles, numbered over 2.3 million. Gazans already experienced daily electrical outages, unclean drinking water, insufficient food, and a wrecked economy due to the continuing Israeli blockade.  The outbreak of renewed hostilities in 2023 has upset the status quo and led to the massacre and widespread displacement of the civilian population.


Conditions before the siege of Gaza are evoked in the children’s story Tale of the Three Jewels by Michel Khleifi (2001). Youssef is a young boy living in a refugee camp by the sea. He supplements the family income by catching birds, sometimes skipping school. His father is in prison (a familiar situation in Gazan families). His bird-catching activities also enable him to supply his brother, a resistance fighter living out in the woods. The brutality of the Israeli army is a continual theme in this film, as they execute young men in the street, prevent children from going home if they are caught out after curfew, man checkpoints, and rule the streets in their military jeeps.

Youssef in Tale of the Three Jewels. Tale of the Three Jewels:  execution of a Palestinian resistance fighter by an Israeli soldier.
Tale of the Three Jewels:  Youssef at a checkpoint. Tale of the Three Jewels: Israeli soldiers harassing children caught out after curfew.
Tale of the Three Jewels: Youssef with the necklace. Tale of the Three Jewels: Youssef derided by a travel agent for wanting to go to the United States.

One day Youssef meets Aïda, who lives in another camp and who is a descendant of the Dom people who migrated from the Indian subcontinent. He becomes fascinated by the story of the three missing jewels in a necklace belonging to Aïda’s grandmother. Aïda tells him that if he retrieves them from South America, he will be able to marry her when he grows up. The innocent Youssef visits various travel agencies who invariably throw him out. He then decides to hide in a shipment of oranges being exported to Europe. At the last minute, Youssef’s mother sends his favorite bird to locate him. Hearing the bird, he emerges from the orange crates but then is confronted by Israeli soldiers who shoot at him. Fortunately, in this fairy tale Youssef is not injured; he survives to learn that the missing jewels represent the pain and blood of the Nakba, and the grandmother’s exile from Jaffa.[3] Youssef’s suffering and diligence has resulted in the magical restoration of the missing jewels. Meanwhile, Khleifi’s fiction film documents the life in Gaza refugee camps, the international trade in oranges, and the possibility of travel outside Gaza, all of which have been severely impacted by the siege after 2007.

In addition to Khleifi’s children’s story there have been a few other attempts at fiction film that have chosen Gaza as a backdrop. The hopeful fantasy of Israeli-Palestinian friendship across enemy lines plays out in French director Thierry Binisti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2010). Some Palestinian youths find a message in a bottle cast into the sea by an Israeli soldier at the request of his sister. One of the youths decides to write to her via the internet and, after some initial bitter sparring, they bond over their common admiration of France and the French language. The Palestinian youth eventually wins a scholarship to France and is able to leave. His departure through a series of walls and corridors at the checkpoint underscores the isolation of Gazans from the rest of the world. Though it offers a refreshing respite from the devastating images in documentary films from this period, the film suffers from what some have called a utopian “both-sides-ism,” suggesting that if people would only talk to one another the differences would fall away.

The 2021 Gaza mon amour [4] (directed by Tarzan Nasser and Arab Nasser) shows how people continue their lives in spite of seemingly insuperable challenges. The 60-year-old Issa fishes by night in his boat and sells his fish in the market by day. Over time he has noticed and fallen in love with Siham, who works in a clothing store in the same market and has a divorced daughter from a previous marriage. Issa and Siham both live in the beach refugee camp and so sometimes take the same bus to the market. One day Issa fishes a priapic statue of Apollo out of the sea and brings it to his house. At one point the statue falls and the rigid penis is severed. After Issa shows this piece to a jewelry store owner, he is temporarily arrested by the Hamas police and charged with “possession of antiques.” Meanwhile, Issa’s sister tries to introduce him to “suitable” women but Issa eventually proposes to Siham. In the film’s final scene Issa and Riham, now married, cuddle in the hold of Issa’s ship, even as an Israeli coast guard boat fires warning shots at their boat, which is approaching the limit defined by Israeli policy. The obvious play on Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) once again links love and war, in this case the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Palestinian-born Nasser brothers shot the film in Amman, but tried to faithfully reproduce their memories of Gaza.[5]

In The Idol (2015) Hany Abu-Assad relates the improbable real-life success story of Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf, who became an international star after sneaking across the border with Egypt to compete in the famous “Idol” TV singing contest[6]. His victory became a source of pride for Palestinians.

The Idol:  CNN reporting on the competition. Onscreen announcement: “Mohammed Assaf inspires Palestinians.” The Idol:  street celebrations after Assaf’s victory.

In contrast, the picture in documentaries is often grim. Gaza Ghetto,[7] co-directed in 1985 by PeA Holmquist, Pierre Bjorklund and Joan Mandell (see the article by Joan Mandell in this issue), starts and ends with shots of Palestinian adults and children who are visiting the ruins of the village they were forced out of in 1948. They are confronted by the new Jewish owners and ordered to leave—they are not allowed even their memories. The film then goes on to document Palestinian houses and olive groves being bulldozed to make way for Israeli settlements in Gaza, turning them into refugees once again. Young men are arrested on suspicion of being “terrorists”; meanwhile, Jewish settlements are being constructed. Palestinian life is to be obliterated; the film’s title credit with its gothic script suggests that the Israeli state is repeating the treatment that Jews themselves were subjected to in Nazi Germany. The film also documents the Gazans’ spirit of resistance. Two years after the film was made, the first Intifada would break out.

Gaza Ghetto (1985), directed by PeA Holmquist, Pierre Bjorklund and Joan Mandell: Palestinians visiting their former village being told to leave by the new Israeli owners. Gaza Ghetto: a man outside his bulldozed home.
Gaza Ghetto: young men arrested by the Israeli forces. Gaza Ghetto: building the Jewish settlement in Neve Deklaim.
Gaza Ghetto: film credits with WWII associations. Gaza Ghetto: protest demonstration in April 1982. Onscreen subtitle: “In spirit and blood we’re prepared.”

The effects on Gaza during and after the second Intifada are documented in Gaza Strip (James Longley, 2002); Gaza: the Killing Zone (Sandra Jordan, 2003); and a film about Rachel Corrie, Rachel: an American Conscience (Yahya Barakat, 2005).[8] Longley spent three months in Gaza in 2001. When the IDF closed the roads in Gaza to protect Jewish settlers, the Palestinian residents were forced to use the beach as a throughway for transport. In his film, he follows the 13-year-old Mohammed Hejazi from the Sejjaia neighborhood of Gaza city. Mohammed left school after second grade to support his family (his father, who had been imprisoned in Israel, could no longer find regular work). Mohammed works selling newspapers and also goes to “Karni crossing” with his friends to throw stones. There is a rapid montage of Israeli missile attacks and shots of the chaos at the hospital as victims are brought in. Dr. Helen Bruzau, a French doctor from Doctors without Borders, describes the neurological and other symptoms endured by the victims of nerve gas attacks by Israel: “temporary paralysis, hypertonia (extreme muscular contraction), digestive problems and cramps, extreme excitation.” A nerve gas victim describes feeling as though she were tearing herself apart. Displaced persons live in tents among damaged buildings. Among the young as well as the old there is despair, but also defiance.

Gaza Strip: young stone throwers. Onscreen subtitle: “To this day we throw stones to protect the homeland.” Gaza Strip: Dr. Helen Bruzau describing the effects of nerve gas on victims. Onscreen subtitle: “Nearly complete paralysis of the limbs.”
Gaza Strip: tents set up among the ruins for displaced persons. Gaza Strip:  the despair of traumatized youth. Onscreen subtitle: “I think being dead would be easier.”
Gaza Strip:  the despair of the old. Onscreen subtitle: “The future is lost.  There is no future." Gaza Strip: resistance and rebellion.

Rachel: an American Conscience, a self-financed film by Yahya Barakat in 2005, was made before the removal of Jewish settlers from Gaza. Rachel Corrie was a member of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) which was founded to help Palestinians in their nonviolent struggle against Israeli occupation. The documentary film opens with her assessment of the situation she was confronted with in Rafah, near the border with Egypt:

 “I’ve been here for about a month and a half now…in the time that I’ve been here, children have been shot and killed. On the 30th of January the Israeli military bulldozed the two largest water wells, destroying over half of Rafah’s water supply […] people are economically devastated because of the closure of the borders into Egypt and the extreme control of the Gazan economy by Israel. I came to look at the aftermath of a place where 25 greenhouses had been demolished on the other side of Rafah, destroying the livelihoods of about 300 people; and that had taken place while they rounded up about 150 men, held them under a sniper tower and shot around them to contain the men, the farmers in the area…I feel that what I am witnessing here is a very systematic destruction of people’s ability to survive…and that is incredibly horrifying.”

Barakat includes footage of Israeli soldiers firing on children trying to go to school, of Palestinian men being arrested and of participants in the international solidarity movement in support of Palestinians. Many of those demonstrators protested house demolitions by standing in the way of bulldozers. Tragically, Corrie lost her life on March 16, 2003, as she confronted a bulldozer that did not stop. There are now several schools named for her in Gaza.

Rachel: an American Conscience: Palestinian men being arrested by Israeli forces. Rachel: an American Conscience: Rachel Corrie confronting the bulldozer that cost her her life.
Rachel: an American Conscience: a kindergarten in Gaza established in Corrie’s name. Rachel: an American Conscience: children honoring Rachel Corrie at a school in Gaza.