The Western view of Gaza is of a desperate and violent place. Terrorism, extremism, Jew-hatred and poverty merge to create a dangerous brew. The Hamas-controlled territory poses a supposedly existential threat to Israel (and Jews everywhere.) But this is only one side of the besieged Strip. And much of it is blatantly untrue.
This video is an attempt to paint an alternative Gaza. Hatred exists there – I saw and heard it and challenged the conflation of Israel with Judaism – but what I found was something else entirely. Entire neighbourhoods flattened by Israeli missiles. Destroyed buildings with families living inside them. Refugee camps caused by IDF incursions. Beautiful singing and poetry sung by eager men. A will to survive and thrive despite the belief that the world, including the Arab neighbours, have forgotten their plight. Rappers desperate to tell the Palestinian narrative to the world and reflect a Gazan sensibility.
Take my interview with Fatah-aligned militants. I was taken to an unfinished house on the outskirts of Gaza City. The room was nearly bare, with a bed and mattress and web-enabled computer. The militant, an 18-year-old, whose father sat near us proudly and explained why he supported his son’s actions, was circumspect. He said he fired rockets into Israel and monitored Israeli troop positions. I asked whether he regarded IDF and civilian targets in the same way. He did. “Every Israeli serves in the army”, he said. I told him that some Israelis opposed the occupation, the war against Palestinians and actively helped Palestinians protect their lands. Did he care, I wondered, that he might kill these Jews, as well? He paused and reflected and finally said that it would be a shame, but he was fighting occupation.
Desperate times cause desperate actions. I met countless generous individuals who wanted me to share their stories with the outside. I lectured at the Islamic University earlier this week to a group of English and journalism students. I explained my work, the realities and failures of the Western media and my own impressions of Gaza. They all wanted to know why Palestinians were dehumanised and how their image could be improved. Jamil Al Asmar, a professor of English at the university, reminded me that the Israelis bombed the facility during the recent war. “Anybody who bombs institutions are not human”, he said. “Tell the world that we are human, just like they [the Israelis] are human.” His voice quivered when he spoke.
I’ve written recently about the overwhelming issues in the Strip. The growing Islamisation causes concern. It’s both visible and worrying. Hamas is now distributing posters that warn of the dangers of smoking, internet usage, television and drugs. The group is circulating a list that urges parents not to allow children to wear t-shirts that contain words such as, “Madonna” and “Flirt”. Journalist Fares Akram told me that he worried many Gazans were too pre-occupied with their own problems that they wouldn’t complain that Hamas was demanding female mannequins be removed from shop windows. It is a slow but deliberate implementation of sharia.
But this film isn’t a political statement; it documents some of what I saw and experienced in July 2009. I carried a small camera to take pictures of those I interviewed but I was also able to capture some video. These are short vignettes that aim to paint a moment, a feeling of a state under siege. People were angry, resilient and despondent. I didn’t feel threatened during my visit and welcomed the warm embrace that nearly everybody showered in my direction. A friendly Western face that wants to listen is hard to find in Gaza.
Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the burns unit at Al Shifa Hospital, nearly choked on his own words when describing what his people went through in the December/January onslaught. “It was not a war, it was a Holocaust”, he said. Palestinian doctors were faced with burns and injuries they had never seen before, such as the use of white phosphorous, and had to rely on foreigners and the web to discover how to treat them. “We felt alone.”
They are not.