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.

I've been waiting for my draft notice since I was seven. You're laughing.
Don't laugh - it's true. “Think about where help is needed in these times.”

“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).

Women in a Changing Downtown Eastside – my first foray into web documentary 

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.

Gaza strip May 2005 - Sderot is to the right of the top right corner of Gaza

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 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.’

Sderot in forground, with Gaza city in background (Gettyimages, Menahem Kahana).

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).

Satellite map. North Gaza with Sderot to the right of the 1950 Armistice Line

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.

Gaza Sderot—the main page

Documentary subjects: Gaza

[Editors' note: open links to the 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/

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_
). 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).

Madeha Abu Nada in her strawberry fields in Gaza.