Pea Holmquist, Joan Mandell and Pierre Bjorklund, Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family, 1948-1984 (Icarus Films, 1984).
Gaza Ghetto chooses as its subject the daily life of a Palestinian family living in the refugee camp of Jabalya in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, close to the road leading to Tel Aviv. The camp is dry and dusty, rendering a sallow gray atmosphere which seems to loom over the whole film. “I can tell you places which are much better than this,” says an Israeli soldier to the filmmakers, urging them to go to better, greener locales, away from Gaza. Fortunately, Gaza Ghetto does not heed his advice; it tells the story of the refugees of Jabalya almost as authentically as they would have told it themselves had they been able to break through the barriers of occupation and oblivion.
In this camp of some 45,000 inhabitants lives a Palestinian family in a small, crowded house — the father, Mustafa, the mother, I‘tidal, the six children and the maternal grandfather, Abu al-‘Adil. It is Abu al-‘Adil, the oldest member of the family, who embodies the narrative of exile most fully. For him this narrative has three milestones: the 1948 exile, the 1967 war, and the 1971 “pacification campaign.” He recounts how he and his family had to flee their native village of Dimra on foot. Tired and helpless, they finally arrived in Gaza where they were helped by the UN Relief and Works Agency and the Quakers. In describing the 1967 war, Abu al-’Adil speaks of his decision not to leave the camp and flee again. Instead, he says, he collected his family and bolted the door, choosing to die together rather than live in loss. Now, each morning on his way to work in Israel, he passes the site of his village in the distance and remembers how the Israelis surrounded Dimra in 1948. He knows that his village is not the Palestinian village it used to be; he also knows that, Gen. Ariel Sharon’s assurances notwithstanding, the Israelis and the Palestinians have not achieved “peaceful coexistence.”
During Gen. Sharon’s 1971 “pacification campaign” to “clean” Gaza, Israeli troops bulldozed Abu al-‘Adil’s house, together with some 600 others. This was to make way for the army patrols which, to this day, dominate the daily life of Gaza. They imprisoned his son Mustafa, along with 1,200 other Palestinians, for “subversive” activities.
Archival footage of the 1948 exile, the “pacification” campaign, and the demonstrations of 1982 corroborate the firsthand accounts of Abu al-’Adil and others. These extreme and brutal experiences have shaped the outlook of the Gaza refugees. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza has no daily newspaper, no secular university, no strong intellectual-academic entity. The people of Gaza live a self-contained, polarized life, bearing the burden of Israeli occupation in large and small ways. It is this insular, often depressing life that the film tries to capture and understand. Although Gaza Ghetto uses archival and official sources abundantly, its loyalty lies with the personal accounts of the inhabitants. Often, these accounts are extracted slowly and contextually as the film locates the narratives within the larger picture of daily life. In the absence of experts and intellectuals, journalists and politicians, the refugees of Jabalya tell their story directly, without mediation. The great virtue of Gaza Ghetto is that it explores this dynamic of repression and resistance fully and authentically.
Abu al-‘Adil’s story is but one of the many narratives which crowd the film. Almost every Palestinian refugee in Gaza has a tale to tell and tells it with a mixture of vernacular passion and folk wisdom. Unlike the Israeli officials who repeat familiar justifications in measured, declarative phrases, the inhabitants of Jabalya tell their stories vividly and unpretentiously. I‘tidal recounts how her daughter, Riham, lost control and wet herself when confronted by Israeli soldiers; Abu al-‘Adil describes the bulldozing of his house. Suhayl’s parents describe how Israeli troops killed their young son during a violent demonstration as they commemorate the first anniversary of his death with a visit to his grave; Mustafa reflects on the weakening of his ties to Dimra now that his mother, Umm Ghazi, has passed away.
These and other stories are intertwined with the rituals which organize daily life in the camp. There is, for instance, a noisy bathing of I‘tidal’s newborn son, Mukhlis, her seventh, by the women of the camp; the sharing of food on the third day of mourning for Umm Ghazi’s death; the ceremony of the morning prayers at the UNRWA Preparatory School for Girls which Ra’ida attends; the visit to the grave of Suhayl; the celebrations of Land Day at the beginning of each spring; the retelling of a local youth’s imprisonment; and, as always, the gathering in the Gaza town center at dawn for the ride to work in Israel. Despite the curfews and the road blocks, the continuous patrols and interrogations, Jabalya sustains itself in seemingly small ways which alleviate the burdens of homelessness and oppression. Gaza Ghetto attends to these mechanisms of survival carefully and compassionately, making the inhabitants of Jabalya and the stories which they tell believable and engaging. For all its seriousness, the film manages to catch glimpses of humor in the lives of the camp dwellers.
The Israeli soldiers keep watch over the population from rooftops and at checkpoints, in streets and military barracks. When interviewed by the film crew, they describe their function as “work, just like any other work.” Yet their encroachment into the daily life of Gaza is amply evident. Mustafa cannot return home in the evening because of a curfew; his children are housebound and cannot go to school freely. The armed patrols, the barbed wire, the army jeeps, and the disproportionately large number of soldiers in and around the camps are an integral part of the dynamic of occupation as are the burning tires, Land Day celebrations, stone throwings, and demonstrations. In Gaza Ghetto these two entities coexist in a strained, often stifling arrangement. It is this arrangement — oppressive and extreme — which defines both the structure and content of Gaza Ghetto. The film’s political loyalties and documentary diligence provide an articulate account of a deceptively simple theme, daily life in occupied Gaza.