Gaza is an open-air prison that I have dreamed of visiting since 2009. Over the years, I tried in vain several times. On June 22, thanks to the French Institute of Gaza, which organized a screening of My Land, I was able to visit.
The institute’s director submitted a request to the Israeli army two months before my arrival. Even though we provided the army with all the information requested, we never received a response. But I was able to make the trip anyway, because the screening of My Land was scheduled the day after the screening for Kasabah in Ramallah, and I already had the army’s approval to attend that one.
I landed in Tel Aviv. The institute’s director picked me up, and we headed to Gaza. At the last Israeli checkpoint, he explained the situation to the army, which then asked us a series of questions. We spent 1½ hours in this huge empty airport, which can receive tens of thousands of people a day but only receives 30. It was a Stalinist atmosphere. At 2:55 p.m., a few minutes before closing the checkpoint, we were permitted to pass. I was finally able to discover Gaza, one of the world’s most isolated places.
Gaza has fun
Along with our suitcases, we were put in a 1-kilometer [0.6 mile]-long and 2- to 3-meter [6.5- to 10-feet]-wide corridor. We were surrounded by barbed wire. It was as if we were on death row. At the end of the corridor was checkpoint 44 for Fatah, which has no power in Hamas-ruled Gaza. The men stationed there were very friendly and asked me no questions. A car for the French Institute, with bulletproof glass and a bodyguard, took us to checkpoint 55, run by Hamas.
There, everything became more serious. Very polite officers requested to see our passports and asked us some questions. After driving a few meters in the car, at the end of no-man’s-land, I finally saw the first few houses in Gaza. They were destroyed. Their facades were riddled with bullet holes. Some houses had collapsed, destroyed by shelling. It was an apocalyptic landscape.
After a 15-minute drive, we finally reached the “normal” part of the city. We went through the popular, administrative, student and upscale neighborhoods. People were outside, in restaurants and cafes. They were watching the final episode of Arab Idol, starring the young Palestinian Mohammad Assaf. His pictures were everywhere. When he was named the show's winner everyone went crazy! I also toured Gaza beach. It was crowded, with everyone bathing on this hot June day. Gazans were having fun. I was pleasantly surprised.
The My Land screening was packed
After quickly dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I headed to the French Institute to see the film. There were so many attendees that two halls were used for the occasion. In attendance were Gazans between the ages of 20 and 40, men and women from all backgrounds. Before the screening, someone talked to me about my other films such as Ali Zaoua and Chevaux de Dieu.
I noticed that Gazans deeply cared about culture and liked to engage in dialogue and debate. But I was still quite anxious. Even though My Land paid tribute to Palestinian memory and sought to create a crisis of conscience among young Israelis, I knew that Gazans live in a frozen situation. I wondered how they would react. Will they understand my work as a director and as a human being at relaying the reactions of young Israelis, which include some radicals?
The film started and the audience was dead quiet. The audience was very attentive, captivated by the dialogue. I watched their reactions. At the end of the documentary, thunderous applause sounded for two or three minutes. I was both happy and stunned. After the screening, there was a debate. I saw the Gazan wisdom, perspective and understanding on display. Gazans cannot enter or leave the strip and have little access to culture. Their analysis of the film was very sharp. They were happy to be confronting this Israeli view that they never had the opportunity to hear. They reacted with great acuity while remaining dignified and sticking to their positions.
A preview of "My Land" by Nabil Ayouch
After the debate, which ended very late, I went straight to the hotel. Until then, I had spent a very pleasant day in a city where everything was quiet. But in the middle of the night, I was awakened by loud noises. At first, I thought it was a party in the distance. But I suddenly realized that it was shelling!
Since March, there has been a truce between the various Gaza factions and the Israeli army. But that night, the factions decided to break the truce. A little while later, the Israelis responded by firing missiles. There were no signs of panic in the hotel. People just waited for it to end. They knew that there was no reason for a missile to hit the hotel, because the Israeli army hits strategic targets. Hearing the shells and missiles whistling overhead, I thought about the ruined buildings at the entrance to the city and the Israeli massacre of 2009. The tranquility was ephemeral. Two hours later, I managed to sleep, realizing how horrible it must be to live in such a tiny territory with no escape — neither by land nor sea. I had gained more respect for how the young Gazans had reacted to the screening, because the Israelis in my film are the ones bombing them.
The next morning, I decided to tour the city one last time before leaving. I visited the port and the administrative district. Each time, I could not stay more than five minutes. The driver barely gave me enough time to get out of the car. He was afraid I would be kidnapped. Then, I made the reverse trip. Checkpoint 44, then 55, then the Israeli army checkpoint, where I had to answer a multitude of questions.
Once in Ramallah, I realized that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are two different worlds. In the West Bank, the people were also celebrating the victory of the Palestinian Arab Idol prodigy, but Gaza is a prison compared to Ramallah. In the West Bank, Palestinians can move about — often alongside Israelis. As surprising as it may seem, every night, Israelis cross checkpoints to have a drink in the treandy places in Ramallah and meet Palestinians. Some young Gazans have never seen Israelis, except those who appeared in My Land. And unfortunately, those may be the only ones they will see, given Israeli government policies.
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