In the summer of 2014 confrontations between the Israel Defence Forces and Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza escalated into a seven-week war in which around 2,100 Palestinians and 90 Israelis were killed, the third in less than a decade.
Born in Gaza, filmed during and after this latest war, tells this story through the eyes of children living there.
The director Hernan Zin’s choice to place children as central narrators underscores the brutality that even the most innocent have to bear in Gaza. In some of the film’s most difficult moments, a group of boys revisit the beach where they had been playing football when four of their cousins were killed by Israeli shelling. The boys who survived have been left with crippling trauma. One, Hamada, indicates the shrapnel left in his chest; another, Montazar, suffers from hysterical fits and suicidal thoughts.
The film also accompanies a young girl, Sundus, whose eyelids were burned permanently open, to her hospital visits. Another boy, Mahmud, relates how he and his family are unable to walk on their own farmland for fear of unexploded missiles.
These children tell of Gaza’s ongoing tragedy even when the bombs are not falling. ‘I just want to live like other children,’ says Mohamed, who waits in hope for a ceasefire so that he can work in better conditions. Forced by poverty to leave school, he sells recyclables that he collects from rubbish tips, his family’s only source of income.
The Israeli siege of Gaza has stifled the strip’s economic activity: the movement of people and goods across the border is tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt.
In the film, no help comes from the Palestinian authorities. Even Hamada, whose family’s suffering is well-known because the attack on the boys playing football was widely reported, says that the governments in Gaza and Ramallah visited his home but have done nothing for them. Instead the children are forced into early adulthood. They speak with unsettling gravity and poise of needing medical and psychological help, having to go to work to save their families from starvation and, in one case, of wanting to join the resistance to avenge a cousin’s death.
Knowing the context behind Gaza’s destruction and siege is necessary for understanding what the solutions could be, as Zin emphasized at a London screening. Yet context is entirely absent from the film.
Non-specialist viewers will be less familiar with why the siege has gone on so long. Israeli government security procedures constrict life and economic activity, which in turn provokes further attacks from Gaza’s militant groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Palestinian political infighting complicates international attempts to establish mechanisms for assuaging Israel’s security concerns, such as UN-led monitoring of imports. Palestinian attempts to resolve their political divisions are blocked by Israel withholding the Palestinian Authority’s tax revenues as punishment for unilateral Palestinian diplomatic moves to achieve statehood. Rising anti-Islamist sentiments in Egypt fuel that country’s clamping down on movement across its border with Gaza.
Without any insight into this complex situation, a viewer could easily be left wondering: how could Palestinians allow this to happen to their children? The film’s focus on the suffering of Gaza’s children is also a strength, however. The tragedy is presented in its simplicity: this siege and the wars are devastating the lives of innocents whose only transgression is to have been born in Gaza.
The broader story provides little hope: locals and experts expect another war to break out soon, particularly as few of the conditions of the August 2014 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas have been met. Attempts to rebuild what the war destroyed are blocked by politics and a lack of funding, and psychological healing will take years even if another war is prevented.
Gazans trying to escape to Europe by boat all too often are drowned on the journey. The only true hope for a better future for Gaza’s children lies in a solution to the broader conflict. Palestinian attempts to forward their cause at the multilateral level might revive the moribund peace process, but until these bear fruit they can expect to face greater troubles.