Westerners witnessed Israel’s massacre of protesters at the culmination of Gaza’s Great March of Return on 14 May mostly through bytes of imagery transmitted onto flat screens and smartphones.
They saw montages of horse-drawn carts carrying bloodied bodies and zig-zagging through thick clouds of teargas, flashes of young men charging at the high-tech fences and militarized fortifications that hold their lives in a soul-sapping stasis, rescue workers overwhelmed by the sheer number of casualties, and grainy footage of snipers in olive drab hunting their prey with laser range finders and terminating 62 lives with the flick of a trigger.
For too many in the West, the scenes of death in Gaza’s Israeli-declared no-go zone were simulacra of devastation detached from the lived reality of those who flocked to the seven weeks of protests.
How could the sacrifices of the dead be understood? Did they rush into a hail of bullets because, as The New York Times’ David M. Halbfinger wrote in the opening line of a recent dispatch, “loudspeakers on minarets urged Palestinians to rush the fence bordering Israel”?
Or were they simply zombies programmed by Hamas operatives to commit suicide-by-soldier in a cynical PR ploy, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Trump White House have insisted?
If this toxic hasbara succeeded in raising suspicions about the protesters’ motives, it was only because Palestinians had already been comprehensively dehumanized in the Western mind.
Thanks to countless hours of social media and news consumption, we had become familiar with the brutality Palestinians in Gaza had endured. But we were only able to understand the psychological toll of the violence by meeting the victims face to face.
As Dan returned to Gaza over the course of several months, documenting the experiences of those who had survived Israel’s 51-day assault, we decided that we had the basis for a uniquely important film. We had not only recorded a set of testimonies demonstrating Israel’s wholesale criminality, we had captured the atmosphere of siege through intimate interactions with people across all spheres of Gazan life.
The opening section of Killing Gaza documents sadistic Israeli violence that makes for undeniably difficult viewing. A five-day ceasefire had just taken effect and we had unfettered access to a stunned population returning to the border areas that had been blanketed with Israeli artillery and missiles.
In the town of Khuzaa, in southeastern Gaza, we met Hani al-Najjar, who returned to his home after the Israeli military pulled back, only to find six corpses in his bathroom, all charred, bound and gagged, and blown to bits by an Israeli grenade.
Outside the city of Rafah, in southern Gaza, we met 19-year-old Mahmoud Abu Said, who had been taken as a human shield by Israeli soldiers and held in front of a window in his own home while those soldiers sniped at his neighbors from over his shoulders.
And in Gaza City, we encountered residents of Zafir 4 and the Italian Compound, residential towers that had been blasted to pieces by Israeli jets in the final days of the war for no other purpose than to teach Gaza’s educated middle class a lesson.
Standing by the rubble of what was once his home outside Rafah, and next to a destroyed taxi that used to belong to his son who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper, Suleiman al-Zugheibi delivered a testimony of trauma and defiance that was all too common among those we met.
“We’ve suffered for the past 60 years because of Israel,” al-Zugheibi told us. “War after war after war. Bombing after bombing after bombing. You build a house, they destroy it. You raise a child, they kill him,” he said. “Whatever they do – the United States, Israel, the whole world, we’ll keep resisting until the last one of us dies. Even if they turn all of Gaza into rubble like this, even if the rocks are all that’s left, we won’t surrender.”
We traveled north to Beit Hanoun to see what was left of the zoo at the Bisan Amusement Center. When we arrived, we found monkey carcasses strewn across the dusty ground, shell-shocked lions pacing back and forth and a pack of crazed gray foxes running in endless circles in a wire cage.
Some 85 percent of the animals had been killed by Israeli missiles, the zookeeper, Ali Qasem, told us.
“I liked the monkeys best,” Qasem said as he strolled past empty cages. “To me, it was like humans were killed. It’s not okay because they were animals. It’s as if they were human beings, people we know. We used to bring them food from our homes.”
After the war, the cold rains of winter set in on Gaza. Flooding consumed entire neighborhoods and families consigned to the border areas languished without electricity in the rubble of their former homes.
Unemployment spiked to record levels and men like Hosni Ibrahim attempted suicide. “I am unable to provide for my children’s most basic needs,” Ibrahim confessed to Dan Cohen. “What should I do? Steal? That’s not my way. So I tried to kill myself to get rid of the burden of this world.”
Others, like the teenager Waseem Shamaly, contemplated taking up arms.
Waseem was the younger brother of one of the war’s most well-known casualties: Salem Shamaly, a 23-year-old shopkeeper who had been executed on film by an Israeli sniper as he searched for his wounded cousin in the rubble east of Gaza City.
We interviewed Waseem just weeks after the killing and saw the deep wells of sadness in his eyes as he called up memories of his brother. Dan met with him again months later in the graveyard where Salem is buried, and it was there that Waseem revealed his desire to join the Qassam Brigades – the armed wing of Hamas.
“Every Friday, I visit him at the cemetery and then go home,” Waseem said of his elder brother. “I want to become a fighter to avenge Salem’s murder. I want to take revenge on the occupation that shot him. I want to join for Salem, for my brother and for the Palestinian people.”
“I feel like everyone who had a sibling killed wants to be a fighter,” Waseem observed. “All my friends from the mosque want to be fighters. Each lost a sibling, so now they want to fight. They want to get their siblings’ blood back from the occupier.”
Seeking a way out
Waseem’s generation had come of age during three wars, each adding to the devastation of the last. But not all of his peers wanted to take up arms. Others coped with the psychological toll through poetry, dance, painting and literature.
Shark is the founder of Gaza’s first break dancing crew. He began teaching the art of b-boying in the conservative refugee camp of Nuseirat just as Israel’s siege took hold. He understood hip-hop not only as a form of cultural resistance against occupation, but as a means of psychological survival.
“We dance because it makes us forget what is happening by the Egyptians or the Israelis,” Shark explained. “If we don’t have something that makes us feel something, we would be like psycho walking in the streets.”
“There are a lot of people here, when we look at them we think they are not alive. They are like zombies walking in the streets, because of the situation,” Shark added. “That’s why we don’t talk about political things. It’s not for our business. If we don’t have a good mindset, we’ll go down and give up and not live like normal lives. That’s how we think here.”
Like so many educated and talented young people we met in Gaza, the Camp Breakerz could only see a future on the outside. And like most of the youth we became acquainted with, Shark eventually made his way to Europe, where he was able to compete against other break dancers and hone his craft. Others we met went to Australia, to the United States and to the UK. Someday, perhaps, they might return to Gaza, where they left their families behind.
Masses of others cannot get a get-out-of-jail card from their besieger. They have been left with the stark choice of festering in a walled-off ghetto or rushing its militarized gates at the risk of death.
Watch Killing Gaza, absorb the atmosphere of siege and listen to the testimonies of the trapped. You might then understand why so many chose to rush the gates.