Operation Cast Lead was the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) somewhat understated code name for what the rest of the world knew as the IDF’s December 2008 to January 2009 bombing of the Gaza Strip. Besides plenty of bullet lead, the IDF also cast exploding missiles and phosphorous bombs. The 22-day operation damaged or destroyed over 20,000 buildings and farms. One knows intellectually the devastating effects of deliberately directing such withering firepower against a densely populated Palestinian community. But the visceral images captured in Vibeke Lokkeberg’s award-winning documentary “Tears of Gaza” show what happened to the Palestinians on the receiving end of IDF munitions. The film’s smuggled footage comes from both professional Palestinian camera crews as well as ordinary Palestinians using their smart phone cameras.
To keep the film from being an anonymous parade of charred bodies and piles of rubble that were formerly family homes, the film continually returns to three children. They are Yahya, a boy who wants to be a doctor; Amira, a girl who wants to grow up to be a lawyer; and Rasmia, another girl. Yahya and Amira tellingly plan to dedicate their future careers to combating the effects of Israeli military aggression.
“Tears of Gaza”’s images will probably be dismissed by advocates from the “No criticism of Israel’s government…ever” camp. Palestinian-shot footage in such eyes displays inherent bias against the Israeli government. Yet banning foreign journalists from covering the bombing while it was happening certainly did little to enhance that government’s international reputation.
Lokkeberg in reality doesn’t allow “Tears of Gaza” to devolve into sectarian propaganda. No narrative or musically manipulated declarations are made for specific Israeli or Palestinian virtue. Instead, this Al Jazeera International Documentary Festival award-winner bears witness to what actually happened during Operation Cast Lead. For example, the IDF operation is shown to begin with the interruption of a school day by a sudden beeping, a mysterious whoosh, and a bomb’s explosion.
The film also shows how the supposedly militarily necessary blockade of the Gaza Strip has uncomfortably impacted Palestinian life. For instance, the Israeli government justifies its destruction of the tunnels between Gaza and Israel as a way of preventing the resupplying of Palestinian militants. What “Tears of Gaza” shows is that those same targeted tunnels also provide a route for delivering essential supplies to Gaza residents. Even with the high prices charged and important goods difficult to acquire, the Palestinian residents accept the tunnels’ costly lifeline. The film’s press notes mention that the Israeli military’s bombing of these tunnels pretty much occurs daily.
Footage taken before Operation Cast Lead commences gives the viewer a sense of what living under the IDF’s bootheels feels like for the average Palestinian. On his brother’s wedding day, Yahya constantly looks nervously upward as an IDF helicopter flies overhead. A relaxing day at the beach becomes less free-spirited once an IDF patrol boat is spotted.
When Operation Cast Lead takes place, the images of the military bombings and shootings and their aftermath take the event out of antiseptic government euphemism. What look like ash-covered rag dolls turn out to be the bodies of children killed by Israeli bombs. Tasmia recounts how three of her male relatives died at IDF hands while going for water. Basic survival means eating food with sand in it, having only non-potable water available, and using the hard floor for a mattress. If any political position can be attached to Lokkeberg’s film, it’s that inflicting concentrated military force on an urban civilian population is an act of utter inhumanity.
The film’s raw images make a viewer understand why the Israeli government may have been eager to prevent outside news organizations from covering Operation Cast Lead. A man openly cries at the deaths of all his children. A school housing refugees from the IDF attacks still gets treated as a military target. Rather than a series of surgical strikes aimed at minimizing innocent casualties, the implementation of the military operation seem to suggest the soldiers were simply ordered to shoot anything that moved. That realization casts a different light on the supposedly tender footage of Yahya stroking a one-eyed cat while an IDF patrol walks by the rubble that was his home.
“Tears of Gaza” does contain onscreen statements of anti-Israeli sentiment. One interviewee is quoted on the record saying “May God punish Israel.” Early in the film, there is an excerpt from a Palestinian children’s song urging the listeners to hold grudges against the Israelis. Yet as one sees footage of doctors frantically working against supply shortages and time to save their patients, it’s highly unlikely any teats carrying Palestinians’ milk of human kindness would be anything other than dry. Yahya’s and Amira’s rationales for their career choices suggest a pronounced lack of confidence in the Israeli government’s capacity for reforming its ways.
Asking for fake “balance” to show Israel’s side evades confronting the thorny issues raised by Lokkeberg’s film. What form of balance could ever make morally acceptable deliberately bombing a civilian population? Does being an ally of Israel truly mean accepting that government’s practical treatment of Palestinians as unruly troublemakers who need to be controlled by as much force as possible? Lokkeberg may not provide ready answers. But she does skillfully supply a context for understanding some of the roots of Palestinian anger.
If there is any heroism to be found in “Tears of Gaza”’s images, it can probably be found in the determination of Operation Cast Lead’s survivors to go on living despite the losses inflicted on them (pace, Samuel Fuller). Yet that heroism is one muted by an unanswerable questioning of Israeli military aggression. As the father of a phosphorous burned child memorably asks, “What God do these people believe in, who can do this against children? And how can I gather the strength to forgive?”
(“Tears of Gaza” will screen September 21-27, 2012 at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (2966 College Avenue (at Ashby), Berkeley). For further information about the film, http://tearsofgazamovie.com