February 22, 2007
IFF: Engaging in disengagement—five horrible days in Gaza
One of the first news stories I covered in Jerusalem 10 years ago was the excavation of holy artifacts by the city. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were protesting the excavations, because they said they were disturbing ancient Jewish graves upon which the entire city was built. It was a common problem and even an old news story in Israel, but it was the first time I witnessed it.
Pairs of police officers picked up Chasidim lying down in front of the bulldozers, carrying each bearded, black-coated man by the shoulders and feet to a waiting van. As the men were carted past me -- struggling, kicking, shouting, even calling me names -- tears came to my eyes. I tried to mask them, furiously writing notes.
"Is this your first time here?" the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority said, more as a statement than a question. He offered me a tissue.
"It's hard to watch," he said.
It was true. The sight of men in uniform dragging religious Jews away provokes a visceral reaction in any Jew: nausea, cramps, tears. It evokes the images of the Holocaust, no matter how dissimilar the situation may be.
Perhaps that's why it's so heart-wrenching to watch the handful of new documentaries covering "the disengagement," as the unilateral evacuation of 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip was called, when men and women in uniform marched in to confront, corral and drag away the (mostly religious) settlers. No matter that the uniformed people were Jews, and they weren't taking the settlers to their death but busing them to within Israeli territory. Still the shadows of the Holocaust haunt.
Especially from the perspective of the settlers, who primarily believe their mission -- to settle the Land of Israel and serve as a buffer zone to protect the rest of Israel from destruction -- is a direct response to the horrors of the Holocaust. That is why they are not willing to leave -- or be forced from their homes, and that is why, for many, it is worse that the people in uniform are Jews.
"If you're a Jew, you can't do this!" one of the settlers screams at the police in "Storm of Emotions," one of the two new disengagement documentaries showing at the 22nd Israel Film Festival.
"You look like Nazis!" a woman shouts.
"You obey orders fanatically. You think we're fanatics. You're order fanatics," another says, again evoking the famous German soldier's defense of, "We were just following orders."
But following government orders is what the police and soldiers are doing in Gush Katif, the bloc of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Some police don't believe in the evacuation, some don't want to be the ones to evacuate the settlers. Even for those who believe it is the right thing to do -- because they are tired of risking their lives for such a small percentage of the population, or because they think it will bring about peace, or because they don't want Gaza to be part of Israel -- the actual evacuation is a horrible experience.
"Storm of Emotions" is a small picture -- insider, even -- portraying the evacuation from the perspective of the police, who helped the Israel Defense Forces implement the disengagement. The film zeroes in on a few officers (the most interesting is a kippah-wearing Modern Orthodox officer who believes he can ameliorate the situation of his co-religionists but suffers the most slings and arrows of the settlers) and attempts to portray their plight: how they tried to be as gentle as possible, tried to prevent eruptions of violence and tried to evacuate Gush Katif peaceably.
The vérité, television-like "Storm," which was short-listed in the Oscar's documentary feature category, offers a narrow window on the disengagement that sometimes lacks wider context.
"Withdrawal From Gaza," however, presents a fuller picture with broader historical overview. "Withdrawal," also showing at the Israel Film Festival and starting March 23 at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino, is a more polished, feature-like documentary that tells the poignant stories of the settlers -- a doctor, zookeeper, terror victim's widow, American amputee -- shows the stunning and idyllic beauty of Gush Katif beachfront, in addition to providing numbers and facts.
Fact: It was pre-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who decided to settle Gaza in 1967, but as prime minister ordered its evacuation.
Fact: Many of the residents of Gush Katif came from Yamit, the seaport settlement in the southern Gaza Strip that was evacuated in 1982, when Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.
Fact: By 2005 8,500 settlers lived in Gush Katif, and half left before the evacuation, but another 4,000 came down to support settlers, enacting civil disobedience that led to what might be called the five worst days in Israel's history.
In the hindsight of 18 months, it may seem that the disengagement was always a fait accompli from the moment it was decreed, but what these new disengagement documentaries show is that history is not so simple. (In addition to "Storm" and "Withdrawal," two others Gaza docs received international attention: "Five Days" was boycotted at Edinburgh's festival last summer, because of the war in Lebanon, and "Unsettled," a slick, MTV-like documentary following 20-somethings on both sides, won this year's jury prize at Sundance.)
The documentaries remind us -- even such a short while later -- that despite the results, in the beginning nothing was cut and dried.
For one thing, the settlers did not believe for a moment they would ever have to leave.
"It's my hope that we'll stay here," the religious zookeeper says in "Withdrawal." "We're still waiting for a last-minute miracle."
All the films have the requisite shots of the man in the tallit and tefillin praying on the hills; the women in kerchiefs with their eyes closed, swaying; the groups of teens dancing and singing. It's an awesome -- some might say foolish -- collective faith that the edict would never come to pass.
The settlers believed they could prevent evacuation. Even without a miracle from God -- one which they prayed for vehemently -- they believed in their physical powers: They held sit-ins at synagogues, stood behind barbed-wire on rooftops and linked hands to become human chains in the streets. Together with West Bank settlers clad in orange (color for opposing disengagement), many stood their ground until the end, refusing to walk on the bus, forcing soldiers to drag them there. "Two weeks from now, I will either be dead or in jail or in hospital, because I'm not just going to walk out of my house and say goodbye," one American said in "Withdrawal."
In July 2005, nobody knew how violent the evacuation would be. Were the settlers armed? How would the army and police remove them? What would happen if they wouldn't go? Would an evacuation be possible?
But in 2007, knowing the ending -- that the settlements were evacuated without much injury or harm -- there is another more pressing question: What has the withdrawal from Gaza wrought?
That's one question the films cannot answer, given that they were made so close to the actual event. Some films end with epigrams telling where the evacuees live, but none can tell us what the long-term effects will be on them -- or their evacuators.
How will their lives be affected? Although disengagement only lasted five days, one thing that all the films make clear is that the disengagement was indeed a "Storm of Emotions" for settlers, as well as soldiers.
The disengagement ruptured Israeli society, unearthing the long-simmering rift between secular and religious, settler and peacenik, as never before in its history.
Whether Israel -- and Israelis -- will recover from this remains the real question for five -- or 10-year anniversary documentaries. Will the Gaza disengagement be a footnote in Israel's tumultuous history, just one of many battles, or will it be, as one of the settlers cries out to the evacuators: "It's a crime that will haunt you the rest of your lives."