Children of Gaza

What The Press Is Saying:


Last Night's TV - True Stories: War Child, More 4; How TV Ruined Your Life, BBC2

They're playing deadly games

Reviewed by Tom Sutcliffe

The Independent, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

It is difficult to know where to begin with a film like Jezza Neumann's War Child, an account of the lives of several Palestinian children who lived through Operation Cast Lead, Israel's punitive attack on Gaza in 2008. It tackled a subject traditionally mired in claim and counter-claim by focusing on one simple and incontrovertible truth – that no child should have to watch her father shot dead in front of her and no small boy should be blinded by a missile that blew a nearby friend in half. It concentrated, in other words, on the one unanswerable argument against military violence – the collateral damage that can't be folded inside any kind of realpolitik or ever effectively defused by the rhetoric of regret. Friends of Israel may well argue that it gives a partial account of who is responsible for the suffering it showed. They may point out that Israeli children can feel pain and fear too, and that if you were to film it it would be just as piercing. But if such a thing as a dispassionate audience still exists for this kind of a film, it seems inescapable that it would contain fewer friends of Israel by the end of a viewing. And even Israel's friends might be asking themselves whether any kind of durable peace could ever be sown in such broken, blood-spattered ground.

It began with children in the wreckage, picking through the remains of their own houses and describing the day "the Jews came". Mahmoud and Amal showed us the bullet holes in their breeze-block walls, and described how their father was shot down after he answered the door to Israeli soldiers. Amal, now nine, found herself cut off from the rest of her family in a neighbour's house that was later shelled and lay for two days in the rubble between the bodies of her uncles. Archive footage showed her arriving in hospital shrieking in pain and begging for water. Now she's a solemn, quiet child, stricken with headaches from the shrapnel still embedded in her brain. Loay, aged 10, is in an even darker place, literally and figuratively. Blinded by a missile strike he flails around his house, raging at his brothers and his condition: "By God, I want to die," he wailed, "Call this living?" Ibraheem, not injured in the original assault, described his life on his brother's fishing boat, repeatedly fired on by Israeli warships that patrol the coast. On shore he plays at Jews and Arabs with his friends, making toy boats out of rubbish so they can be impounded and "taken to Ashdod to be vandalised".

The large question here was how such wounds would scar over. And the unsurprising answer was almost certainly in ugly ways. Not all of their education is in hatred. While one schoolteacher taught that friendship with "the Jews" was impossible, poisoning their minds against the "kuffar", at least one was seen encouraging his pupils to exempt Israeli children from any culpability for the wretched life they endured. But counselling understanding and forgiveness to a child who's seen her father killed in front of her isn't easy. "It's impossible I think," said one female teacher, "Could you? Could you convince Amal?" Where exactly would you begin, you wondered, and what miracle of self-incrimination would have to be involved first. "Did we hurt them?" another boy asked, questioning the reasons for the Israeli attack. The answer to which would have be a complicated "yes", though he was never going to hear that from adults locked into their own cycles of justified retaliation and self-defence. Revenge is far easier to teach, so Mahmoud's uncle shows him images of dismembered suicide bombers and teaches him how to use a Kalashnikov. "With this you'll avenge your father," he said. Mahmoud's mother smiled indulgently as her son talked proudly of one day blowing "a Jew's head off". War Child was a shocking account of how brutal and counter-productive the Israeli approach to Gaza is, but it properly let you see that that was a crime against childhood, too.




The Palestinian kids in True Stories: War Child (More4) lost a lot in Israeli missile attacks on Gaza. Brother and sister Mahmoud (10) and Amal (nine) lost their father, a younger brother, and their house. Amal was buried under rubble for four days and still has shrapnel in her brain. Another Mahmoud (12) saw his friend Hossam blown in half in front of him. Little Loay (10) lost his sight. Ibraheem (10) saw the family fishing boat, their livelihood, destroyed. All lost their childhoods.

Now, when they play in the bombed-out streets, it's always war they play at – with guns and rockets, Israelis v Palestinians, interrogation, torture, execution. A little pretend war within the real one.

They speak with great bitterness and anger, but also with enormous openness and maturity for their years. "They did not leave anything," says 10-year-old Mahmoud. "All that's left is sand. If they could have destroyed the sand, they would have destroyed that too."

"By God I want to die," cries Loay. "Call this living?" Loay is the most tragic of all, deeply emotionally traumatised as well as blinded. The sight of him learning to use his stick, a little boy tap-tapping along the pavement with a stick that's almost as tall as he is, is unbearable. "I feel the anger comes from my eyes. I want to look at lands, farms, strawberry plants, trees, flowers," he says. In his dreams he sees again. And when the rage gets too much he curls up inside the cupboard underneath the television he can no longer watch.

Then Loay is taken away from his school, where his friends are, and sent to a special place for blind kids. "I'm annoyed I've been transferred to this school." Me too mate.

There's quite a lot of annoying behaviour from the grown-ups. Young Mahmoud's uncle shows his nephew suicide bomber videos. "See how he is martyred in this scene. See how he doesn't feel a thing. These are his insides, his intestines." Then he shows the boy how to mount the magazine on a Kalashnikov, and to take aim at his own mother.

And it's not an awful lot better at school. "Could there be forgiveness between us and the Jews, could we be friends?" Mahmoud's teacher asks the class. "No!" says the class. Correct answer. "How about with the children, could we be friends with them? Mahmoud, what do you think?"

"No," says Mahmoud.

"That's right," says the teacher. "They are sinners. Therefore, there can't be either forgiveness or friendship between us." Well done everybody.

Some of the scenes in this film are familiar – they were included in a Dispatches documentary from last year. It doesn't matter, it's good enough for a second viewing. It's brilliantly done, stark and beautifully shot. There's no narration – the children, and the pictures, speak for themselves. There's a lot of humanness, some humour even. Of course there is: in spite of everything, they are still children. I like their understanding of how the Jewish faith works. "They worship idols, sand and stones. And they worship plastic. They create idols from dates and pray to them. And if they're hungry, they eat it." Plastic-worshipping, date-eating infidels.

Mostly though it's just very depressing. And when the hatred is so deeply ingrained, at such an early age, it's hard to see much hope.


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: How we are sowing the seeds of tomorrow's sectarian hatred

Nobody has the right to pass on the infection of racism to children, or enlist the innocent intheir war games and separatist ideologies

Monday, 14 February 2011

On the invigorating, weekly television programme Dateline London, on the BBC News Channel, Israeli journalist Saul Zadka told me he feared the revolution in Egypt would lead to an Islamicist takeover and presumably explosive, uncontrolled, widespread anti-Israeli hatred. We have already seen and heard individual Egyptians expressing abhorrent views about Jews and their nation. For many in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the only good Jew is a slain one, and that is what they teach their young. So yes, I empathise with Zadka's dread of what may lie ahead. That doesn't mean one has to excuse the stubborn righteousness, unshakeable bigotry and institutionalised cruelty of ardent Zionists and their state, which has placed itself outside international law.

Not many defenders of all things Israeli will turn on and watch War Child on More 4 this Tuesday. More's the pity. If they did, their skin would burn with shame and their hearts might crack and splinter. Some might find the hour unbearable. (Obviously not fanatics such as Melanie Phillips, whose rage button goes off like a fire alarm whenever Israel's violent acts are revealed.) I have just watched a preview DVD and cannot stop shaking. It transmits the anguish of Gaza like nothing I have ever seen or heard, except for another similar film, the Bafta-winning Children of Gaza, also by director Jezza Neumann and broadcast last year.

Neumann takes us back to December 2008, when the Israel Defence Force carried out its 22- day mission to punish the entrapped people of Gaza, ostensibly to stop Hamas rockets and mortars. He lets Gaza's doomed children tell the story. Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed and a blockade has prevented reconstruction and recovery. The invader never expresses doubt or sorrow and is so bone-headed that it can't see the enemies it is raising, a future of eternal conflict.

So here is nine-year-old Amal, who was buried in rubble for four days and still has shrapnel in her head causing nose bleeds, terrible headaches and weakened eyesight. Her father and brother were killed. So what becomes of this child? She cannot but detest those who did this to her and her family, and wish them terrible harm.

Her brother Mahmoud, only 11, is already learning from his uncle how to become a suicide bomber, a militant martyr: "Before, I was only thinking about reading my lessons, but [now] I started to think about becoming a defender of the nation – if I could only kill one, that would be enough." His mother weeps helplessly.

Ten-year-old Loay saw his best friend die, and was blinded in a savage bomb attack. He wets his bed now. Countless youngsters are mentally ill and are getting worse; others are filled with molten anger. Some make toy bombs and set them off playfully. They hate Israelis. You can see why. Do we expect them to say: "They only attacked us because of horrible Hamas. I really like the Israelis. They are nice people, my friends. I will like to kiss an Israeli soldier"?

Surely Zionists must ask themselves: why is worldwide odium now directed at their state and its people, many blameless? It is not all orchestrated by malevolent, Jew-hating Arabs. Israel's own policies and actions are also to blame: its refusal to look out from the battlements, to halt the fire and reflect on what they do, especially to children, their own included. I am not picking on Israel; only using the Neumann film as a powerful example of how in today's most intractable conflicts, the young are hurt and mentally programmed to replicate adult hostilities: the rejection of, and aggression towards, the "enemy". Nobody has the right to pass on the infection of racism to children, to enlist the innocent in their war games or separatist ideologies, to violate their rights. Yet that is what happens, and not only in Israel but across the Middle East, and the rest of the world, including the UK.

And that leads to another television programme, Suffer Little Children, on Dispatches, Channel 4, today. Undercover filming by a Muslim journalist in a highly praised state-funded 'Darul Uloom' (meaning 'house of knowledge') Islamic High School in Birmingham shows children as young as 11 being taught to keep away from Hindus and non-believers, and turned against Jews and Christians.

More and more such brainwashing establishments are being set up across the land, blessed by the Government, which believes in "free" and "faith" education. Mr Cameron makes fervent speeches about integration and British values and yet lets such schools work on young, impressionable minds so that when pupils emerge from this so-called education, they will have imbibed the idea that those outside their narrow religious circles are to be suspected, avoided, insulted, despised and attacked. The Prime Minister and Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, do not deign to explain why they are actively supporting divisive schools.

Children have become the most tragic victims of the unholy battles of unrelenting Zionism and Islamism – which to me means Islam that is both excessively politically charged and self-segregating. The kids they enlist to their causes are given no choices, are put into lethal situations, have their trust and curiosities bent and distorted; they must, it seems, carry on and pass on legacies of bitter antagonism until the end of time. Yet when given a chance to be true to their childish natures, the first thing kids do is reach out.

One of the most moving scenes in the Gaza film is when Palestinian youngsters say they never blame Israeli children, only the bad adults who do bad things. By the time they grow up, they will not make those distinctions. Their flickering tenderness, a small candle flame, will die. And they will be ready for combat, to blow themselves up and feel nothing. Their enemies on the other side will be similarly hardened so they can shoot and bomb and humiliate Palestinians without guilt.

Meanwhile, in many Muslim and Jewish schools in the UK, the idea of separation and suspicion will continue to be reinforced in perpetuity. People with power never see any reason to give kids a chance to be free of historical prejudices so they can make a different and more peaceful future, create possibilities not imagined by their parents or leaders. That could be one of the most pessimistic sentences I have ever typed.

Like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on The Independent