The Gaza Documentary That Managed to Anger Both Lovers and Haters of Israel

'One Day in Gaza,' a BBC-PBS Frontline production, documents the violent events on the Gaza border in May 2018

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A Palestinian woman walks through black smoke from burning tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018.
A Palestinian woman walks through black smoke from burning tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, May 14, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

Award-winning documentary maker Olly Lambert must be confused.

His latest work, “One Day in Gaza,” has been pounced upon, in equal measure, by Israel’s staunchest supporters and its most vocal enemies. Both sides see in it vindication of their version of the events of May 14, 2018 on the Israel-Gaza border. Whether this is a badge of honor for Lambert or an indictment against his documentary is open to debate.

What is not open to debate, however, is that “One Day in Gaza” – a BBC and WGBH/Frontline coproduction – is an admirable and honorable attempt to document what the narrator calls “one of the most deadly days in Gaza for a generation.”

The undisputed facts of that day are as follows: Israeli and American dignitaries were gathering in Jerusalem to inaugurate the new U.S. Embassy – a move that had sparked region-wide protests when it was announced several months earlier. In Gaza, meanwhile, there had been weeks of largely peaceful protests against the Israeli blockade. Now, spurred on by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, hundreds of thousands of Gazans were arriving at the area adjacent to the border fence for what was being called “The Great March of Return.”

Imagined, real or exaggerated, there was concern in Israel that hundreds of thousands of Gazans would pour out of the beleaguered enclave and would, by sheer mass of numbers, overpower the IDF’s defensive line.

Israeli intelligence believed that Hamas was planning to use civilians as a human shield, allowing its fighters to approach and breach the border fence. In response to what appears to be live fire from among the protestors and repeated attempts to approach the fence, the IDF opened fire on the crowd. More than 60 people were killed and a subsequent United Nations report accused Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In purely journalistic terms, “One Day in Gaza” is a remarkable accomplishment. Using more than 120 hours of footage from a truly impressive range of sources, Lambert and his team put together a roughly chronological account of that day.

They combine harrowing mobile phone footage from the very center of the protests with infrared imaging provided by the IDF; and intimate and heart-breaking interviews with relatives of Gazan fatalities, along with shots of the military command center from which the Israeli operation was coordinated.

“One Day in Gaza” is not for the faint of heart. Lambert does not shy away from depicting death in its most graphic form; inevitably, given the subject matter, we see many people shot, dead and dying.

While the documentary has rightly been praised for its impartiality, allowing both sides of the narrative to play out on the screen without any heavy-handed editorial devices to elicit sympathy, it is not without flaws.

Other Israeli outlets, including those dedicated to ensuring that the international media give Israel a fair press, have taken issue with one specific part of the documentary. When translating comments from some of the Gazan interviewees, the producers opted to translate the Arabic word “yahud” (Jew) as “Israeli.” As in, protestors vowing to breach the border fence and “rip an Israeli’s head off.” Critics accused the producers of whitewashing the anti-Semitism that is undeniably prevalent in Palestinian society by replacing “Jew” with “Israeli.” Producers argued that, when Palestinians use the word “yahud,” they nearly always mean “Israeli.” The BBC, in response to complaints, said: “We sought expert advice on the translation before broadcast and we believe the translation of ‘Yehudi’ as ‘Israeli’ in this documentary is both accurate and true to the speakers’ intentions.”

This may well be the case, but the mistranslation, even if it was deliberate, has created a cloud of suspicion against the whole documentary. Perhaps an editorial note, explaining that “yahud” is used in Palestinian Arabic when referring to Israelis, could have sidestepped this particular landmine.

On the flip side of this, at least one of the Gazans who was interviewed for “One Day in Gaza” has accused its makers of “adopting the Israeli narrative.” Ahmed Abu Artema, a Palestinian author and activist, claims that “the narrative of that day was twisted in the hands of those very skillful at rewriting Palestinian history.” He argues that, justifying “the aggressors’ version of the story” by giving it equal airtime is “is an act of incitement.”

Writing on the website of Middle East Eye, Artema admits that the mass, peaceful protests of that day were “hijacked by Hamas and other groups that drove people to the fence – in some cases against their will – to be used as cannon fodder against a phalanx of Israeli snipers.” In so doing, he appears to inadvertently back those pro-Israel advocates who claimed that the documentary proves that Israel’s narrative of that day was right.

There were other flaws, too. On the Palestinian side, Lambert and his crew cast a wide net, interviewing civilians, activists, political and even military leaders. On the Israeli side, with two problematic exceptions, all the interviewees were members of the defense forces.

And who were those two problematic non-military interviewees? One was an Israeli-American grandmother living on a kibbutz adjacent to the border and the other was none other than former MK Michael Oren, an Israeli born in the U.S., whose recent behavior and pronouncements (on annexation and the BDS movement, for example) have left him on the very far margins of Israeli politics.

Simmering cauldron

“One Day in Gaza” is not and does not claim to be a comprehensive overview of the Gordian Knot that is Gaza. Egypt’s role in perpetuating the suffering of the two million people living there was not mentioned even once and the United Nations, which has a permanent presence in the Strip, only made a brief appearance two-thirds of the way through.

It is, however, a focused, level-headed examination of one of the bloodiest days in recent years. Critics will find plenty of political and editorial gripes, but, as long as those critics come from both sides of the conflict, Lambert should be satisfied.

For the rest of us, however, especially those of us who believe that Israel’s future depends on ending the occupation and the generations-long suffering of the Palestinian people, “One Day in Gaza” is ultimately a depressing experience. On the Palestinian side, we saw how Hamas and Islamic Jihad use the civilian population for their own ends, oblivious to the human cost; on the Israeli side, there is no talk of ending this untenable situation – only of keeping a lid on it.

In the meantime, underneath that lid, there is a simmering cauldron of resentment and pride, anger and impotency – fueled by religious and political incitement. “One Day in Gaza” shines a brief spotlight on the criminal, inhumane and untenable behavior of leaders on both sides.

“One Day in Gaza” aired on the BBC in the United Kingdom on May 14, 2019. A scheduled broadcast on PBS stations across the United States on the same day was replaced by an updated Frontline report on the Mueller report. According to Frontline, it will be broadcast at a future date. The documentary can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer inside the U.K. and is available for download elsewhere.

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