In the summer of 2014, on the day that Operation Protective Edge began, Mohamed Jabaly was working in the hospital in Gaza. He was filming an operation there for a movie he was making. When he heard about the outbreak of the fighting between Israel and Gaza, he asked permission to join one of the ambulance crews, without giving too much thought to it. From then until the end of the war, he and his camera were, like the paramedic team, a constant presence in the ambulance racing around Gaza for the next few weeks, rushing to help anyone they could.
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The result is “Ambulance,” an hour-long documentary that has been shown in many international documentary film festivals, including the prestigious IDFA festival in Holland, and was also recently shown on Channel 8 on Israeli cable television. For Israeli viewers, a film like this offers a rare opportunity to get a more in-depth view of what went on in those days in Gaza, from a different angle. This is a direct, penetrating view that doesn’t try to soften or sanitize the difficult scenes, which haven’t been cut and edited into something that would fit into the format of a television news program.
Accompanying the ambulance crew, Jabaly reached the wounded just minutes after the bombardments and was able to film people and places that were affected even before the clouds of dust could settle, and to capture the looks of terror on the faces of those who’d just seen death pass before their eyes. Many of the scenes, therefore, are stomach-churning. This film confronts the viewer with the uncensored seething mass of blood, dust and fear that was hidden that cursed summer behind the dry headlines and often overly-sterile reports that filled the newspapers and news programs.
One day that July, Jabaly was in the ambulance when it was summoned to the Gaza beach to evacuate people who were wounded by an Israel Defense Forces bombardment. Jabaly’s camera rocks on his shoulder as he runs with the paramedic team to the beach, and there it records the terrible sight of the body of a young boy sprawled on the golden sand, then being transferred to a stretcher and rushed to the ambulance. This was one of the four children who were killed that day as the result of an IDF attack, apparently while they were playing soccer on the beach.
In another terrifying scene, the ambulance crew arrives to evacuate the wounded from a bombardment, and then comes under bombardment itself a few minutes later.
“Having lived my whole life amid this reality and in the shadow of these hardships, I wanted people to experience what it’s like to be trapped in this kind of situation, when all we want is to live normal lives,” says Jabaly, interviewed last week by email. His decision to join the ambulance crew was spontaneous, he says, adding that he had no clear expectations about what would happen.
“I knew I couldn’t just sit at home and wait for the danger to find me. Everyone who lives in Gaza went through difficult moments, but the work of the ambulance crew really beckoned to me because they are actively working to help people, and when the ambulance arrives, it always brings a feeling of hope. Saving lives and teamwork are the most basic purpose of a civilized society.”
Jabaly lets his camera immortalize the death and destruction, without getting into any verbal analysis, or putting the blame on the Israeli side, or expressing an opinion on the complicated political situation. His narration does accompany the film from time to time, but the commentary is mainly personal. “I’m not a politician. I’m just someone who lives under very difficult circumstances,” he explains. “Most of the world is blind to this human reality. So I felt it was important to try to give expression to my experiences, and to let others form their own ideas about the situation.”
The camera as a friend
He didn’t tell his family that he was accompanying the ambulance crew. “I didn’t want them to start asking what I was doing. If they knew that I was going around like that with the ambulance, they would have stopped me from doing it anymore,” he says. And he often found himself drawing confidence from the camera itself, amid the raging chaos all around. “During the war, I felt like the camera was becoming my friend. It is seeing what I am seeing, witnessing what I am witnessing, so I felt less alone and less afraid. But of course this added sense of security was all in my head, because my body and the camera could have been hit and destroyed at any time.”
But Jabaly and his camera remained unscathed during the fighting, physically at least. His psyche was another story. In the last part of the movie, the ambulance team is called upon to provide aid that isn’t strictly medical. During the intensive IDF assault on the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City, for the purpose of locating and destroying Hamas tunnels many of the local residents fled from their homes. They came out to the streets in a panic, afraid to drive in their cars, and pounced on the passing ambulances, pleading with them to help them escape from the nightmarish scene.
Jabaly’s ambulance crew helped ferry people out of the neighborhood. They saw the massive destruction that occurred and heard the people’s repeated cries about the massacre of the residents. Even the ambulance crew, which had seen many terrible things before, broke down. “I’d seen blood and destruction before, but I’d never felt as scared as I did that day. I stood in the street and I filmed, and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Jabaly says in the movie. “People were uprooted from their homes and I was still hearing the booms. I lost my composure. I couldn’t control myself. I cried. I turned off the camera and decided to go home.”
Despite the large number of photographers and cameramen who had flocked to Gaza at the time, people watching the news around the world received only a partial picture of what was happening there in real time, says Jabaly. “The images alone don’t tell the story of what it really feels like to be in a place like that at a time like that. So although I’d never seen so many reporters in Gaza as I did then, people around the world don’t really know what happened during the 2014 war,” he says.
He attaches great importance to his film being shown on Israeli television, and hopes that many Israelis will see it. “I hope that while watching it, they’ll stop and think again and again about what war really means for people,” says Jabaly. “This wasn’t the first war, of course. I hope that people will get up and do something to stop another war from erupting.”