Withdrawal From Gaza

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

On August 15, 2005, Israeli soldiers removed Jewish settlers from their longtime homes in the Gaza Strip in an attempt to broker peace with the Palestinians. The emotional and political tumult created by this controversial measure forms the heart of Withdrawal From Gaza, a documentary that has the best of intentions but unfortunately overplays its hand, becoming repetitive and overwrought rather than insightful or searing.

Directors Joel Blasberg and Oreet Rees structure their story around that fateful summer day, two years ago, when troops began evicting residents of the Gaza Strip, specifically Gush Katif, the collective name for the 21 Jewish settlements of the region.

In between showing the days progression from peaceful protests to angry skirmishes to tearful resignation as the settlers reluctantly give up their land, Blasberg and Rees cut away to offer snapshots of several Gush Katif families in the months before their removal, as they prepare for their inevitable departure. In addition, Withdrawal From Gaza gathers different government and military officials who reflect upon the disengagement, discussing its historical significance and evaluating its effectiveness.

Blasberg and Rees do solid work at offering a snapshot of the days events, immersing the viewer in the mixed emotions at play–for both the soldiers and the civilians. Several impassioned settlers can be seen imploring their Jewish brothers and sisters in the military not to obey their orders, calling upon their national and religious pride. Looking at many of the soldiers conflicted faces, its clear that they find no joy in this assignment.

Withdrawal From Gaza also exposes the sadness and anger Prime Minister Ariel Sharons decision brought to the lives of those who had lived in the Gaza Strip for up to 30 years who now had nowhere to go. By revealing the chaos that went on during the evacuation, the filmmakers expose the hypocrisy of a government that seeks peace with a hostile foe by blithely ousting innocent families who have lost loved ones to terrorism. Earlier footage of Sharon proudly telling appreciative Gaza residents that they represent the backbone of Israels democracy is particularly damning.

Blasberg and Rees dont try to simplify the magnitude of the days activities, instead giving a sense of the disorganization and turmoil caused by Sharons act. The filmmakers do, however, go out of their way to argue that neither the Israeli people nor their elected representatives did much to stop Sharon, extending the blame for the evacuation beyond just the prime minister.

While Withdrawal From Gaza elicits sufficient emotional response, several creative decisions hamper the documentarys effectiveness, resulting in a film with a potent topic but only scattershot execution.

The first major problem is the films lack of distinctive interview subjects. While the settlers who speak on camera earn sympathy because of their imminent hardship, very few of them offer perspectives that are truly interesting. They speak of their anger at their own government, their love of Gush Katif, and their feelings about their religious beliefs, but due to limited screen time, the witnesses tend to blur into one another. The noticeable exception is a retired former soldier, who lost his arm in combat but maintains his love for Israel, even though he disapproves of the evacuation, gallantly announcing that if soldiers come to remove him, hell end up dead, in prison, or in hospitalanything but comply.

Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to include many speakers so as to suggest how many lives were affected; they even talked to a soldier who dreads removing Gaza families. But this strategy ends up having the opposite effect: It diminishes them as individuals and makes them seem like mouthpieces.

Withdrawal From Gaza also stumbles while probing Israels identity crisis and examining the internal tension between its religious and secular sectors. In contrast to the emotional upheaval seen during the disengagement, the debate about the nature of Judaism in the midst of terrorism and anti-Semitism feels more academic and intellectual than heartfelt. Since Sharons decision polarized Israelis–not to mention failed to appease the Palestinians, who soon after gave the fiercely anti-Israel Hamas a legislative majority–the films tepid discussion feels like a missed opportunity.

The filmmakers have gathered an impressive amount of footage from the Gaza removal, but they make the mistake of including too many moments that repeat the same emotional and thematic beats, which turn their documentary didactic. Theres no denying that its heartrending to see people forced from their homes–especially when the soldiers who are doing it are crying as well–but Blasberg and Rees offer a litany of these images, which slowly becomes tedious. Withdrawal From Gaza makes the mistake of confusing repetition with a persuasive argument. Likewise, the films maudlin piano score grows more insistent as we see more houses destroyed and more people displaced, needlessly hammering a point that has already been effectively made.

The events of August 15, 2005 are still a fresh wound for many Israelis, as the emotionally-charged Withdrawal From Gaza makes clear. Hence, the films flaws suggest that it may be too soon for the definitive, or more balanced, treatment of those events.


Running time: 96 minutes

Directors: Joel Blasberg, Oreet Rees
Production company: Highway 51 Productions
US Distribution: Forbidden City International
Executive producers: Arnold Peltz, Joel Blasberg
Producer: Joel Blasberg
Co-producer: Michael Wool
Editor: Oreet Rees
Music: Simone Benyacar
Camera: Yoram Milo, Daniel Gal