The Digital Journalist
The Unsettling Truth of Denial in the Gaza Strip
October 2006

by Shaul Schwarz

In August 2005, I headed back to my home country after an eight-year absence to film a documentary on the Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip. I soon realized that the primary focus of my film would center around the issues of faith versus denial. What resulted was not only a film but also a series of still photographs that would tell the story of the political unrest and the effect on the local community at the time and would result in the most coveted prize at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image: the Visa d'Or award for news.

GAZA, Nov. 15, 2004: Under a brooding sky, Israeli army tanks sit deep in the sand dunes near the Kisofim route, which is the only road leading into the Gush Katif Settlement block.

Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images
Nine thousand settlers were due to be pulled from their homes within two weeks starting on August 15, 2005 as part of Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. I felt I needed to live there to immerse myself in the lives of the settlers in order to better understand their loss versus the political situation at the time. Growing up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, I never believed I would live in a settlement on the Gaza Strip but that was where I stayed for four months to work on this project.

After 38 years of occupation and conflict, "Gush Katif," the block of settlements in the Gaza Strip and Hebrew for "Harvest Belt," was completely fenced off from the 1.1 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Only one hour's drive from where I grew up, there was an Israel I had not known. At this unique time in its existence Gush Katif was a quiet beach area that manifested a feeling of nostalgia within me, as if it would never be this way again.

WEST BANK: Israeli settlers stand hand-in-hand on Feb. 1, 2006, as they try to block Israeli riot police from coming to the West Bank outpost of Amona. The residents of Amona compose one of 87 unauthorized West Bank settlements, according to the Israeli government.

Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images
I lived with a family, a husband and wife team with six children who had since moved on to live their lives. The house was one of the nicest in Gush Katif. Shlomo Wassertil, the owner, was a very proud farmer who spent each day watering his garden and caring for his property. Ironically, he grew flowers in his garden and sold them worldwide. He had built the house from sand 29 years earlier. He showed me a picture of the original sand dune that was there when he first came. He'd carry that picture in his pocket to show anyone who would say that the pullout should happen because it's not his land.

SHIRAT HYAM: A boy stands in front of a tent in the newly built tent city in Shirat Hyam, July 27, 2005. Settlers build the tent cities to host non-residents trying to come in to Gush Katif to show support for the local settlers. Shirat Hayam, one of the smallest of 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip, was established by settlers after a deadly Palestinian attack on an Israeli school bus in Gaza at the start of the Palestinian uprising four years ago.

Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images
During the day he would take care of his regular errands as if nothing was happening, but all the while the soldiers walked down the street ready to execute their plan. Denial was abundant throughout the community. The idea that this wasn't going to happen and the devastating truth consumed me constantly.

Being of Israeli descent, it was easier for me to get the access I needed to tell the story. I got a taste of what was to come: the more the residents were in denial, the more we began to grow apart - reality was too strong. I would tell them that they had to be responsible – that they needed to make preparations. Their homes, their gardens, their dreams would all be gone soon and they needed to prepare. But packing up and moving on was like giving up, and giving up meant that you were a traitor within the local community. I think in the end they all knew what was going to happen but these people remained true to themselves and their beliefs by not playing along.

GAZA: An Israeli settler escapes from a fire with the Torah book during the evacuation of the settlement of Neve-Dekalim in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 17, 2005.

Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images
What was most amazing to me was the fact that there was no violence in the end. Just acceptance. When finally the house was bulldozed, as the whole community of houses was, a sense of relief was seen on their faces. They wanted to see their house being demolished—it was as if it was their final acceptance of a situation that they had no control over. Instead of weeping over their loss, I saw them picking up fruits from the ruins and eating them. Eating an apple all of a sudden was the most interesting thing to watch in that moment.

It was a remarkable thing to be a part of a story that is so much a part of me. While I had the access necessary to take on the assignment, being absent for eight years allowed me the outside view so I could watch with different eyes and tell a story that will be forever in my memory.

© Shaul Schwarz

Shaul Schwarz was born in Israel and moved to New York in 1999 as a freelance photographer. Today he is still based in New York and is represented by Getty Images.
Schwarz's work has appeared in major international publications such as Life, Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, The New York Times, Le Monde II, L'Espresso Magazine, and Stern, among others. He has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extensively in the last eight years. Schwarz has also covered stories in the United States, Senegal, France, Jordan, Mexico, Israel, Haiti and Afghanistan as well as other countries. Schwarz started developing an interest in filmmaking within the last three years. His short reports have aired on Israel's Channel 2. "The Block," his first feature film, was completed in June 2006 and will be released to theaters soon. In 2004, Shaul won two World Press awards along with two POY awards for his coverage of the uprising in Haiti. Other awards include being named one of PDN's 30 photographers, the Visa d'Or award for news at Perpignan 2006 for his still photography work in Gaza. He was also awarded "Magazine Story of the Year" by POY for his Gaza pullout coverage.

Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.