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Gaza settlers seen on own terms

March 23, 2007|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

The last thing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs is higher levels of emotion. But the predominant sentiment in Joel Blasberg and Oreet Rees' heart-rending documentary "Withdrawal from Gaza" isn't anger or hatred. It's sorrow.

The Jewish settlers who until August 2005 lived in the Gaza Strip are often portrayed as zealots and provocateurs, but in "Withdrawal" the tempers, if not the rhetoric, are cooled. Moshe Saperstein, a self-described religious fanatic who lives in the cluster of outposts known as Gush Katif, says that after the government-ordered evacuation, he will be "either dead or in jail or in hospital." But even though he denounces the Gaza pullout as "the beginning of a process that will lead to the destruction of the state of Israel," he acquiesces peacefully when the unarmed soldiers come to take him and his wife away.

"Withdrawal" intersperses emotional footage of teary-eyed soldiers carrying off struggling protesters (many of whom reportedly came from outside Gaza) with pre-pullout interviews with the settlers, who express varying degrees of resignation and defiance. "We're here to stay, for all eternity," says Yaron Adler. According to Blasberg's statement in the movie's press material, Adler and his wife, Miriam, were the only two Gaza residents preemptively arrested by the Israeli police before the pullout. The Adlers' arrest would seem worth mentioning in the film itself, even if it might clash with the picture of settlers reconciled to the will of their government.

Blasberg and Rees paint the withdrawal as a tragic but necessary step toward peace but largely downplay its practical motivations, namely the military strain of safeguarding 8,500 Jews living among 1.4 million Palestinians. They offer little explanation as to how Ariel Sharon went from calling Gaza "the front line and backbone of Israeli society" to proposing its abandonment three years later.

Tensions between the mostly religious settlers, who believe the land was promised to them in the Torah, and Israel's secular majority are mentioned in passing but not explored in depth. "Withdrawal's" most glaring omission is the lack of any serious criticism of the settlers, whether from the Jewish left or any Palestinian point of view. The latter would be less troubling were some settlers' remarks not loaded with broad references to "the Arabs," a troubling generalization the movie does nothing to rebut.

Apart from a brief reference to the Muwasi of southern Gaza, who are described as "not too concerned with questions of self-identity," the only Arabs referenced are terrorists and suicide bombers. That may be some settlers' point of view, but it needn't be the film's.

By portraying the settlers on their own terms, "Withdrawal from Gaza" injects a note of empathy into a debate too often conducted at a fever pitch. But it's a pity that empathy doesn't extend further. The climactic scenes of bulldozers destroying the settlers' recently vacated homes evoke not only tragic thoughts of the displaced families but also of Palestinians being handed the deed to piles of rubble and literally scorched earth. The movie's closing titles paint a sorrowful picture of a goodwill gesture spurned, the following January's Palestinian elections validating one settler's fear that a Gaza devoid of Jews would become "Hamastan." But that doesn't explain why Israel's gesture, momentous as it was, might have gone unheeded or even backfired.

"Withdrawal From Gaza." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd.; Encino (818) 981-9811.

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