KHAN YUNIS — A small group of Orthodox Jews walks in the narrow streets of Jerusalem's old town, protected by Israeli border police armed with M16s. They pass by Arabs who hurl rocks and insults at them. Shopkeepers rush to put their wares away and close up before violence erupts.
This scene isn't real: These streets are not in Jerusalem but in the southern Gaza area of Khan Yunis, which is controlled by the Islamist militia Hamas. A crane rapidly lowers a camera to film the scene. Hamas has built a film set in the abandoned ruins of Ganney-Tal, a former Jewish settlement, for their new TV production called Shhh. Watching TV during the month of Ramadan is a tradition across the Arab world, and the series will go on air on May 27 in time for this year's holy month.
The old city of Jerusalem — Photo: Sarah Tz
An opportunity for Hamas to present its own interpretation of history.
Instead of turning to Ramadan TV dramas from Turkey or Egypt, Hamas is now funding its own media arm, Al-Aqsa TV, to produce the first film in Gaza. Filming in Jerusalem was impossible due to political issues so the city's old quarter was recreated amid the sand dunes of southern Gaza. Every detail has been replicated, from shop stalls in narrow alleyways to villagers speaking in Hebrew and Arabic, and the ubiquitous security checks by Israeli police and soldiers. "We've tried to simulate the real Jerusalem on a small scale," says Mohammed Thoraya, general manager of Al-Aqsa TV.
The ultimate destiny of Jerusalem and its holy sites is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Israeli conquest of the city and its religious sites 50 years ago still inflames passions across the region. Palestinians claim the city as the capital of their future independent state, and the dramatic production is an attractive opportunity for Hamas to present its own interpretation of history. "Heaven's Gate will demonstrate the steadfastness of Jerusalemites and their love for their land in the face of Zionist occupation," says Zouhir Al-Efrengi, the director.
Filming in Jerusalem was impossible due to political issues — Photo: Israel Tourism
All of the actors and producers in Heaven's Gate hail from Gaza, and most of them have never set foot in Jerusalem. The screenwriters watched old movies filmed in Jerusalem's Old City to help shape the script. Hamas is keeping the film budget a secret, but the crane and the professional filming equipment belie a significant outlay. The actors are paid little — from $4 a day for extras to $9 for starring roles — but the youngsters turning up to play orthodox Jews and Israeli policemen are here for the opportunity to take part in the production, not for the wages.
While the plot of Heaven's Gate is still under wraps, it's not difficult to discern the narrative that Hamas wants to present. In the decade since it wrested control of Gaza in 2007, the group has fought three wars with Israel and remains officially committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. These are the themes it seeks to transmit through its media wing.
Frequent power outages and an amateur talent pool make filming in Gaza difficult; one scene in Heaven's Gate required 19 takes due to rolling blackouts. Gaza's small film industry is forging ahead despite these challenges. But like both showbiz and politics, success is never guaranteed.
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