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WATCH: Children long for kites, not bombs, in Gaza skies

Musa, Widad and thousands of Palestinian children in Gaza had cried out for the world’s attention when they broke the Guinness World Record. Had we heeded their message, perhaps the sky over Gaza today would not be choked with plumes of smoke.

By Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill

Four years ago we began making a documentary film focused on two charismatic teenagers in the Gaza Strip, whose passion for kites seemed unusually spirited in a place beset by years of blockade and deprivation. Along with thousands of other Palestinian children, they were determined to break the Guinness World Record for the most kites flown at once.

When we first met Musa in the village of Seifa, he was a confident 14-year-old who enthusiastically built large kites with great precision using newspaper, sticks and wheat-paste. Widad, his 12-year-old sister, competed with Musa to build her own colorful kites while teasing him with witty humor and sarcasm. They wanted to participate in the record-breaking event so that Gazans could finally be seen and heard – they wanted the world to notice them and the war-torn, besieged coastal strip of land that is their home.

WATCH: Gaza children break Guinness World Record in new documentary:

“I am expressing myself and writing a message to the entire world,” one kite-flying girl declared on the day of the record-breaking event. The message written on her kite?: I have the right to pride, to education, to justice, equality and life. Musa in his wisdom felt that kite flying had another crucial role to play. “It will help us forget the trauma of war,” he told us.

When we began filming in July 2010, Musa and Widad had already lived through the devastating 2008-2009 war in Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead.” In November 2012, they would survive yet another violent campaign of aerial bombardment.

Musa and Widad are now enduring their third war; the harshest, most catastrophic assault yet. It was traumatic enough during Cast Lead, when the family huddled together in one room as the children screamed in fear from loud detonations surrounding them. On July 22, 2014, their home was destroyed altogether and the entire family displaced.

Musa fetching his kite from a roof while flying it on the beach in Gaza, during the filming of Flying  Paper in July 2010. (photo: Amber Fares)

Musa fetching his kite from a roof while flying it on the beach in Gaza, during the filming of Flying Paper in July 2010. (photo: Amber Fares)

Since the start of this war at least 2,101 Palestinians have been killed, over 70% of whom are civilians. On the Israeli side 64 soldiers and six civilians have been killed. Whatever the stated purpose for the hostilities, it is clear who is affected most by this onslaught: Gaza’s children. About 40% of Gaza’s population is under the age of 14, so any indiscriminate bombardment there will inevitably endanger them disproportionately.

At least 493 Palestinian children have been killed thus far with thousands more injured, many of them critically. Children have been attacked in their homes, in parks and playground, in hospitals, even in United Nations schools designated as safe areas to shelter displaced civilians.

Palestinian families take refuge at Remal Elementary UNRWA School in Gaza City after the Israeli military issued warnings to northern Gaza residents to evacuate the area, July 14, 2014. (photo: Active Stills)

Palestinian families take refuge at Remal Elementary UNRWA School in Gaza City after the Israeli military issued warnings to northern Gaza residents to evacuate the area, July 14, 2014. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

On July 28, 2014 the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al Fitr, a playground in Beach Refugee Camp was shelled, killing eight children. Widad and Musa’s own three-year old sister Afnan was severely injured on July 22, 2014 by a tank shell fired at their home.

Gaza’s children have endured hardships beyond these repeated assaults. Israel’s crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip over land, air and sea in the past seven years has led to a level of deprivation that human rights organizations have condemned as collective punishment. Lack of economic development, trade, employment, and severe restrictions on opportunities for education and travel have been devastating as have the frequent shortages in food, medicine and construction materials, leaving Palestinians in Gaza with an unbearable situation.

All violence that targets civilians must be condemned; both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in safety, security and dignity. However, Palestinian children are the ones bearing the brunt of the hostilities in this war as they have in the past. One can hardly comprehend the severe physical disabilities and emotional traumas that the children, who managed to survive the daily bombardment of Gaza, will be left with in coming months and years.

One of two children who survived an attack that killed four Palestinian boys playing on the beach in  Gaza on July 16, 2014. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

One of two children who survived an attack that killed four Palestinian boys playing on the beach in Gaza on July 16, 2014. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

On July 24, 2014 Abeer Ahmed, our co-producer who was only 16 when she began working on our film, wrote to us from her home in Jabaliya refugee camp:

Everyone is anticipating their own death, not knowing who will go first. I look intently into the faces of my siblings and mother at every moment, fearing I will lose them next. At night one can’t sleep from the sound of mortar shelling and bombing. The children wake up screaming, frightened with terrifying nightmares…

According to the U.N., at least 373,000 children in Gaza will require some form of direct and specialized psycho-social support. When the war finally ends will they still be visible to the world?

A child amidst the rubble of his home, which had been destroyed the night before in Gaza. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

A child amidst the rubble of his home, which had been destroyed the night before in Gaza. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

Musa, Widad and thousands of Palestinian children in Gaza had cried out for the world’s attention to their plight with all but colorful scraps of paper, fabric and string filling the sky. Had we heeded their message then perhaps the sky over Gaza today would not be choked with plumes of smoke.

We worry endlessly about Musa, Widad and Abeer in these dark, violent days—about their physical well-being, and the extent of trauma that they and all of Gaza’s children are experiencing. We hope the next time we see Musa his eyes will have the same glow he had the day he proudly built the largest kite he could fly with a camera attached, to film over 7,200 kites breaking the Guinness World Record in Gaza. “Is there anything more beautiful?” Musa asked wistfully on that day.

Nitin Sawhney is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York City. He has been conducting youth media programs and psychosocial research in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza since 2006. Roger Hill is an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco, who previously directed documentary films including Witness a Peace Movement and Struggle about anti-war protests and voter suppression during presidential elections in the U.S. Their new award-winning film Flying Paper has been screened in over 25 international film festivals and is currently being distributed by Journeyman Pictures.

How will Gaza’s children carry their scars into adulthood?
What would Israelis say to families of civilian casualties in Gaza?
Gaza deaths aren’t worth a mention in leading Israeli paper

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    1. Whiplash

      What a sob story. You would cry too when the greatest accomplishment of your people was the flying of some kites and a record in a book of useless records.

      We would never need to worry about Musa, Widad and Abeer if their Palestinian terror leaders did not attack the state of Israel. It was terror attacks, blowing up of Israeli children on buses, at pizza parlors, in schools and in their homes which brought an end to Palestinians free access to and through Israel.

      Maybe someday, the Palestinians will mature, take responsibility for their actions and start providing their people with an environment for peace, growth and personal freedoms.

      Reply to Comment
      • Jan

        Whiplash I don’t know if you have any children and I certainly hope that you don’t but if they were to win a kite contest you would not be in the least bit unhappy if their accomplisment was reported upon.

        That said, if you do have children I would hope that they never had to live all their lives under the horrible and brutal Israeli military occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza that has gone on for more than 47 years. Maybe you wouldn’t mind living under an occupation where either you or your kids could b

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          in 2009 the President of the Palestinians Abu Mazen told Jackson Deihl of the Washington Post that he rejected Olmert’s proposal because he could wait, the living was good in Ramallah. The people in the West Bank enjoy a standard of living equal or better than their brothers in other surrounding countries.

          The fact is that the Palestinian Arabs could have had a state in 1947, 1967, 1978, 2000, 2001 or 2008 but they preferred not to have a state of their own because they preferred to destroy Israel more than they wanted a state of their own.

          Reply to Comment
      • Jan

        cont. Maybe you wouldn’t mind living under an occupation where either you or your kids could be shot and killed at the whim of an IDF soldier. Maybe you wouldn’t mind if your home was demolished by Israel. In 2010 the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions estimated that at least 25,000 homes had been destroyed in the West Bank and Gaza. That number did not include those destroyed by Israeli war planes and missiles. Those house demolitions started way before there were any suicide bombers. At least half of the suicide bombers had been children when their homes were demolished. Suicide bombing is horrible but just as horrible is Israel’s vicious occupation where even non-violent demonstrations are met with violence by the IDF who use tear gas, rubber and real bullets against demonstrators.

        You can’t imprison a people forever and not expect retaliation. Maybe someday, the Israelis will mature, take responsibility for their actions and start providing the Palestinians with an environment for peace, growth and personal freedoms in their own land on all of the land Israel has occupied since 1967.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Who died and said people have to “earn” the right to dignity or to not be pushed around?

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          That is the problem Ray. Palestinians think that they do not have to earn anything and sit back and wait for the welfare to roll in from UNWRA, the US, the EU and other countries. Rarely do the Palestinians do any thing constructive to help themselves. Flying kites and martyrdom operations against Israelis does not cut it.

          Reply to Comment
          • WhiplashWhiplash

            Why are you generalizing? What gives you the right to call Palestinians lazy? Oh, I wish you would become a Palestinian for one day and see how hard life can be. It’s easy to sit your butt behind a computer while sitting in Starbucks sipping on coffee. Palestinians are hard working people as much as any other people of the world. You are here only to spread hate. You are the destroyer of peace.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            I did not call the Palestinians lazy. Some have been very industrious and creative in the military and terrorism spheres. I called their actions non-constructive, meaning that their actions are aimed at pursuits which bring harm to them. Let me give you a concrete example. Palestinians took ten thousands of tonnes of concrete and instead of using it to build hospitals, clinics, housing, industrial parks, electric generating stations, waste water treatment plants or water desalination plants, they used it to build tunnels and military infrastructure to attack Israel. In furtherance to building the tunnels the Palestinians spent large amounts of money and used child labor, which up to November of 2011 had cost 160 lives of Palestinian children, after which point they stopped counting. Again this is a sign of destructive not constructive behavior. When Israel first found a tunnel into Israel last winter during the heavy rain, Israel stopped letting in supplies of concrete and rebar. Eventually, the tunnels led to Israel sending in ground forces which destroyed the tunnels and wrought great destruction to a number of neighborhoods in Gaza.

            Instead of occupying engineers’ and architects’ time with building civic buildings, their time went into designing a military complex. They designed the tunnels, the electrical and phone systems, areas for caching food and living underground. They designed and help build rockets to fire at Israel.

            Yet since the Gaza power plant was built in 2002 by the international community the Gazans have been unable to build out their relay systems so that the plant could operate at its full capacity as it was designed to do. Prior to the war the plant was operating at no more than 43% of its capacity. (Before Hamas took control of Gaza that figure was 65%). With the electrical shortages of power in Gaza where power was available for 8-12 hours a day before the war, one would have thought that engineers, millwrights, electrical contractors and construction companies would have swiftly built out the relay stations and systems needed to provide civil society with the energy it needs. But they have not because their resources have been put into preparing for a military confrontation which they have no hope of winning, unless you consider 10 billion dollars of direct physical damage, 2100 dead, 10,000 injured and over 100,000 people homeless a victory for Gaza.

            So, this is why I say that Palestinians fail to take constructive actions to help themselves.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            Who are you to pass judgement on an entire people? Apparently, struggling for independence and dignity means nothing compared to whether or not one can “get their act together.” Maybe black South Africans should’ve gotten their act together, and then the noble, hard-working white christians would’ve seen fit to give them their freedom. All that fighting was for nothing.

            Memo to you, and every single one of your countrymen: GET OVER YOURSELVES.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            “struggling for independence and dignity”

            If anything Palestinians have been struggling against their own independence and dignity. The Palestinian Arabs have refused a state so many times, it is apparent that they do not want independence; what they want is dependency on UNWRA, the United States and the EU. Independence means standing on your own two feet.

            How much dignity do the Palestinians have when they choose to neglect social and infrastructure requirements of the people in order to arm fanatical factions for war? It was only last winter when Gazans were literally swimming in their own excrement because Gazans decided to spend their resources on war materials instead of renewing their infrastructure to handle their waste materials.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            I hope you can see the hypocrisy and elitism evident in lecturing weaker people in a deal on the virtues of “half a loaf is better than none,” from a position of privilege and power.

            None of those “generous deals” involved the settlers picking up and going home, once and for all, East Jerusalem, etc. Are those settlements and bits of land so important, and East Jerusalem so vital that Israel can insist on keeping them, and then blaming the other side for being “greedy” when it comes to their ancestral land?

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            Ray – All of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria are home for the Jewish people. Not only do the Jewish people have long standing moral and historical rights to live in any part of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, the international community through the unanimous vote of the members of the League of Nations designated an area known as Mandate Palestine for the re-establishment of the Jewish Home. The rights under the mandate system under the Covenant of the LON were called a sacred trust of civilization and were enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. That Charter preserves the right of Jewish people to exercise their rights of settlement and development given to them under the Mandate unless they consent to their relinquishment.

            Now here is the important part, both Barak and Olmert on behalf of the Jewish people proposed to relinquish Jewish rights over about 97% of Judea and Samaria and agreed to the Palestinians annexing parts of East Jerusalem for their future state. Under these proposals up to 100,000 Jews would have been forced out of their homes. Not one Arab would be forced from his home. The international community stood by with billions of dollars to help the Palestinians build their new state and not one shekel for the relocation of Jews from their home.

            Olmert’s and Barak’s offers are no longer on the table, because anyone can see that the Palestinians would use any land given them to better prosecute their attacks against Israel in support of their long standing demand that the Jewish state be destroyed and replaced with another Arab state.

            Reply to Comment