Gaza and the Trope of Encirclement

Curator's Note

In Where Should the Birds Fly (2010), Fida Qishta’s documentary about the blockade of Gaza, the 2008–9 Israeli attack and its aftermath, fishermen in Northern Gaza are shown under fire, as the Palestinian territorial waters in which they fish are policed by Israeli gunboats.

It departs from more familiar media representations of the Middle East, such as The Honourable Woman (BBC and Sundance, 2014), in which protagonist Nessa Stein is kidnapped in Gaza. Aired during Israel’s attack on Gaza in July–August 2014, the imagery of Palestinian militants abducting an Israeli citizen encapsulated the fearful consequences of “terror tunnels” covered on mainstream UK news media and deemed an existential threat to Israel since they permitted Palestinians to “infiltrate.”

As noted in Cinema Journal’s “In Focus” section (vol. 54, no. 4, 2015), The Honourable Woman bears influences from Homeland (Showtime, 2011–), including its captivity plot. Homeland itself derives from Israeli thriller Hatufim (Channel 2, 2010–2012), suggesting similarities between US and Israeli security discourses based on settler-colonial imaginaries.

Along with news reports of ever-present threats from extremist groups, these televisual fictions support a paranoid politics – the need for extreme security measures and aggressive military actions to safeguard a nation constantly at danger from enemies within and without – developing a trope of encirclement traceable to the Hollywood western.

Portrayals of Palestinians as “infiltrators” tap into that genre’s colonial imagery of the “civilized” and the “barbarian” which, Robert Stam and Louise Spence have remarked, “turn[s] history on its head, by making the Native Americans appear [as] intruders on what was originally their [home]land” (Screen, vol. 24, no. 2, 1983). In westerns, white settlers are shown encircled by primitive attackers, whose hostility is inexplicable. Mainstream news reproduces this colonial perspective, presenting for our sympathy Israel as a besieged nation, surrounded by inexplicably hostile assailants.

Where Should the Birds Fly provides striking contrast to news footage where Israel is portrayed as under siege and encircled by hostile attackers, threatened by “infiltrators” and tunnels. It presents the opposite scenario: the colonized being encircled and terrorized by tanks on land and gunboats at sea.

Though not a direct reply to US and UK television drama and news (nor even Hollywood westerns), rather arising from the bleak situation of Palestinians in Gaza, such scenes offer a counterpoint to those dominant media discourses.


Great post, Shohini. The footage is quite disturbing, to say the least. In addition to describing the physical attack, encirclement also strikes me as the economic mode for the occupation of Gaza, in terms of the movement of labor and goods.

Thank you Sara! Yes, you're absolutely right. The trope of encirclement perfectly describes Israel's blockade of Gaza, ongoing since 2007, which is both military and economic. It creates a boundary through which only a bare minimum of goods and services (including food, medicine, fuel, power supply and building materials) are allowed to pass through. I totally recommend Eyal Weizman's book The Least of all Possible Evils, which discusses the effects of the blockade on the population of Gaza as a method of slow killing, reflecting Israel's sovereign power over the territory: to decide who should live and who should die. What I think Where Should the Birds Fly brings to this as a film is its ability to juxtapose the physical violence of attack with these more invisible, structural kinds of violence, allowing us to see the continuity between them. In the scene with the fishermen, for example, the Israeli gunboats both physically intimidate and seek to destroy their livelihoods.

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