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Closely monitored by Hamas, open-air cinema offers Gazans a rare trip to the movies

Gaza residents took their seats in front of a large projector screen set up on a sandy beach, a rare event in the Islamist-ruled blockaded enclave that has no operating cinemas.

Over two weeks in summer, the “Cinema of the Sea” festival, which ended Monday, screened some 15 films, many of them with Palestinian actors or producers.

Providing a respite from the heat, the waterfront “is the only outlet for the residents” in the impoverished territory, said Ali Muhanna, a theater director involved in the initiative.

Around 2.3 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, which has been under a crippling blockade by Israel and Egypt since the Hamas terror group seized power in a bloody coup in 2007. Jerusalem says the blockade is aimed at preventing Hamas, which openly seeks Israel’s destruction and has launched thousands of rockets toward Israeli cities, from arming itself.

Sitting barefoot in a pink dress at the open-air cinema on Gaza City’s beach, seven-year-old Salma Shamaleh was transfixed by the screen.

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“I have never seen a TV this size,” she told AFP as she watched “Ferdinand,” an animated blockbuster that tells the story of a giant but soft-hearted black bull.

The first film screenings in Gaza date to the 1940s, with the opening of the Samer Cinema, whose building now houses a car dealership.

Cinemas were forced to close in the late 1980s during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada. They reopened following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s but for years have largely been gathering dust.

In 1996, Islamists set a Gaza cinema ablaze.

While cinemas are not explicitly banned, Hamas authorities fear they may amplify what they view as foreign or Western beliefs that go against Islamic traditions.

There have been some outdoor screenings in recent years, most notably amid the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes during wars fought with Gaza terror groups.

Like across much of the eastern Mediterranean, Gazans have flocked to the seaside in recent weeks to escape soaring temperatures.

Shamaleh was thrilled by the cinematic experience. “Our house is nearby, I’ll ask my mom for us to come every day,” she said.

Palestinian children watch a movie at a pop-up open-air cinema at the beach in Gaza City on July 28, 2023, as there are no movie theaters in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP)

‘Never seen anything like it’

The festival’s program featured “Farha,” a Jordanian film that, through a young girl’s perspective, depicts alleged atrocities committed against Palestinians during the 1948 War of Independence that led to Israel’s creation.

The hard-hitting film, which was slammed by Israeli ministers when it came out last year, resonated with Mona Hanafi, 50, who watched it with her daughter and dozens of other spectators.

“The film is brilliant in addressing a realistic Palestinian story… The performance and directing are impressive,” she said. “Seeing the children and people watching the open cinema in Gaza made me happy.”

Palestinian children watch a movie at a pop-up open-air cinema at the beach in Gaza City on July 28, 2023, as there are no movie theaters in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP)

Another audience member, Hadeel Hajji, said she had “never seen anything like that in my life.”

“I was with my family when I saw the screen from far away, so I came to watch,” she told AFP.

“Cinema of the Sea” was organized by Al-Bahr Elna Cooperative cafe in partnership with the Hamas-run culture ministry.

The cooperative was established in 2020 by a group of artists, with start-up funding from Palestinian institutions. Since that initial cash dried up, the group has relied on donations.

For Muhanna, the cafe’s founder, the festival has been an opportunity to show films that demonstrate how “Palestinians contributed to producing [cinema] and conveying the values of society.”

Atef Askoul, head of the Hamas-appointed body responsible for approving public art events, said Gazans who suffer from miserable living conditions under the blockade have “the right to watch films and cinema,” but did not address the issue of whether the terror group will start authorizing cinemas to operate on a permanent basis.