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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jack Seale

The Darkest Days: Israel-Gaza Six Months On review – two half-hours of TV cannot do justice to the lives lost

A displaced Palestinian man pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with his belongings in the southern Gaza Strip
A displaced Palestinian man pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with his belongings in the southern Gaza Strip. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The concept of “balance” in BBC reporting is a cornerstone of the corporation’s journalistic ethos, but it may well come to be seen as a key factor in its decline. On everything from Brexit to climate change, the obsession with giving equal exposure to each participant in an unequal dispute has proven to be a poison. So it is with The Darkest Days: Israel-Gaza Six Months On, an assiduous application of the BBC’s famed ability to see both sides.

The process of distribution here is stark. The Darkest Days is split into two separate programmes, bookended by brief remarks from the BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet. Equal time is given to the 7 October attacks on Israel by Hamas, during which Israeli authorities say about 1,140 people were killed, and the six months of attacks on Gaza that followed, during which Palestinian authorities say at least 33,000 people have been killed so far.

The first half, subtitled Black Dawn: Testimonies from the Nova festival massacre, draws on smartphone footage shot by Israelis who were enjoying a dance music festival in the early morning of 7 October when Hamas arrived. It is a stunning, shocking half hour: after the music is abruptly halted, there is a torrent of unforgettable images and scenarios. We see inside the portable toilet where two sisters hid, praying that the men rampaging outside wouldn’t open the door and find them – at one point, the shadow of a Hamas fighter, the outline of his gun clearly visible, passes across the sunlight beaming through a gap underneath the toilet door. We see through the windscreen of a car, full of fleeing festival-goers who come across armed men in the road, who fire into the vehicle. We see inside a bombproof bus shelter where 30 or more people hid, only for Hamas to arrive and throw grenades into the tightly packed, terrified throng.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, we see bodycam footage apparently filmed by an Israeli soldier approaching the centre of the festival just after the massacre: he walks past bodies, bodies, bodies, bodies, a drinks freezer with a Coca-Cola logo on the side, bodies and more bodies. It was the worst single terror attack in Israeli history: 364 people were killed, and the horror and lasting trauma of the day are vividly captured.

Part two is entitled Gaza 101: Emergency Rescue – 101 being the Gaza equivalent of 999 – and is the work of journalist Feras Al-Ajrami, embedded with paramedic volunteer teams from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. This section is less immediate and immersive than the film shot in Israel, since it comprises almost entirely the aftermath of attacks or secondhand reports on them, rather than pitching us into the chaos as it happens. Nevertheless, it is grim, gut-punching viewing, following ambulance drivers as they arrive at sites hit by Israeli airstrikes to treat the injured or, just as often, perform the hideous task of retrieving and organising body parts.

The segment is full of awful scenes, among them men lifting a corpse into a shroud, which they do without difficulty since the body is so small and light. “Burned children,” says the attending paramedic. “Every house we’ve been to today was full of children like these.”

Between callouts, another paramedic comments on what he and his colleagues have been through: “We’ve seen too many horrors, we are tired. I swear we’ll need help with our mental health for a year.” But these words are being spoken in October, because the filming in Gaza only covers the first few weeks of the Israeli bombardment and ground invasion; a closing caption tells us that the medic, Mohamed, is still at work in Gaza, still waiting for the moment when he can prioritise his own health. This elongated worsening of Mohamed’s ordeal – and that of Gaza’s residents, as the bombs, and the starvation and the sniper attacks and all the rest of it, have continued for months on end – is something we do not see. The sheer extent of the carnage is not there. The casualty figures are given, caveated by the standard BBC insistence on crediting them to “the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry”, but the scale of the slaughter is, in a mere half-hour of television, not palpably present on the screen.

The programme’s broadcast comes exactly six months after Israel was attacked, and is much more a commemoration of that event than it is of all the lives lost. The Nova festival film, documenting as it does the worst of the many atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October, works as a representation of the totality of what Israel suffered. The Red Crescent footage, hard-hitting and courageously filmed as it is, cannot achieve the equivalent goal. Sorry – there just isn’t time.

• The Darkest Days: Israel-Gaza Six Months On aired on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer.

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