KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Quiet on the set! Surrounded by militant training sites on uprooted Jewish settlement lands, the first movie set in the Gaza Strip is growing, depicting the history-rich, volatile alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City.
The set is the latest effort by the al-Aqsa channel, run by Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers, to kick-start its drama production in the territory and release another series slated to air in the month of Ramadan.
In Gaza, filming footage of Jerusalem and other central locations from the conflict is a challenge.
Gaza's population of about 2 million live in mostly cramped conditions in the coastal sandy territory compared to the rugged mountain terrain of the West Bank, so crews have struggled to film the twisting ancient alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City. And that is how the idea to create a set depicting Jerusalem was born.
The fate of Jerusalem is an emotional issue at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to the Old City with its holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 war. Palestinians want the territory for their future state.
Much of the wave of Palestinian attacks that erupted in 2015 originated from tensions surrounding the most sensitive holy site in Jerusalem's Old City.
The hilltop compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, where the two biblical Jewish Temples stood and is the most sacred place in Judaism. It is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed Thoraya, the channel's manager, described how the Old City was depicted on set. "We brought something simple of the wall decorations there and — thank God — we could simulate something small of what is there," he said.
On a recent day, actors divided into two groups. One portraying ultra-Orthodox Jews and the other Arab residents of Jerusalem trying to prevent the Jews from entering the holy site compound that is still under construction.
Clashes were staged, and actors playing Israeli policemen in riot gear and wielding M16 assault rifles struggled with those depicting the Arabs. Occasionally, an actor would smile or forget their lines, prompting the director to reshoot the scene, sometimes over 10 times. Actors are paid between $US 4 and $US 9 a day.
The series being filmed is set to be aired in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins in late May this year. It's the fifth such production by the al-Aqsa channel. Some watchdogs have considered previous productions of the channel anti-Semitic. Hamas is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state. After winning the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in bloody street battles in 2007, and has since fought three wars with Israel.
The series, Heaven's Gate, shows "the steadfastness of Jerusalemites and their sticking to their land and properties in the face of Zionist settlement," said the director, Zouhir al-Efrengi.
Most of the film crew has never been to Jerusalem. They secured footage of Jerusalem and the West Bank separately.
The location features an alleyway, cafe and homes with green doors. Boards painted brown simulate the ancient stone of Jerusalem's Old City's walls.
Thoraya, the manager, said an expansion of the location would see building al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It will also be open for visitors "and those who long for Jerusalem."
For three months, the crew has been spending 15 to 18 hours daily shooting. "I cried when I first came here and saw it," said Ali Nasman, 32, an actor in the film "It ignited the nostalgia of Jerusalem from when I was a child."
Producers would not reveal production costs, but cranes and some expensive state-of-the-art cameras were deployed.