Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 44-45

New York City and Tri-State News

Yael Dayan Urges American Jews to Resist "Enforced Solidarity" With Israel

By Jane Adas

Yael Dayan. (Staff photo J. Adas)

Yael Dayan, daughter of the late Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, is a former member of the Knesset and currently deputy mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. She watched the June 3 Israel Day Parade in New York City from a Fifth Avenue window, feeling that it was not for her and did not represent her Israel. That evening Dayan spoke about "The Legacy of 45 years of Military Occupation" at an event sponsored by B'Tselem USA. Its director, Uri Zaki, introduced her as a lifelong advocate for minority rights, adding that she "promoted contact between Israelis and Palestinians before it was kosher."

Dayan recalled the euphoria across the Israeli political spectrum after the 1967 war. It took at least five years for the left to realize its mistake, she said—that Israel's military success had pushed the public into "messianic possessiveness." Soon after the war, the government launched the settlement enterprise, portraying it as an asset to Israel's security and a national priority. The left did not bargain for anything that would be irreversible, Dayan admitted, and by the 1980s knew that settlements had become a burden to security. Those who protested were called insufficiently patriotic or Zionist—as though, she noted wryly, if it weren't for the pesky leftists, Palestinians would love being occupied.

Dayan regretted that it took far too long to understand how Israel's occupation was oppressing Palestinians, and even longer to recognize the consequences for Israeli society. She cited willful ignorance—"a barrier between us and reality"—combined with fear rooted in Jewish victimhood as obstacles to reversing the increasingly anti-democratic trend in Israel. Offering a recent example, Dayan said she was shocked that only a week earlier, on May 28, Israel's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein dismissed a case B'Tselem had brought against the authors of Torat Ha'Melech (The King's Bible) for incitement to racism and violence. In the book, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yoseph Elizur deem it permissible to kill gentile children because they might kill Jews when they grow up. In 1967, Dayan said, "none of us dreamed that 45 years later, our grandchildren would be born into this reality."

Israel is strong, Dayan insisted. The danger is not another Holocaust, which she maintains nobody will again allow, but that Israel is abusing its strength rather than using it to compromise. She urged American Jews to resist "enforced solidarity," exercise their right to criticize, and not let Israel stand between them and their moral sense.

"Five Broken Cameras"

“Five Broken Cameras” co-directors Emad Burnat (l) and Guy Davidi. (Staff photo J. Adas)

Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer from the West Bank village of Bil'in, was given his first video camera when his fourth son, Gibreel, was born in 2005. Gibreel's birth coincided with Israel's construction of its "separation" ("hafrada" in Hebrew— "apartheid" in Afrikaans) barrier through Bil'in, separating the village from much of its land. Over the next five years, Burnat shot more than 700 hours of footage—Gibreel's birthdays, a clown's visit to Bil'in, his family, and the creative, persistent, nonviolent demonstrations against the barrier organized by residents of Bil'in and joined by internationals and Israelis every Friday.

Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi was one of those Israeli activists. With the support of Greenhouse Films, a development program for emerging Mediterranean documentary filmmakers, Burnat and Davidi co-directed the outstanding, award-winning "5 Broken Cameras." Both were present at a June 6 Film Forum screening in New York where they explained the genesis of the film. When in 2009 Burnat invited Davidi to join him in the project, the Israeli was skeptical. Documentaries already had been made about nonviolent resistance against the wall and he thought the subject was finished. But he agreed to watch some of Burnat's footage. He saw an older couple trying to prevent Israeli soldiers from arresting a younger man, the older man climbing onto a military jeep in an effort to prevent it driving off. He asked Burnat, "Who are those people?" They were his parents and brother, Burnat replied. At that moment, Davidi said, he knew the film should be personal, with Burnat at its center. It was Burnat's turn to be hesitant. He had wanted the film to be personal rather than political, about his family, friends and village, with his role as silent observer. When on April 17th, 2009 an Israeli soldier killed his ebullient friend Bassem Abu Rahme, whose nickname "Phil" means elephant in Arabic, Burnat wanted the film to be a tribute to him. In the end, Burnat reluctantly agreed. It was a wise choice.

Davidi, a professional filmmaker, wrote the voice-over narrative based on conversations with Burnat. This is because he is emotional, Davidi explained, whereas Burnat is practical and not much of a talker. Some examples of the result: "Hope is not easy to find in adults. That's why kids like Phil." "The only protection I can offer [Gibreel] is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes so he can confront just how vulnerable life is." "Healing is a challenge. It is the victim's sole obligation. Healing is resistance."

Most of the footage is Burnat's, the amateur photographer. He delivers the Arabic narrative in his calm voice. It's his story told in five chapters, one each for a camera that met a bad end.

With the first camera Burnat is filming the olive harvest beyond the barrier, then under construction, when he sees men dressed like Arabs attack and arrest his brother. They are Israeli special ops soldiers. After this incident, the villagers begin organizing demonstrations. A teargas grenade canister hit Burnat's camera, injuring his hand. With the second camera, we hear Gibreel's first words: "jidar" (wall), "jaish" (army). In imitation of settler tactics—but, unlike the settlers, on their own land—the villagers bring in a trailer, which the army removes—twice. They then build a concrete hut as an outpost, which the army demolishes—twice. As Burnat is filming Israelis moving into brand new settlements built close to Bil'in, one of them smashes camera #2.

The Israeli army regularly enters Bil'in at night to arrest village boys. Burnat filmed an extraordinary scene where soldiers are prevented from entering a home by the women pushing back and yelling at them. Then the soldiers come for Burnat. They tell him to stop filming because his house is a closed military zone, then arrest him. Burnat spends some time in jail, then under house arrest, then the case is closed because Israel "lost the evidence." Burnat credits the third camera with saving his life—two bullets lodged in it as he was filming. In chapter four, we see families waiting four hours at the gate to reach their land. When they finally get through, their olive trees are still burning. Camera #4 is destroyed when the tractor Burnat is riding on crashes into the wall. Burnat is seriously injured and unconscious for 20 days. He spends two months in a Tel Aviv hospital. This happened during Israel's Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza. Burnat remarks, "My recovery is a drop in the sea of violence. People are in mourning for Gaza." After Phil is killed with a high-velocity tear gas canister to the chest, the village is in shock. Burnat receives another arrest warrant and his wife, Soraya, begs him to stop filming. But he cannot. Filming "helps me confront life and survive." Soldiers smash Burnat's fifth camera.

In June 2011, four years after the Israeli court's decision to change the route of the barrier near Bil'in, the military finally began to remove it, and to build a concrete wall further from the village. It is a "small victory," Burnat's narrative tells us, but "the land will always bear the scars." Bil'in is resisting the new wall and Burnat, with his 6th camera, is still filming.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival Screens "Habibi"

Susan Youssef, director of “Habibi.” (Staff photo J. Adas)The majority of features in the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York are documentaries. It is therefore somewhat unusual that this year's films included Susan Youssef's narrative film "Habibi," a modern retelling of the 7th century Sufi legend of "Majnun Layla" about Qais going mad for love of Layla. A Latin translation of the legend is said to have been an inspiration for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Youssef set "Habibi" in Khan Yunis, Gaza in 2001. Layla and Qais meet and fall in love at Birzeit University in the West Bank, but are forced to return to Gaza before completing their studies when Israel refuses to renew their student permits. Layla is from an established Gazan family, while Qais lives in a refugee camp. Layla's father and increasingly religious brother do not approve of the match. Qais persuades her to run away with him, but at the border Israeli soldiers beat Layla for refusing to be an informer and refuse passage to the couple. Qais walks into an Israeli military zone and Layla into the sea, where they are mystically rejoined.

Youssef was present for the June 18 Lincoln Center screening. She was born in Brooklyn of Lebanese and Syrian descent, but is proud that "Habibi" is "from Palestine," the only narrative film set in Gaza since Michel Khleifi's 1995 "The Tale of Three Jewels," and has the most Palestinian crew of any narrative film so far. Youssef began filming in Khan Yunis in 2003, but in 2005 Israel refused to allow her to return to Gaza or her cast and crew to leave. No wonder the full Arabic title is "Habibi Rasak Kharban," which Youssef loosely translated as "everything in Gaza is broken."

So she had to begin again. Because of the beach scenes, the actors had to have Israeli IDs. Kais Nashef, who played Said in "Paradise Now," accepted over the phone the role of Qais. Maisa Abd Elhadi, the casting director's daughter, took the role of Layla, for which she won best actress at the Dubai Film Festival. In response to a question from the audience about whether she had shown enough of the context of occupation, Youssef replied that because of budget limitations, she could not show an actual home demolition, only a family bewailing the loss of their home. And because of a lack of permits, Youssef said, she was able to shoot only about two-thirds of her script. In spite of these hurdles, she hoped that through the devastation of loss of love, she was able to portray the brutality of occupation. The audience's applause should assure her that she succeeded. 

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

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