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Exploring Israel-Palestine through Movies, Part 4: Pro-Palestinian Narratives and Conclusions

Editor's Note: This is one person's view with recommended films that represent a range of perspectives as an invitation to constructive dialogue, and we welcome respectful comments. Given the sensitivity of the issues, we will remove any comments we find inappropriate. And we invite other people who are familiar with the films that address these issues to develop their own lists for us to publish. 

Read the first three parts of Muzaffer's series here, here, and here


In the Palestinian narrative, the central issue is their Expulsion and Occupation.  Islam is part of it, as is Christianity. Religion is not, however, the dominant issue.

From the beginning of the 20th century through World War I, the British were at the height of their Colonization, dividing and conquering. Meanwhile, the once great Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Middle East for half a millennium, was in its final years.

The British were negotiating with the Arabs, promising them independence if they would revolt against their fellow Muslim Ottoman masters. This is the story of T. E. Lawrence.  

"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962, David Lean)

David Lean’s monument is one of the greatest of all films. Freddie Young’s cinematography, accompanied by Maurice Jarre’s score is the benchmark of the most ambitious cinema. Its plot will be familiar now to many for its influences on such films as "Dances with Wolves" and "Avatar": an officer of questionable temperament joins the natives as an ally, seeking to rally them to fulfill the Empire’s expansionist goals, but soon finds himself "going native" against his former bosses.

Lawrence was a British Army Officer working to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula against the Ottomans. He leads them all the way to Syria, where, after viciously wiping out the Turks, they meet the British. Lawrence tries to get them to fight the Colonial superpower, but he is unable to keep them united.

While certain British leaders were speaking to the Arabs, others in the regime were secretly forming the "Triple Entente" between themselves, France, and Russia to split up the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves. That arrangement led to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which explicitly or implicitly contradicted some of the promises made to the Arabs.

In addition, British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour declared support for a Jewish presence in Palestine, which was already fully populated with Palestinians. Previous locations considered by either the British and/or the Zionist organizations were in the Americas and Africa. Depending on your read of Balfour, this was either a move supporting the European Jews or it was an Anti-Semitic move to limit or prevent Jews from migrating to England to escape the pogroms in Eastern Europe.

A few decades later, after the conclusion of World War II, as the Israeli state was getting established, the region saw a set of Arab-Israeli wars. Three quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled from their homes, with some 400 villages destroyed. It was not the British who cause this exodus; it was the fledgling Israeli state, with the assistance of various Zionist paramilitary groups like the Irgun Zevai Leumi. The expelled Palestinians faced a new dual problem. On the one hand, Israeli legislators passed various "Absentee Property" laws, allowing them to confiscate and populate former Palestinian plots with Jewish immigrants. On the other hand, Arab nations refused them citizenship, relegating many of the Palestinians to lives in refugee camps. The Palestinians commemorate that whole event as the Nakba, "The catastrophe."

In 1967, we witnessed another Arab-Israeli war, commonly known as the Six Day War. Israel not only wins, but expands into territories mandated by the British and recognized by the United Nations as Palestinian territories.  This event begins what Palestinians speak of when they speak of The Occupation.

Various secular paramilitary organizations launch violent attacks on Israelis. Included are the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and even non-Arab groups like the Japanese Red Army (which is responsible for the first suicide bombing in Israel). The 1970s end with the Camp David Accords, with U.S. president Jimmy Carter securing an alliance between Egypt led by Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (who once led the Irgun). The deal helped the Egyptians (by getting back the Sinai), but did not do as much for the Palestinians. Shortly thereafter, Sadat was assassinated by Muslim militants.

The 1980s ended with a collective Palestinian uprising, the Intifada. These events provide us with the familiar images of rock-throwing Palestinians clashing with fully armed Israelis and tanks. The 1990s began with a series of meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, culminating in the Oslo Accords, between the head of the PLO, Yaser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Shortly thereafter, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish Militant.

The period following the Osco Accords saw Israeli expansion through settlements into those very Occupied Territories. In response, other Palestine groups secular and religious grew to fight back. The most familiar to us of these is Hamas. In this period we see the rise of suicide bombings against Israelis.

"Paradise Now" (2005, Hany Abu-Assad)

Longtime friends Khalid and Saeed work as mechanics until they get recruited to suicide bomb populated sites in Israel. Their friend Suha, the daughter of a legendary martyr, returns home with very liberal views on Palestinian aspirations, focusing on freedom through cultural and intellectual development rather than violence. As the two prepare and depart for their mission, she manages to convince one of the two to relent, while they seek out the other, who also has to confront demons about his own father’s choices.

The opening scene of the film features an argument while in the foreground a pot of tea bubbles with pressure until it bursts. This film explores the consequences of the sense of incarceration resulting from the Occupation. Meaning, the psychology of the Suicide Bomber is not driven by religion, for religion is mostly absent not only in these young men, but even in the preacher who recruits them. Rather, the psychology is one driven by despair. In our society, we preach that such young men are driven by the promise of a paradise of virgins mixed with hatred for our supposed freedoms. This film argues that they are responding to hopelessness with suicide and are taking others down with them, because they have nothing to lose.

In 2000, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, known among the Palestinians as the Butcher of Sabra and Shatila because of his involvement in massacres in those towns, provokes a Second Intifada with his visit to the Temple Mount. The result is increased lockdown on Palestinian livelihood. Under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the Israelis start construction of a massive system of walls separating the Palestinian and Israeli territories, even though in multiple places the Israelis seized multiple Palestinian territories. 

"5 Broken Cameras" (2012, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi)

A lyrical documentary released at the same time as "The Gatekeepers." A father in a small Palestinian town avoids the generations old family business as an olive farmer by spending time with his video camera covering his sons’ growth, along with happenings in town. He films demonstrations against young IDF soldiers and protests against the illegal settlements. During those events, his camera gets broken, but replaced by friends, Palestinian and Israeli. The cameras themselves become symbols of the breaking bodies, hearts, and souls of the characters in the film, that still persist through their struggles despite the encroaching Settlements.

In the period since the Oslo Accords, over 200,000 illegal Settlements have occupied Palestinian lands, forcing further expulsions. In response, various wars/sieges broke out between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. The IDF response is to obliterate Palestinians and Palestinian territories, commonly spoken of as "collective punishment."  Our press presents these battles as wars that are mostly even. The results, however, have been a death ratio of as much as 25:1 Palestinians to Israelis since the construction of the Wall, though it is no consolation that deaths were much more even prior to it. In the current bloodshed, as I type this, the ratio is reportedly 20:1, while the difference in casualties is much wider.  

"Omar" (2013, Hany Abu-Assad)

The wall splits neighborhoods. Young people still seek out romance despite their prohibitive circumstances. But, murder and betrayal here seem to have reached the point of banality.  The sole purpose left in life is to hope for love. But, even those hopes are fleeting. In "Paradise Now," there was discussion and argument over the utility and ethics of violent resistance. In this film, however, the discussions have long since passed. There is no more discussion, no more honor, no more religion. All that remains is a disintegrating idea.

And this brings us to today. I first wrote this series in response to the killings of Israeli and Palestinian children. The views in this series, from the start, are my own, and not necessarily those of RogerEbert.com, including my esteemed bosses Chaz, Matt, and Brian. I suspect, however, that none of us imagined that the violence would escalate to the proportions we now see.  But, I cannot say that the violence surprises me. If there is a future, then what does it hold?

Birth rates favor Arabs (at least those who survive the sieges) and the Right Wing Orthodox Jews. But, the vast majority of Palestinians, especially in Gaza, live in cramped circumstances, with no place to escape to. Meaning, the regions we would identify as "Palestine" are rapidly shrinking. The Israel and Palestine of today are already fundamentally different from the Israel and Palestine of a decade ago. Add the very aggressive population of Christian Zionists, for whom the Jewish presence is itself a means to an end, and the situation a decade from now will be vastly different from what we have today. We can be sure of one thing: more blood.

The call for a two-state solution by our President, among others, is not just futile, but is also a big charade. First, the majority of those calling for two states speak of a fully-armed Israeli state next to one or two disarmed Palestinian states. That is ridiculous.

Further, we have involved ourselves with multiple attempts at establishing peace, but we have never been a neutral broker. In the case of Egypt and Israel, we were allies with both nations. Today, we are allies only with Israel. If we want to establish peace, someone of strength needs to represent the Palestinians. Otherwise, the so-called peace talks are nothing but exercises of power over the powerless, with the usual misleading claims like "We offered them 90% of the land and they rejected it" without mentioning that "we would still be controlling all the roads."

More importantly, the lands that would be "Palestine" are themselves vanishing, getting overtaken by Settlements.

Thus, there are only a few options. One is a single state, an Israeli state with full citizenship for the Palestinians.  A second is an Israeli state with a type of partial citizenship for the Palestinians, where they have full rights of justice, trade, and legal/political representation, but they may not be the head of state. The current Arab citizens of Palestine do not get these rights, in practice. A third option is to have one Israeli state organized into smaller states, with some being Palestinian states. But, the most likely option will be either the fourth or fifth. The fourth option will be small reservations, akin to what we have given the Native Americans. The fifth option, however, will be the complete forced removal of the Palestinians from the land that is today called Palestine or Israel, again under the false guise of Israeli defense and safety.

Of course, in all likelihood, if history teaches us anything, then we can be sure that two to three hundred years from now, there will be no more United States, Israel, or Palestine. The Invincible Spanish Armada is gone. The British Empire is gone. The map of the world will be just as different as it was from three hundred years ago, which makes me wonder what people are really aspiring to, if they are not valuing and seeking to preserve all lives, Palestinian and Israeli.

Thus, if there is one thing to learn, in a region like this, we have multiple narratives clashing, but narratives in themselves are so powerful, that they allow you to simplify complex events and forsake human life as statistics.

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