New Film on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

To much of the press, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is over. Continued "clashes" elicit mostly yawns in much of the media and while the image of Palestinians are still "terrorists" or -- on a good day -- a people locked in "ancient hatreds" with Jews, they are rarely viewed as an oppressed people, striving for liberation as black South Africans did.A newly release documentary, "People and the Land" by Tom Hayes and Riad Bahhur is an abrupt departure from much of this coverage, viewing the conflict not from the prism of the personalities and posturing of a few leaders, but of the real life consequences for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who continue to suffer under the yoke of the Israeli military. The film documents how the Israeli government uses various mechanisms to achieve a "slow transfer," that is, getting rid of Palestinians, particularly from Jerusalem. One example cited, which I witnessed in my trip to the area in 1991 but, as far as I know has never been reported in the US press, is that the Israeli government closes off certain streets for prolonged periods of time. This economically strangles off Palestinians in the area.Much of the footage is a few years old, so it doesn't get into the latest Israeli tactic of pushing Palestinians out of Jerusalem. The Israeli government is taking away the Jerusalem residency permits of Palestinians who have gotten US (or any other country's) citizenship -- even if they were born in Jerusalem. Of course Jews living in Jerusalem can get US citizenship without any hitches. Such practices are defacto ethnic cleansing.The film puts current Israeli practices in the context of the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, which few in the US have come to grips with. To this day, Israel has a "demographic problem" with the Palestinians, so it has sought ways to either expel them or encircle them. The population trend is devastating: the Muslim and Christian population of Palestine in 1914 was 634,000 while the Jewish population was only 55,000. Even in 1948, the population was 1,440,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs and 717,000 Jews. Now, its a substantial majority Jewish.At first glance, this documentary seems out of date. No explicit mention is made of the Oslo Accords. But the fundamental premise of the documentary is that the occupation is basically continuing. A strong case can be made for this, as former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti wrote that after Oslo, "the occupation continues, albeit by remote control." Benvenisti was arguing that Arafat largely does Israel's bidding by repressing the Palestinians, a complicated and under-reported phenomenon, but the documentary is implicitly critical of Arafat, featuring Semmeha Khalil, the only Palestinian to run against him for president of the Palestinian Authority.The major symbol of the continuation of occupation by other means is the Israeli "checkpoint." This provides some of the most gripping footage of the film. While Israeli settlers on the West Bank (who have yellow licence plates) are allowed to whisk by; Palestinians (who have blue licence plates) are stopped, checked for Israeli-issued documents, and may or may not be allowed to proceed. The most wrenching scene is when an ambulance with a Palestinian woman giving birth to twins is trying to pass the checkpoint. The ambulance is detained for crucial minutes and both babies die.Those who think that TV is intrinsically bad should see this documentary. Young people especially would get into the almost music video feel of some of the film.But it's a rock video that quotes international law: The Fourth Geneva Convention: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies." Many who pontificate about the Mideast, but are totally ignorant about the illegality of Israeli Jewish-only settlements would do well to watch this film.Given the limitations of space, sometimes nuanced historical issues are treated a bit abruptly. For example, the film, while discussing Israel's illegal annexation of Jerusalem, informs us that "Neither Berlin nor Tokyo were annexed at the end of World War II." To many, this may falsely imply that the Palestinians at some point in the history of the dispute were somehow comparable to the German Nazis or imperialist Japan.Also, "The Palestinians" here is limited to those in the West Bank and Gaza while those living as second-class citizens in Israel as well as the hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps -- occasionally getting bombed by Israel in southern Lebanon -- are largely ignored.And the film understates the legal case against Israel by focusing on the fact that the US has vetoed attempts to stop Israeli violations at the UN Security Council. But there are many UN Security Council resolutions that the US has not vetoed and Israel continues to violate.The film brings it all back home -- quite literally. It compares the $77 Billion (not a misprint) that the US has given to Israel with aid to the poor, arts funding -- and yes, public broadcasting funding. It blows them away.Voice is also given to a broad spectrum of Israeli Jewish opinion. From peace activists to settlers who say they don't mind living next to Arabs to explicit anti-Arab racists. It does not, however, show how well armed some of the settlers are -- something that is quite jarring the first time you encounter them strutting around with their uzis.One of the most interesting scenes is of an Israeli girl rather ashamedly saying that Palestinians may be accorded some individual rights, but not actual equality in any sense. Another powerful scene is of a Palestinian mother talking about how she reacts when her children ask if all "Jews are bad."The film shows Israeli military PR men talking about how journalists can go wherever they want and then cuts to Israeli soldiers forcing journalists to stop their cameras. The flacks talk about how the Israeli military maintains "purity of arms" and the movie cuts to Palestinians getting beaten up and human rights workers laying out the facts.This is an important documentary that should be aired by every public television station if public TV is to live up to its mandate of serving the under-served. Of course, Palestinians and Arabs in general are typically not under-served, but mis-served by the US media. Public broadcasting has been a major culprit in this, as programs like "Jihad! In America" by Islamophobe Steve Emerson whip up hatred and suspicion against Arabs and Muslims. Perhaps the most extensive work public TV has done on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the Israel-worshiping "Israel: A Nation is Born" by Abba Eban, whose "history" of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been largely debunked. And PBS's much lauded NewsHour has featured "debates" between two people from the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, a pro-Israeli AIPAC spinoff. On a "good" day public TV serves up the travels of some Brit gallivanting across some "exotic" Arab country. It's no surprise that Israel-right-or-wrongers have attacked this film since it gets facts and images out that expose the brutality of the Israeli military. What may be surprising to some is that many public television stations have not been receptive to this excellent documentary. Sam Husseini is Media Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.


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