Toward the end of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s powerful new film, Omar, nominated for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, the eponymous Palestinian hero (played by Adam Bakri) says to Nadia (Leem Lubany), the woman he has loved and lost: “We have all believed the unbelievable.” The impossible backdrop to their love is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and indeed there is much that is unbelievable about this occupation and the reality it has created and maintained for nearly half a century.
It is hard to fathom how the Israelis themselves can stand to live with the ongoing misery and cruelty they have inflicted, and it’s not so easy to understand how the rest of the world has let them get away with it. Then there is the shadowy space of infinite suspicion and distrust that the occupation naturally breeds among those who live under or in it. Is it possible to believe that your closest friend has sold out, has betrayed you to your common enemy, has bartered your life for his (perhaps to escape an arbitrary sentence of life in prison from a military court, as in Omar’s case)? Is it possible to believe that he hasn’t?
Omar is an ordinary young man, hardly more than an adolescent. He works in a bakery making fresh pita. Scenes of excruciating torment are interspersed regularly, ironically, with images of hot bread coming out of the oven. The separation barrier, which mostly separates Palestinians from Palestinians, not Palestinians from Israelis, stands between him and Nadia; from time to time he climbs over it, risking his life, in order to see her. Shooting those scenes, by the way, required the permission of the Israeli authorities; typically, they issued a permit that was good for climbing only part of the way up the barrier, so the producer had to improvise, and an alternative top-of-the-wall was put up in Nazareth, inside Israel.
Like any young Palestinian, Omar is subject to routine harassment and humiliation by Israeli soldiers. Those who have not seen such practices with their own eyes will find the relevant scene, early on in the film, instructive. Omar is stopped by soldiers while walking down the street, then forced to balance himself on a rock while they chat and laugh at him; when he protests, they break his nose. I’ve myself seen much worse incidents in the South Hebron hills, including violent arrest of innocent civilians simply trying to reach their fields or homes.
So far, everything is, one might say, normal for life in Palestine. But Omar becomes involved in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, an incident organized by Nadia’s brother and Omar’s childhood friend, Tarek. Omar didn’t kill the soldier, but he is soon arrested by the General Security Service, the Shin Bet or Shabak, which tortures him and tries to blackmail him into working for the Israelis. Even this somehow falls into the category of the normal. But Abu-Assad tightens the screws with an inventive, even poetic, twist: we follow Omar, temporarily released by his tormentors, as he tries to play the system and also remain faithful to Nadia and his friends in a situation of continuously escalating, interlocking suspicions, deceit, and inevitable betrayal, both imaginary and real. It isn’t easy to watch, but it has the unmistakable, bitter flavor of truth.
On the level closest to the surface, the film shows us one of the main pillars of the occupation—the deep penetration of Palestinian society by an army of informers and secret agents who provide the information necessary for near-total control. The institutional methods and mechanisms behind this system have been honed by Israel for decades. Two excellent recent books by Hillel Cohen, a historian and Arabist at the Hebrew University, describe the early history of these efforts, beginning already in the British Mandate: Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948 (2008) and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948–1967 (2010). For decades, well-trained Israeli handlers have mastered an evolving and highly effective repertory of psychological devices and various forms of blackmail that serve first to “turn” their captives into informers, and then to manipulate them.
Life under the occupation, with its Kafkaesque requirement of bureaucratic permits for almost anything a person might want or need to do (movement from place to place, medical treatment, visits to parents or other relatives, building an outhouse, and so on) makes any Palestinian potentially vulnerable to blackmail. That, in fact, is the meaning, and also the ultimate purpose, of full control. The Israelis have not invented these methods, but they have proven to be very skilled, and unscrupulous, in using them. Among them, needless to say, is the devilish threat to harm or even destroy a loved one, a girlfriend or wife, as we see in this film, where the ultimate card in the hands of Omar’s tormentors is the overt statement that they can easily ruin Nadia’s life.
Interestingly, an Israeli film that explores this same territory—Bethlehem, written by Yuval Adler and Ali Waked, directed by Adler, and starring the gifted polyglot musician Tsahi Halevi—was released last year and has attracted large audiences in Israel; it, too, was a candidate for an Academy Award as the best foreign-language film. Here again we see a Shin Bet handler (Razi, played by Halevi) and his profoundly confused and endangered informant (the teenager Sanfur, played by Shadi Mar’i), whom Razi simultaneously exploits and attempts to protect. Here, too, the space for physical and psychological survival available to both informer and handler shrinks to the vanishing point. As the genre dictates, and real life seems often to confirm, treachery, however minor to start with, has a way of rapidly descending into a literal dead end.1 On the way down, interesting moral questions may arise: Who deserves to be saved, and at what cost? Who can only die? Are there exceptions to the general rule? Is there a fate, say absolute isolation and terminal loneliness, even worse than death?
But the standard trajectory of the informer never lacks the particular inflection of his circumstances, as one sees, for example, in James Marsh’s brooding Shadow Dancer (2012) on informers and handlers in Belfast during the 1990s; there we have dizzying hierarchies of second- and third-order betrayal that resonate strongly with these two films about Palestine. Still, watching Shadow Dancer after seeing Omar and Bethlehem, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of hope; something, after all, finally changed in Northern Ireland.
It is in conjuring up an intelligible setting that Bethlehem mostly disappoints. In depicting the occupation, Bethlehem shows Israelis as they like to see themselves, functioning heroically, against all odds, in a dire situation that has, it would seem, been thrust upon them from the outside. What is worse, Bethlehem seems to be driven by the standard version of Israeli politics: set at the height of the second intifada, with suicide bombers a constant threat, the film doesn’t even hint at the possibility that Israeli acts and decisions might have had something to do with the outburst of Palestinian violence that began in the autumn of 2000.
Probably one reason for the film’s popularity in Israel is its bleak portrait of inner-Palestinian politics. Israelis like to believe the unlikely proposition that Palestinians are more violent than the Jews. So here we see lethal rivalry between different Palestinian armed groups; a thoroughly corrupt Palestinian Authority with no ability to assert control over the Palestinian street, and seemingly no interest in doing so; and an emblematic, utterly distasteful figure, Badawi (played by Hitham Omari), a high commander in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who clearly enjoys the business (and in the film, it is a business) of killing.
In an interview in Haaretz, Ali Waked, the coauthor of the script, defended its vision of Palestinian society as entirely realistic, though he took care to define himself as a highly aware Palestinian. “I don’t think it [the film] portrays one side or the other as all bad. As a Palestinian, I would not be capable of demonizing my own people.” I’m happy to quote him in this context, since the Israeli press, and indeed many ordinary Israelis, regularly claim that Palestinians never criticize themselves and their own culture—a sure sign that the local Arabic press goes mostly unread in Israel.
Waked’s defensive remarks were directed against the veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, a writer for Haaretz, who claimed, in my view with much justice, that Bethlehem is, at bottom, an Israeli propaganda film. Its Shin Bet hero, when not on duty, goes to the zoo with his wife and daughters and, in general, is a prototypically nice guy—not that this should surprise us. But where, asks Levy, is “the evil, torture, blackmail and lies” that he correctly sees as intrinsic to the whole system of occupation? Levy’s conclusion: “An Israeli who makes an action movie about the intifada without taking a stand is a coward.” Or maybe worse: we might recall Canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno where those souls who couldn’t bring themselves to take a stand, “neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God,/but undecided in neutrality,” occupy an eternal limbo space, unable even to reach the unenviable level of those who enter and suffer in Hell.
By contrast with Bethlehem, Omar has depth, nuance, and a far more complex understanding of life under the occupation. Innocence and complicity are profoundly, unnervingly intertwined in the mind of a person who is struggling physically to survive, to love, and to maintain a modicum of dignity in conditions where there is no longer any hope. In a candid interview in Hebrew, Abu-Assad has said, “The movie is more about love, friendship, and trust” than about politics. “I tried to make a film that represented my paranoid feelings over the past five to six years.” He is also, I think, interested in the particular, lonely intimacy that must mark the relations of a would-be handler and a wouldn’t-be informer.
Indeed, the film smolders with sexual tension, and not only between Nadia and her trapped and driven lover. There is a moment when Rami, Omar’s Israeli handler (brilliantly played by Waleed Zuaiter), gives Omar a gun and explains to him how to use it: “The gun is like a woman. You have to treat it gently, so it will treat you gently.” These words are the oldest cliché in the modern Hebrew lexicon (though by no means limited to Hebrew); Abu-Assad uses them here in order to create a brutal, resonant irony, both overtly erotic and merciless. Like it or not, Palestinians and Israelis inhabit the same tiny, intimate space, the same ravishing landscapes they are so determined to deny to one another. Savagery is sometimes a crooked form of love.
But Omar is also willy-nilly a political film with its own vision that, I think, goes well beyond what Abu-Assad has himself said about the occupation. “I think,” he tells us,
that it’s the system’s elite and not the common people who are responsible. I see a great deal of difference between the two. Clearly, an ordinary soldier at the checkpoint is not innocent, he becomes part of it, but in the final analysis he is a soldier doing his duty. Sometimes it is easier for the soldier to do his duty well. Although I’m very much against injustice, Apartheid, occupation, and discrimination—it is all part of the system. A certain elite has been able to convince its people that this is the only way that we can operate, we have no choice.
It’s a generous—perhaps too generous—view. The problem is that these ordinary Israelis, the “common people” who are just people, have mostly, for decades now, elected governments of the extreme right, like the present settlers’ regime run by Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, these same ordinary people continue to demonstrate, day after day, a shocking, willful indifference to the fate of their Palestinian neighbors. Here we touch another, even more fundamental pillar of the occupation, something far more malignant and consequential than anything the Shin Bet can do.
Irony is a flat, pale word for the surreal, sometimes lyrical touches that abound in this film and that inevitably cropped up in the process of its production. Scenes of unmitigated tragedy take place under billboards selling this or that, optimistically portraying happy families living normal lives. A highly convincing chase sequence, involving many people, was filmed in the refugee camp of al-Far’a, near Nablus; there are Palestinians playing Palestinians, and Palestinians playing Israeli soldiers. “We discovered,” says Abu-Assad, “that some of them loved to play the soldiers. We were quite surprised.” To internalize its subtleties, you really need to see the film a second time, listening carefully to the dialogue (or reading the subtitles) and studying Bakri’s astonishing eyes, where incipient tragedy can be plainly seen. For Israelis in particular, this is yet another film about opening one’s eyes.
Given the lethal ongoing reality of the occupation, the humanity of Abu-Assad’s vision is a welcome, almost therapeutic achievement. He has taken some flak from Palestinian critics for portraying Rami, the Shin Bet handler, as a real person, with wife and children—not some cut-out monster. Abu-Assad doesn’t think of such people as monsters: “Shabak agents are decent people carrying out an indecent task.” It takes courage to make such statements, even if one might be forgiven for wondering in this case what a word like “decent” might really mean. Is Rami, who is able to talk to his wife on the phone in the midst of a tortuous “conversation” with Omar, still somehow decent—or does this intrusion of the everyday world into a setting of coercion and unbearable pain make the handler even less human, more dissociated and cruel?
How many of us are, in fact, decent? What does it take to remain decent under the conditions of the occupation, on either side of the barrier? Is it even possible? Can decency coexist with blindness? Rami speaks fluent Palestinian Arabic (Zuaiter, who plays him, is Palestinian) and is even complimented for this by his victim—but is he capable of imagining a Palestinian vision of the world? How many Israelis can do this? What hinders them? Is failure of the imagination a moral defect, perhaps the most consequential of them all? The great merit of this stark film is in forcing such questions into the private space of the individual viewer no less than into the public life of Israel/Palestine.
Both Omar and Bethlehem are strongly teleological; their natural, lethal conclusion is the default of both Israeli and Palestinian consciousness. There is, it seems, only one way out of the trap where the informer is forced to live; and it takes only a tiny movement of the imagination to see the informer’s predicament as embodying and focusing the reality that all Israelis and Palestinians inhabit day by day. At bottom, all of us feel trapped. Why, then, one might wonder, does Israel, which holds nearly all the cards in its hand, not wish to move toward some possible resolution of the endless conflict, say along the lines of the plan John Kerry is valiantly trying to put in place?
Why is Israel continuously deepening and expanding the occupation, and above all the settlements, instead of negotiating in good faith? Does it really want to go on playing out the disastrous scenario of Omar forever? Does Israel really think it’s possible to hem in and terrorize an entire people by torture, blackmail, and other instruments of coercion far into the unknown future? But is that future really unknown?
There are, I think, answers to these questions that go beyond the usual platitudes about mutual suspicion and the ancient, ever-lengthening list of Jewish traumas. Tribal nationalism, including in Israel, tends to be totalistic and easily drifts toward the totalitarian. It absolutizes the tribe as an almost-divine being and demonizes the outsider, who can—perhaps must—be humiliated, removed, or destroyed. You can hear voices speaking to that effect every day in the Knesset, including those of some who are close to or indeed are members of the present government. But whatever the reasons, it seems clear that Israel will have to be forced to make some sort of peace—or, in a variant of the South African trajectory, eventually to enfranchise all Palestinians and thus move into some model of the single, binational state.
A positive scenario would involve mass nonviolent Palestinian resistance. On the face of it, the apparatus of Israeli control so vividly portrayed in both these films would seem to preclude such an outcome; the Israeli security services probably still think they can control any foreseeable outcome on the ground. Moreover, the extreme fragmentation of the West Bank into discontiguous, fenced-in enclaves has so far worked to keep nonviolent protest highly localized. But anyone who knows the Palestinian grassroots activists, including some I have written about on the NYRblog, knows that the dream of mass Gandhian-style action is their great hope.2
Israel would have no answer to hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians marching on the roadblocks or the settlements (and, no doubt, paying the price in casualties). Many of the younger Palestinian activists are educating a new generation about this ethos, invoking Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. They’ve had plenty of time to read the relevant texts, usually in Israeli jails; and they’ve also, in large part, creatively reinvented nonviolent civil disobedience on the basis of their own experience, as one can see every week in places like Ma’asara, south of Bethlehem, or Nabi Saleh in the northern West Bank, or Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Here is what Mahmoud Zwahre, an activist in Ma’asara, said to me recently:
Nonviolent resistance is like the roots of a tree planted on a rock. However soft they may seem, the roots will eventually penetrate the solid rock to give water to the leaves, so the tree can live. Like that, nonviolent resistance can penetrate physical power.
This way of resisting will spread. It is the duty of every Palestinian to see that it spreads throughout all of Palestine. It is not a matter of nationalism or any other “ism” or ideology but of human values. We want to take the conflict away from nationalism to the frame of true values.
Today the Palestinian street is a practical school of nonviolence. We are practicing. My eight children are practicing nonviolence, and like them there are a hundred in every village—a new army that believes in nonviolence as the only, the right and practical way to go. If they see someone throwing stones or any other form of violence, they will stop them. Nonviolence is our future.
His is one voice of many. Of course, such people are not alone in the field; there are still those in Palestine who are committed to armed resistance. The occupation feeds off such familiar modes and fosters them by its inherent injustice. Both films reviewed here provide graphic illustrations of this harsh equation. Clearly, there is a choice to be made, however much Israelis may cling to the weary catch-all phrase ein berera, “no alternative.” No one should delude themselves into thinking that the Israeli government, like all its recent predecessors, is not deliberately opting for the more violent, and tragic, choice.