CAN individual Palestinians and Israelis get past their violent history and see each other as people? A documentary screened in the past two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town shows attempts at this by a group calling itself Combatants for Peace. It has tiny echoes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, in which Israelis and Palestinians tell their personal stories to each other face to face, not sparing the pain.
Called “Disturbing the Peace”, the film, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young and feted by international film critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, was released last year and portrays real people and events, using archival and re-created material, describing the group’s genesis and formal establishment in 2005.
In the film, an Israeli soldier in an elite commando unit, Chen Alon, is ordered to deny passage at a checkpoint to a Palestinian father desperate to take sick children to hospital. Alon, a father himself, is appalled. Other Israelis are as well.
Another protagonist, Palestinian woman Shifa al-Qudsi, decides to become a suicide bomber to kill Israelis, but is arrested before carrying out the mission. She spends six years in an Israeli jail, where she encounters a guard whose brother was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. She is horrified. The film is peppered with grisly scenes of Israeli buses blown up by suicide bombers and Palestinian families grieving as they watch their homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers.
In one of the most potent scenes, a Palestinian man and woman watch on television the bodies of dead Israelis strewn on the ground after a Jerusalem bus bombing. The woman expresses sadness. The man is perplexed: “They are the oppressors! This is our struggle”. She retorts that Israeli mothers losing children suffer like Palestinian mothers.
Through a hush-hush message, the small Israeli group is invited to meet similar-minded Palestinians in the territories, secretly. They enter a room and are seated on a row of chairs facing several Palestinians. Both sides begin, tensely, telling their personal stories. The Israelis had friends and relatives killed in terrorist attacks; the Palestinians have lost friends and relatives, been held in Israeli prisons, and had homes demolished. It is an incredibly moving moment.
Through the formation of Combatants for Peace, the Israelis declare they will continue serving in the army defending Israel, but will refuse service in the occupied territories; the Palestinians renounce violence. Both sides call for a two-state solution to the conflict.
The Israelis in the group are despised by some other Israelis as leftist radicals. At a Tel Aviv rally, a man swears at a demonstrator: “You piece of shit! You are traitors! Go and live with them!”
The film’s weakness, yet paradoxically also its strength, is its focus solely on Israelis’ and Palestinians’ human side, not the macro-reality. Can a solution emerge from this level? Or are they naïve? Does a tiny group like this have relevance amidst the harsh reality of a century-old conflict in a region engulfed in turmoil, with terrorist group Hamas still vowing to eliminate Israel, and Iran, Russia and the United States embroiled with their own interests? And with the most right wing government in Israel’s history, still building settlements.
One vignette shows the group addressed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu through a specially recorded video, encouraging them to pursue their dream, as South Africans did.
In the last decade, the political centre supporting the two-state solution and opposing the occupation has withered in South Africa, leaving moderate Israeli-oriented Jews without a political home. Extremes such as BDS and the Jewish right-wing are dominant. This film contributes to a more hopeful approach which says people on the other side are human beings, not just killers. Cynics may roll their eyes and call it naïve, yet everything else has failed to solve the conflict.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
- Screening of Disturbing the Peace in Cape Town and Johannesburg arranged by South African branch of pro-peace organisation SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation)